A legal group of criminal defense attorneys has formed to combat what they describe as the FBI and Justice Department’s use of harassment and over-prosecution to chill and silence those who engage in journalism, Internet activism or dissent.
The group, the Whistleblower Defense League, will, according to attorney Jason Flores-Williams, defend individuals engaged in investigating the United States government and those who are “in positions to reveal truths about this government and its relationships with other governments and corporations.”
The founding members include Internet rights attorney Jay Leiderman, Dennis Roberts, an attorney who is a veteran of the civil rights movement and Flores-Williams, who is now involved in representing online activists targeted by the government’s investigation into activist and former self-proclaimed spokesperson for Anonymous, Barrett Brown.
Attorneys in the group come from an “activist tradition,” according to Flores-Williams. They have decided to form this group to defend truth-tellers and dissenters because they identify with these people. They think many of the people being subjected to over-prosecution or prosecutorial abuses of power are heroes. “We’re going to pull out every stop and use every vector available us – media and constitutionally in the courts – to defend them.” And they intend to take on not only whistleblower cases but also the cases of journalists and activists facing prosecution.
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is a part of the defense team for WikiLeaks, said in reaction to the formation of this group, “Every effort that focuses on the defense of whistleblowers, internet free speech activists, publishers and others persecuted by the US government is to be applauded. This group joins the many other members of the criminal defense bar as well as non-profits such as Electronic Frontier Foundation and Government Accountability Project, who are already defending those accused of shining light on the dark secrets of government and corporations.”
Flores-Williams acknowledges there are other organizations doing necessary work on behalf of whistleblowers and activists, “Everyone who is out [there] trying to defend whistleblowers and activists and those who engage in dissent are heroes and are doing great work.” Yet, he adds this legal group is forming because there is more attention the legal community needs to be giving to what the government is doing to go after these individuals. There needs to be “aggressive forms of litigation.”
For example, he explains that this afternoon he submitted a motion to quash a government subpoena in the Brown investigation. The government subpoenaed content delivery network and domain name server service, CloudFlare, for information about a domain. The group was contacted because the government is using the case to “virally subpoena” information “about online activists around the world by using the Barrett Brown case as justification.” They want details on domain names that used so “people who used the domain names that Barrett Brown was associated with I now represent.”
This is what needs to be done and the type of legal action will he be looking to do. Flores-Williams adds that they intend to get in the middle of this activity by prosecutors to abuse power and go after data and information in ways that violate the First Amendment, violate basic due process rights and fundamentally invade privacy.
With the zealous prosecutions of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January, and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who recently took responsibility in a military court for disclosing information to WikiLeaks, the government is “sending a message to everyone about stepping into the role of revealing truths about power structure,” Flores declares.
“The Whistleblower Defense League and organizations like it are very important to let potential whistleblowers know they have a support network in case of retribution from the government,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation states. “They can help mitigate the chilling effect from the recent increase of prosecutions of whistleblowers who have leaked information to the press. Hopefully, the Whistleblower Defense League can give whistleblowers any added encouragement they need to step forward if they witness wrongdoing or corruption in government.”
Flores-Williams concludes, “The greatest threat to democracy is the unchecked power of prosecutors,” on both the state and federal level. “These people have the mindset that there is always some threat to the United States that they have to be going after. Prosecutors are very simple people: they believe blindly in executing the law. They don’t share that there is a human being on the other side.” In 1850, they would prosecute a slave who escaped from Mississippi so “the law can be on the wrong side” and they do not always represent justice.
As someone who regularly covers cases of activists, whistleblowers and even journalists whom the Justice Department is targeting, it is refreshing to see a group form that is willing to inject some more spirit into the struggle to defend those who exercise their rights, challenge government policies, expose misconduct or wrongdoing and then wind up being subjected to the politics of personal destruction, which so many US prosecutors appear to be embracing these days.
The Justice Department seems to have plenty of zeal and commitment to go after activists like Swartz or Brown, to target whistleblowers like CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou or NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake or to even attempt to go after someone engaged in journalism, as in the case of Matthew Keys, who worked on social media for Reuters and was recently indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act over past work he did on Anonymous.
However, the Department does not have much zeal at all when it comes after going after criminals in government who authorize and engage in torture, a war crime, and attempt to cover up their involvement by destroying evidence. They aren’t interested in making examples out of individuals contractors like Blackwater who violate weapons laws and smuggle arms, engage in obstruction of justice when under investigation or murder innocent civilians in Iraq. They certainly seem to have trouble cobbling together a case—trouble they wouldn’t have if they pursue an activist or whistleblower—when bank executives commit financial fraud at “too big to fail” corporations and face no criminal penalty.
The work of defense attorneys to combat the trend in law enforcement to use the surveillance state to investigate activists and whistleblowers and then pass information on to the Justice Department for targeting is more important than ever. And the more groups there are out there vigorously defending victims of prosecutorial misconduct and abuses of government power, the better off citizens in this society will be.
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT, WHISTLEBLOWERS, SURVEILLANCE STATE, MICHAEL RATNER, TREVOR TIMM, MATTHEW KEYS, JAY LEIDERMAN, BARRETT BROWN, WHISTLEBLOWER DEFENSE LEAGUE
The secrecy, redactions and delays in release of information mean that the public does not have contemporaneous access to the proceedings, a fundamental component of a public trial. And given that Private Manning is confronting a life sentence, news media coverage and the public interest are one of the core protections provided to him by the First and Sixth Amendments.
I’m glad the New York Times has finally realized what journalists and advocates like Michael Ratner, Daniel Ellsberg, Glenn Greenwald, and myself have been saying since Manning’s indictment. I’m glad the Times woke up to the fact that if Manning were to be convicted of “aiding the enemy” simply because he provided information to Wikileaks, and, ultimately, the public, it would erode the First Amendment protections for all media outlets as well as whistleblowers like Manning.
The Manning case has always been about the First Amendment. It is high time the country’s “paper of record” wised up.
The Carr piece has a decent message if you can get past the self-righteous indignation and sanctimonious excuses. NYT complains that it is “rugged going” for reporters to make it to Fort Meade, but makes sure to note that complaint is
not an effort to complain about tough working conditions for reporters.
It would be an ironic complaint for the Times considering its reporters only showed up to the Manning proceedings after being twice publicly shamed by the paper’s public editor. If it’s a “rugged haul” for reporters with the resources of the New York Times, imagine the difficulty for the independent and alternative media reporters who have been present at the Manning proceedings day in and day out. Journalists like Alexa O’Brien, Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake, Courthouse News’ Adam Klasfeld, and Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network have covered the court proceedings despite the secrecy and security theater that make the reporting from Ft. Meade “rugged going.”
The NYT also makes the excuse that limited resources prevent the paper from covering the proceedings:
Yet coverage has been limited, partly by the court’s restrictions and partly because an increasingly stretched news media business often does not have the time, or the resources, to cover lengthy trials. After all, Private Manning’s case is still in pretrial phase and the full court-martial will not begin until June 3.
Such an excuse defies credulity, especially considering Ed Pilkington of The Guardian has also showed up, and the Washington Post found the “resources” to send researcher Julie Tate with regularity. With the First Amendment on the line, one would think the New York Times – with the biggest budget of any newspaper on the planet – would find the resources.
While it is true Manning’s trial has yet to begin, pre-trial proceedings have including riveting testimony and constitutionally-significant, precedent-setting hearings about “unlawful pre-trial confinement” (aka torture), the right to a speedy trial, the Espionage Act, and how the government plans to prove “aiding the enemy:” through a really frightening theory that if Osama Bin Laden had the ability to obtain publicly-available documents, then Manning “aided the enemy.” Not to mention Manning himself testifying under oath about his mistreatment – perhaps the only time he will take the stand. You can bet if defendants like O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony had taken the stand pre-trial, the New York Times would have showed up to listen, despite the time and resources constraints and any “rugged going” required.
Carr’s piece seems to finally send the right message that the Manning trial is of critical importance to the free press. The message is great, but the proof will be in the pudding: in whether the NYT decides to finally send its reporters to give the the First Amendment the press coverage it deserves when the court proceedings resume.
A week ago today, Pfc. Bradley Manning surprised both detractors and supporters by reading a thirtysomething-page statement articulating the specific Whats, Hows and—most importantly—Whys of his disclosures to the popular media site WikiLeaks. In the week since Manning’s dramatic statement, media coverage of the case has shifted from a trickle to a steady storm as even mainstream outlets such as the Guardian, X and Y now echo the message of the 25-year-old army private’s supporters. With no public record or transcript of court proceedings, it is indeed these grassroots supporters who have kept an important faith, serving as a bridge in between the mainstream media’s rare spikes of coverage and its more frequent lulls.
In wrestling with outright propaganda from the government and skepticism from a poorly informed public, Manning supporters have grappled to find converts and their own meaning to this somewhat enigmatic young man willing to give up his own life for the common good of believers and critics alike. If the description sounds like something out of the “Acts of the Apostles” account of the early church, the parallel is somewhat fitting—this past Thursday was their Pentecost. For if the three years since Manning’s arrest have been marked by the dogged determination of underdogs, last week’s qualified admission of “guilt” has mushroomed his following into a bigger movement than ever.
“It’s a rather dramatic moment in the history of his own case and our own country’s history,” says former NSA executive and fellow whistleblower Thomas Drake. “The statement he read completely contradicts the government’s allegations and assertions. He was privy to war crimes, privy to the dark side of diplomacy, government lies and malfeasance and a massive abusive of even the projected national security state oversees. He was eye witness to evidence, he was eye witness to atrocities. He chose to stand up and do something about it. It was an incredibly courageous act that he performed in the public interest. That is the classic definition of whistleblowing.”
Hearing this claim from Manning himself has seemed to make all the difference for both the media and sectors of the public formerly undecided on the issue. Of course, support for Manning previous to this was far from obscure: the Bradley Manning Support Network to date has raised nearly $1M for his defense; no less than three Nobel Peace Prize laureates (including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu) have petitioned fellow laureate Barack Obama for justice for Manning; and, in addition to the usual whistleblowers, critics and peaceniks like Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges, Michael Ratner, Jesselyn Radack, Peter van Buren, Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, and others, musicians such as Graham Nash and Conor Oberst, as well as actor Jon Cusack and U.K. comedy icon Graham Linehan have publicly commented on Manning’s behalf.
Although the initial WikiLeaks publications made headlines, along with Manning’s arrest and treatment—triggering strong reactions from some of the country’s leading legal academics and the resignation of an Assistant Secretary of State, the subsequent stretch of incremental pre-trial hearings, trial schedule delays and character assassination has often allowed mainstream media outlets to reduce or forego their coverage. Testimony from Manning himself late last year and, more recently, this past Thursday has helped humanize him for those following the case less closely. “This put a human face on Manning and undermined the corporate media and military false description of him,” says attorney and Bradley Manning Support Network steering committee member Kevin Zeese. “His most recent courtroom testimony, where he took responsibility for his actions, explained how he took care not to hurt the military or government and explained the rationale for his actions. All of this from the arrest until today has resulted in a building of his prominence. When the court martial trial is held there will, of course, be more.”
“Bradley Manning Served Democracy…” (Independent UK), “GI’s WikiLeaks Admission Energizes Supporters…” (Associated Press), The U.S. Press Failed Bradley Manning” (Firedoglake), “The Face of Heroism” (The Guardian)—these are just a few of the headlines that popped up in the hours after Manning’s statement in court on Thursday, February 28. Since then, he has been nominated for a third year in a row for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The coverage has changed because it’s the first time we’ve heard straight from Bradley what his motivations were,” says New York playwright Claire Lebowitz, 30, who has attended several sessions at Fort Meade. “If you’ve just been following the government propoganda which the mainstream media mostly does, they’ve been trying to pathologize him for the past three years. But now people can actually talk about the issues because it’s clear he felt a sense of moral obligation and outrage and that people needed the information.”
The turnaround we are seeing now in the media, however, might not have been possible without the dedicated witness of Manning’s supporters in the military courtroom itself. Clad in a matching uniform of black T-shirts bearing the word “Truth”, the spectators have earned themselves the nickname of the “Truth Battalion” from Manning’s lawyer. Ranging in age from the late teens to the late 70s, members of the “Truth Battalion,” and their civvy-dress counterparts are a constant in the pre-trial hearings held at Fort Meade. While Manning is prohibited from engaging members of the gallery, he has on numerous occasions passed on his appreciation for the supporters packing the courtroom; and although all supporters have shown total respect to the “dignified proceedings” and courtroom decorum, many have concluded particularly grueling sessions with some verbal thanks and encouragement to Bradley.
“I’m here because I think it’s a historic trial,” says retired university professor Blaine Stevenson, who has twice traveled all the way from Michigan to attend the hearings. “It’s a secret trial. It’s very difficult to get in sometimes, and there’s security involved to get into the base and to the courtroom. The number of seats are restricted, there’s no public transcript. The judge reads her rulings very quickly and doesn’t speak clearly all the time. This reminds me of the civil rights era in some ways because there’s a question of justice. There are problems with the government being on the wrong side of history.”
While some supporters are continuing a habit of activism, others, such as Bill Wagner, 74, say they have become galvanized within the past several years by issues related to the case. A retired manager from NASA’s astrophysicist program, Wagner has attended nearly every session so far, and is determined to continue throughout the court martial this summer. “I hung on the outskirts of protests and political events like that for my whole career,” he says. “I couldn’t do that and raise a family at the same time, maintaining the jobs I had. I retired about five years ago and I feel like I owe it to the world. I feel embarassed that we’re leaving the world as it is for our kids, between the economy going down the tubes, and the environment, and the things our govt is getting away with, in terms of the democracy problem.”
The regulars and a revolving cast of newcomers have made for a vibrant supporters community, says Emma Cape, national organizer of the Bradley Manning Support Network. With little prior introduction, members of the gallery attend vigils, help coordinate transportation and housing for each other, ensure all are outfitted with a “Truth” T-shirt, and translate the legalese of the proceedings for the rookies. “It’s a great place to be in the middle of it all,” says Wagner. “Besides, the supporters are a fun group to be with.” Some claim they are motivated by humanitarian and demilitarization concerns; for others, the case highlights a critical time for government transparency and the freedom of the press.
A common concern throughout the gallery is the troubling lack of transparency in the hearings. With no public transcript of the proceedings, the historical record has so far been largely set down by supporters’ hand-written notes and the WPM-wizardry of sympathetic journalists like Alexa O’Brien and Nathan Fuller. Although public pressure recently forced the Pentagon to bow and begin publishing select court motions and briefs, these documents are often redacted, incomplete or released months after the fact. Even Manning’s public statement, game-changer that it may be, is for now restricted. The transcripts that do exist come courtesy of supporters and journalists.
“It’s outrageous that a statement given by the defendent, read in an open court, wouldn’t be available to the public,” says retired army Colonel Ann Wright, an outspoken critic of the military’s treatment of Manning.
Sharon Stevenson, who has twice made the long journey from Michigan with her husband Blaine, says she is disappointed by Judge Lind’s decision to restrict what evidence can be presented to the public due to their low classified status. “Let’s just have an open discussion about these damages that are supposed to have happened as a result of the release of these documents,” she says. “Let’s have a full discussion, despite the fact it may be very embarassing to the State Dept and the military.”
Although their backgrounds and motivations may vary in shades, one thing spectators all agree on is that you attending the hearings are the best way to get a real sense of what’s happening in the Manning case. “You can’t get a flavor for it unless you’ve been there once and seen the set-up,” says Wagner.
Lebowitz, who has written and begun staging a play based on the case, echoes this sentiment, noting, “The suspicions I had about him, based on my research, have been confirmed. I have such respect and great admiration for him. The only way to get a true sense of what’s going on is to be in the courtroom. I think it’s historical. So, being a first hand witness, I feel like I’m better informed.”
The Bradley Manning Support Network has appealed to supporters to make a special effort to attend the first days of the court martial, scheduled to begin June 3. To get things started on a spirited note, they and a number of allied organizations will be holding what they hope will be the largest rally to date at Fort Meade on June 1.
“You need to be there,” says Zeese. “You will see an important part of history and can help get the truth out.”
Michael McKee, a member of the Bradley Manning Support Network, is covering the Manning trial for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: email@example.com