Whistleblowers can pay heavy price for speaking out

Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 13:50

This article originally appeared in the March 29, 2012 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By SUZANNE WILSON
Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY—"Nobody goes to work saying, 'I'm going to be a whistleblower today,'" said Jesselyn Radack.

Radack, 41, a lawyer and former ethics adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice, said she—like most people who become whistleblowers—was just doing her job "when things started to go awry and I started to ask questions."

Radack, of Washington, was at Mount Holyoke College with Daniel Ellsberg for a panel discussion Wednesday titled "Whistleblowing: From the Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks."

The incident that turned Radack into a whistleblower involved John Walker Lindh, the young man dubbed the "American Taliban," who was captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Radack disclosed the FBI's ethical violations in its interrogation of Lindh and exposed misleading statements made by former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Her questions about the handling of Lindh's case eventually led to her resignation from the Justice Department, and later prompted her to contact Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter at Newsweek magazine, who told her story. Radack now works as the national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project (www.whistleblower.org) in Washington.

In talks she and other whistleblowers give to students around the country, Radack said, they try to counter the negative view of whistleblowers that the Bush and Obama administrations have advanced since 9/11.

Like Ellsberg, she had gone into government service, not to expose wrong, but with the strong conviction that government "always wears the white hat," Radack said. It was only after seeing wrongdoing, she said, that she had to make "tough decisions" about whether, and how, to act on it. She said she still believes that "our government can work—and it often does work."

Radack was involved in the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior official at the National Security Agency who also spoke on the panel at Mount Holyoke.

At the NSA, Drake raised questions about management issues and about a costly data-collection program that he said threatened the privacy of millions of unsuspecting Americans.

Drake—who later spoke to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun—was charged in part under the federal government's Espionage Act and faced a possible 35-year prison sentence. The case against him collapsed in June 2011 when he pleaded guilty to a minor misdemeanor and the Department of Justice dropped all felony counts against him.

Drake said he spoke out against what he saw as "an illegal, dragnet electronic surveillance program put in under the Bush administration." In the post- 9/11 world, he said, it has become far too easy for threat to be used "as an excuse to sweep up all of us. This is data on Americans who are under no suspicion, who have done nothing wrong. You have people collecting that, storing that. For what? I could not remain silent."

But the price was high. "They threw everything they had at me," he said. He has lost his career, along with much of his retirement savings, and, in some quarters, his reputation. "I'm damaged goods, radioactive. I'm not bitter—I just want my country back."