Shooting the Messengers

When Church & the State Play
the Whistleblowers’ Swan Song

Two recent reports making the rounds beyond the 24-news cycle share a disturbing trait, usually associated with authoritarian regimes: The Obama administration’s prosecutions against government employees accused of leaking classified information to the media; and the Catholic Church’s use of the court system to intimidate a group representing victims of sexual abuse by priests.
The combined decisions send chilling waves down the spines of advocates for press freedom and human rights, two pillar institutions of any democratic society. And may embody an unduly attempt by the government at preventing accountability before its citizens, as well as an unacceptable bullying by the church of those who seek to bring to justice clergy members who committed criminal acts.
That this is happening in a country whose constitution is a tenet of moral standards and a manifest for the rule of the law, and at a time when its presidency is occupied by a member of a historically oppressed racial minority is not just startling: it’s outrageous.
And it’s occurring now, when the U.S.’s military presence in Afghanistan is faltering, while the economic recovery is lagging and an extremist minority of religious zealots is gaining traction. It should be, otherwise, the ideal moment to show resolve about this nation’s secular principles and commitment to individual freedom and separation of church and state.
Instead, we’re getting lost in this quagmire of whether to support a president that has restored a lot of our national pride, out of the sheer power of his personal charisma and persuasion, and at the same time, demand transparency from its law enforcement agencies, that seem eager to trample individual rights in the name of vague concepts of national security and the war on terror rhetoric.
Perhaps the case that ignited the current cycle of ‘persecute the messenger, forget about the message’ is the still ongoing, extremely painful public excoriation of Army Private Bradley Manning, who has been under arrest since May 2010, and who only in February was brought to court, to face his Court Martial charges that he leaked classified information published on the WikiLeaks website.
Problem is, the government is yet to present its case proving that Manning was, in fact, the whistle-blower who supplied WikiLeaks with the hundreds of thousands of classified records and State Department cables that it made public. And what exactly was the damage caused by the leaks to national security, that would justify prosecute an active member of its military.
Manning, who was stationed in Iraq at the time of the leaks, is charged with violations including aiding the enemy, which carries a possible life sentence. But by being held in captivity for such a long time, with no formal charges, he may also undermine the government’s case against him.
That possibility grew stronger this week, when the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, published a report formally accusing the U.S. government of ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’ towards Manning. The serious charge is the result of a 14-month investigation that determined that he was locked up alone, for 23 hours a day over an 11-month period, among other abuses.
Such accusation is shocking in the light of the administration’s pledge, less than three years ago, to support a bill that “would grant federal employees the unilateral right to reveal national security information whenever they reasonably believe the information provides evidence of wrongdoing.”
Now, President Obama has the dubious distinction of having charged more people, six, under the 1917 Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Previously, there were only three such cases in American history.) These infamous six criminal cases include the Army’s against Manning, and five others being handled by the Department of Justice.
A department whose head, by the way, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, made even fewer constitution-enabling friends among an audience of law school students last week, by defending the U.S. right to target and kill American citizens overseas “when those individuals pose a real threat to this country,” which sounds a lot like shoot first and ask questions later, but that’s another story.
Despite the DOJ’s denial that it’s specifically targeting whistle-blowers, some of the cases that it has either charged or is seeking penalties under the Espionage Act, seem to counter such argument. Take the case of Thomas Drake, for example, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, accused of retaining top-secret defense documents for the purpose of unauthorized disclosure.
Drake’s case, though, was much less about national security and a lot about embarrassing mismanagement: he’d been a key witness in a Defense Department Inspector General audit, which found that the NSA spent $1.2 billion on a contract that could have done it in-house for $3 million. The espionage charges were ultimately dropped.
Other two revealing, and relevant, cases are Shamai Leibowitz’s, a former FBI translator, sentenced to 20 months in prison for leaking information to a blogger related to a possible Israeli military strike against Iran; and Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA officer whose case is still pending, charged with leaking data about the agency’s efforts against the Iranian nuclear program.
Or Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor who was indicted for allegedly leaking nuclear information about North Korea to Fox News. He pleaded not guilty and his case is pending. Or even NYT reporter James Risen, who’s fighting a subpoena to testify in the Sterling trial and who’s invoking his First Amendment right to protect his source’s confidentiality.
There are more, but those should do it for now. At the same time, another kind of whistle-blower, those who denounced corporate malfeasance perpetrated during the financial collapse of 2008, were strangely ignored, faced hardship in consequence of their decision to open their mouths, and in some cases, saw those they accused getting away with impunity.
Author Eyal Press writes about two of them, Leyla Wydler and Eileen Foster, in his new book, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times.
Wydler is a broker who sent a letter in 2003 to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Association of Securities Dealers, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, about her former employer, Stanford Financial Group, which had fired her when she wouldn’t go along with what she rightfully thought was a fraudulent certificate of deposit scheme. But no one replied.
Last week, Wydler’s former boss R. Allen Stanford was finally convicted of bilking his investors out of more than $7 billion through a Ponzi scheme he operated for 20 years. It was a bittersweet, belated victory for Wydler, who was briefly mentioned in the coverage of Stanford’s trial and conviction.
And Foster, former senior executive at Countrywide Financial, who uncovered evidence in 2007 of massive fraud by one of the companies that played a major role in the subprime crisis. Even though Countrywide collapsed, along with a slew of small businesses and billions of dollars in losses to homeowners across the country, she remains largely ignored by the government.
According to Press, Foster is still willing to be summoned to testify before a grand jury and name people at Countrywide who could as well end up convicted for their deeds during the financial collapse of 2008. But despite efforts to invoke an almost one-hundred-year old law against what it perceives as threats to national security, the DOJ remains unfazed about her claims and hasn’t contacted her.
Since it erupted in the late 1990s and reached a peak in Boston in 2002, the scandal over clergy sexual abuse spread out worldwide and caused irreparable damage to the Catholic Church and other institutionalized religions. It also helped to shed a light over other organizations, public and private, where despicable and long-term physical and psychologically damaging acts were inflicted against children.
Even venerable organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, little leagues and college football among others across America, traditionally so adamantly anti-gay or supposedly adopters of strict moral rules, failed to protect the youth entrusted to their care and have now, at least partly, lost their higher moral ground.
Among them all, though, the Catholic Church is the most powerful and more capable of withstanding the onslaught of claims without much of a scratch on its public image. Otherwise, there would be a much wider movement from its faithful demanding transparency and accountability from priests to bishops, cardinals and all the way to the pope. Sadly, there isn’t much to report on this area.
There has been though SNAP, an organization formed by victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy, which happened with the tacit protection of the church’s hierarchy. Through the efforts of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, thousands of victims were able to at least be compensated financially for the unforgivable acts they suffered in the hands of those so-called men of the cloth.
Maybe not for much longer. In a twist, the church now decided to halt the financial compensation process and, instead, is seeking to subpoena SNAP’s records, to likely identify individuals who, in their majority and quite possibly in consequence of their personal trauma, would’ve never joined the effort at seeking justice if they knew their identities wouldn’t be protected.
Despite denials, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church’s biggest outside the Vatican, seems to be adopting that old divide and conquer strategy, sending its well heeled corporate lawyers after SNAP, a grass-roots organization that operates in St. Louis, Missouri, out of the basement of David Clohessy‘s house, its director and also a former victim himself.

The still unfolding drama of sexual abuse in childhood will require many successive and courageous decisions by society to confront its causes, punish those found guilty of inflicting it, and sheltering and protecting its victims for years to come. The court system is still the space where the appropriateness of penalty in relation to crime should be judged.
But not even an ancient, global and self-appointed spiritual institution such as the Catholic Church, as any other religion, or college athletics program or charitable foundation or army reserve for that matter, should be above the law or capable of manipulate it in its favor. Criminal behavior has no particular affiliation, but we’re supposed to have mechanisms in place to prevent it or punish it.
It’s straightforward wrong then that the church deems itself fit to prescribe moral judgment to those who do not oblige or live by its teachings. Therefore, its latest offensive against the government’s efforts to provide health coverage to all, including contraceptive and sexual education, should be condemned as an unacceptable interference in secular matters that do not concern it.
Specifically concerning the rights of women, and going back to that tenet of moral virtue we like to refer to whenever it speaks in our favor, the Constitution, they should be unwavering and unalienable, not to be touched by whims of faith whichever god it claims to be a representative of on earth. It simply is not its or anybody’s right to decide what a woman says about her own body. Period (sorry).
It pains us to see that the Obama administration, which was voted to office in such high a hope for change and now it’s clinging to its right to even exist, and a religious institution which claims to have a hold on morality, are both trying to outlaw dissent and prevent people from speaking out according to their own moral principles.
But we still have a choice. In this election year, it’s up to us to demand President Obama to take a more proactive role supporting human rights issues, which includes whistle-blowing and defense of women’s reproductive rights. As for the church, after all that’s happened, we honestly don’t understand why its followers are silent about sexual abuse by those who administer holy sacraments.

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