Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Film
An interview with ‘War on Whistleblowers’ filmmaker
A funny thing happened after post-9/11 whistleblowers started being gagged, persecuted, prosecuted, raided, threatened and retaliated against. They began to organize. They gathered the wagons around and took to the press.
It’s a phenomenon not uncommon in America, particularly when individuals believe they are being unfairly targeted by the government for doing the right thing. They have to stick together because equally as common, and most unfortunate for these Americans, when the country is at war, the government centralizes its power at the top, it becomes more secretive, and relentlessly defensive about its mistakes, dismissive of proper oversight and its legal obligations, and is inclined to make examples out of anyone who questions the authorities granted to itself in the interest of “national security.”
Today, names like Tom Drake, William Binney, Tony Shaffer, John Kiriakou – and of course, Bradley Manning – are familiar to most people with access to the internet and an interest in what’s become known as the national security state. These whistleblowers now have more supporters than they will ever know, communicating passionately through online social networks, demanding coverage from the press, keeping their stories alive and with the flesh-and-blood details that prevent these Sir Gawains of the First Amendment from succumbing to the government’s own one-sided labels of castigation: Traitor. Thief. Leaker. Criminal.
Robert Greenwald, a long-time filmmaker who went from television shows and B-movies to an invigorating turn as a political documentarian and activist, producing recent films like “Rethink Afghanistan” and “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers” under his Brave New Films label, has now taken on the “War on Whistleblowers” with a new film of the same name.
In it, he focuses on several of the aforementioned whistleblowers and introduces us to some lesser known but equally impressive characters, like Franz Gayle, a civilian scientist working for the Marine Corps, who was the first to alert the Department of Defense that the Humvees the military was using in Iraq were defenseless against roadside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and that the government needed to step up its production of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), which would save lives exponentially. He conducted studies that bolstered his observations — that the delivery of the much-needed MRAPs had been held up for as long as 19 months by red tape and contractual politics. When he started getting push back from the Marines, he went to the press.
The Corps retaliated as the story gained steam and attention on Capitol Hill. They revoked his security clearances, and Gayle was soon out of work. In the meantime, however, his diligence paid off – lawmakers listened and MRAPs were soon produced en masse, saving an untold number of servicemembers’ lives.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) lobbied hard on Gayle’s behalf and got his clearances, and thus his job, back. “I feel very lucky,” he says on War on Whistleblowers. “Because I received a lot of support, from a lot of outsiders, that I don’t think a lot of people in my situation gets.”
Eventually Michael DeKort found a new job, but only after his career as a civilian lead systems engineer for Lockheed Martin was destroyed as a direct result of his blowing the whistle on the integrated contract with the U.S Coast Guard, otherwise known as the Deepwater program. Thanks to DeKort, billions of taxpayer dollars were saved and possibly lives too, as he was singularly responsible for calling attention to the Coast Guard cutters that Lockheed and Northrop Grumman were building, which turned out to be not only unseaworthy, but floating health hazards. When Lockheed wouldn’t listen to his concerns in 2006, he went on You Tube and then to the press, to tell his story. Today what was known as the Deepwater boondoggle, is sunk.
He lost his job and his retirement, and had to climb is way out of a hole and into a different profession to feed his family. This is a common theme – whistleblowers having to “start over” after the government has taken its toll. Many of these men and women were closing in on retirement, or have small children, which makes their sacrifices all the more poignant. Tom Drake, a former intelligence executive who after an painful and lengthy battle with the government (he went to the press over the National Security Agency’s secret data mining program), pled guilty to a mere misdemeanor (the “equivalent of a parking ticket”), and now works in a Washington DC-area Apple Store and is a year away from a PhD in public policy and management.
When Antiwar asked Drake to comment as one of the featured “stars” of the movie, he responded via email. “Not a star – just an American who held fast to the oath I had taken 4 times in my government service – support and defend the Constitution, Period. Against all enemies foreign and domestic. And the government turned me into an enemy of the state.”
Thomas Tamm, the justice department attorney who went to The New York Times as an anonymous source about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping – information that eventually led to journalists James Risen and Eric Lichtblau breaking the Pulitzer Prize-winning story in 2005 — was never charged with anything, but lost his career and his retirement security nonetheless. “The biggest regret is what I put my family through,” after his identity was finally confirmed, Tamm, now in his early sixties, says in the War on Whistleblowers. “Did I accomplish anything? I let people know what was going on.”
The whistleblower advocacy community –including POGO and GAP — has not only offered legal representation to these guys but a chance to face their new, uncertain circumstances with countless supporters behind them – in other words, they are publicly legitimizing if not institutionalizing the act of whistleblowing as a noble path and the decision to take it as something to be proud of, despite the rough consequences.
“Whistleblowers really are our modern day heroes,” said Danielle Brian, POGO executive director, in the movie. “We can’t let them fight this fight alone.”
“The Obama administration’s dogged pursuit of more whistleblowers – especially in light of the lack of accountability for other far worse offenses like torture and warrantless domestic spying – as well as the government’s own rampant leaking, has definitely united the open government/First Amendment community,” said Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower herself (also with a part in the film), in an email response to Antiwar.com.
Also featured are the journalists who have worked with the whistleblowers. These scribes are acutely aware of the danger the whistleblowers put themselves in and how fragile the reporters’ own security (and the 1st Amendment) has become as they report these stories. One only needs to look at James Risen’s chilling legal tussle with the federal government to know that journalists are no longer safe from reprisals and punishment when something they write embarrasses Washington.
Greenwald spoke with Antiwar.com on Thursday about the film. We asked him about his research, his subjects and where he is going next. He is currently putting the final touches on a new documentary on Washington’s drone wars. War on Whistleblowers is now available (including free copies for public screenings) and on on iTunes, beginning today.
Of course, not everyone was completely satisfied with Greenwald’s output – writer Kevin Gosztola, while seeming to appreciate the entire package, was curious as to why Manning and Kiriakou appear as near “afterthoughts” near the end. We ask Greenwald about that, too.
Antiwar: You must get this question a lot, but here it goes: what turned you on to the War on Whistleblowers?
Robert Greenwald: What I try to focus on with all of our movies is how to connect the dots. It helps people understand what the whole issue is about … it’s when I began to do further research and we began to understand the connection between the war on whistleblowers and the national security state, I said that it makes sense for us to do. We could contextualize it for the bigger picture…. As we got into it, literally every whistleblower told me the story how important the press was. We knew we had something.
AW: Looking back on making the film which one of your subjects left the biggest emotional impression on you in regards to their personal story?
RG: I don’t think any one person, it was a cumulative toll, really. I think it was Tom Tamm who said – and I am paraphrasing – ‘just think of all the money and the hours and the time being wasted and all the real bad guys who aren’t being pursued because essentially, (other, potential whistleblowers) are worried about vendettas and retribution.’
AW: I noticed you had a lot of top name, mainstream journalists in the film, who have no real dog in the hunt — they aren’t activists against the war or for civil liberties — but they talked about government crackdowns on leaking and the press, what it meant to them. What do you think they lend to the overall message?
RG: They lend tremendous credibility – journalists don’t advocate they don’t take on issues or causes. These are the best of the best and they are incredible professionals, and I am in awe of their investigative journalism. When they offered to talk to me, one after the other said, ‘I generally don’t do films or press,’ but they understood this was a very important issue and the only way they could take it to another level was if they could speak out.
AW: We’re you surprised at the level of retribution against these guys? I mean, there were security clearances yanked, pensions lost, jobs gone in an instant. Blackballed.
RG: Very, very surprised. I knew the military industrial complex and the national security state insist on and thrive on secrecy. They function in the dark and undercover. But I did not have the firsthand or even the second hand experience of how far it goes and the human toll it can take on people.
AW: Kevin Gosztola over at Firedoglake had said you might have talked more about Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou, the two guys now sitting in jail. How come you didn’t highlight them both more?
RG: One of the challenges when you do a documentary is not to make it 16 hours long, and now and then you have to make some tough choices. I believe we could not do the Bradley Manning story justice by making it just a piece of that film. It was very clear he would not fit in the confines of the format. With John Kiriakou that was happening right at the end of our project, we knew we did not have the time or the resources to do a full-fledged section of the film about John.
AW: Are you sad – disappointed – in the Obama Administration, which during the (2008) campaign had promised to take a different approach to transparency in government and civil liberties? As you talk about in the film, he’s come down like a bag of bricks on whistleblowers.
RW: I think it’s tragic. I do think it’s not necessarily a surprise, though, if you look at the history of the national security state and the history of what happens when this country goes on a war footing. Whoever is president, our rights and freedoms get sacrificed. We see how true were the warnings from Dwight Eisenhower about the military industrial complex. We need to heed that. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from the left, right or center. It’s important that we look at what’s going on and say this is not the country we signed up for.”
AW: After all the films you have done on the wars, the researching, writing about these wars – you can see the failure of Iraq and now we’re out of there, we’re nearly out of Afghanistan, too — what is your sense about where the country stands today? Where do we go from here?
RG: I hope and I believe that the utter disastrous failure of the last war, the number of people killed and maimed, the families permanently destroyed because of someone who was killed in the war — that we know about in the United States, much less those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia — and the enormous amount of money being spent, there will be more of a wake up call for more of us and energize people to say, ‘no more! This (war) is not making us safer and not making us more secure and these are dumb policy solutions. The way to make us safer is not to invade, occupy or use drones.’
AW: Thank you for your time.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos
Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos
- Hamid Karzai: No Ordinary Puppet – December 2nd, 2013
- Slinging Stones at the Drone Goliath – November 18th, 2013
- Ed Hasbrouck versus the TSA – November 13th, 2013
- Petraeus Races Against the History Clock – November 4th, 2013
- Taking Big Brother to Task – October 27th, 2013