We were eating dinner last night around my kitchen table when the news of the dustup between Wikileaks and the Intercept came through the tubes. As I read the details to the people who came here to share food and conversation, everyone’s eyebrows raised.
The eyebrows at a lot of tables probably raised as Wikileaks took the Intercept to task for its latest story, and failing to release the name of one of the countries in which the United States is spying on its citizens. The Intercept maintained they had been shown compelling evidence that led them to redact the name; Wikileaks maintained the citizens of the country have a right to know.
The eyebrows at my kitchen table were somewhat unique as it relates to the story, however. They belong to members of a group we jokingly refer to as the Friends of the Enemies of the State, a regular gathering of people who have personal experience on the business end of the state’s relentless persecution of those who choose to expose its criminality.
I’ll leave it to the people who come here as to whether they want to identify themselves or not. But everyone regards these dinners as a place where they know they are among friends who understand what they’ve been through and aren’t judging them for it. Many have lost everything — marriages, jobs, homes, relationships with friends and family, have risked jail (and in some cases gone to jail) — as a result of decisions they made to become whistleblowers.
(I will identify one person, with permission — FDL contributor and State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, who is in town promoting his new book The Ghosts of Tom Joad. It’s excellent, please buy it.)
Without saying how everyone came down, I will say that there was sympathy expressed for those on both sides. More than one of the regular attendees at the FES dinners has been charged with espionage. More than one has been to visit Julian Assange in England, and Edward Snowden in Russia. And they are all keenly aware that these are extremely difficult decisions that whistleblowers and journalists are increasingly having to face in the era of big data — and that the price of a mistake can be perilously high.
Chelsea Manning and the Quantico Saga
My own experience with whistleblowers and whistleblowing began four years ago when I picked up a gangly college student with blonde hair and a backpack at Union Station one night. His name was David House, and at the time he was pretty much Chelsea Manning’s only regular visitor at Quantico.
David had initially reached out to Glenn Greenwald when his computer had been seized at an airport for no apparent crime other than being Manning’s friend. When David told Glenn he routinely came down from Boston and stayed in hostels in Washington DC so he could visit Chelsea, Glenn thoughtfully offered up my house as a place for him to stay.
Almost immediately David told me he was very worried about Chelsea, who was being kept in solitary confinement under conditions the UN rapporteur on torture would later say were cruel and inhuman. Chelsea’s lawyer wanted to exhaust all military procedural options for protesting her treatment before going to the press, but David was deeply concerned that his friend’s condition was deteriorating.
“I think Glenn should know this,” I said, and I dialed Glenn’s number. After getting a lecture about how I shouldn’t be driving and talking on the phone at the same time, I told him what David had told me about Chelsea’s conditions. I also told him that Chelsea’s attorney was concerned about broadcasting this in the media yet.
What happened next all came down to a snap judgement I had to make about whether or not David had evaluated the situation accurately and was telling the truth. Did I believe him? “Yes,” I said.
Glenn tweeted out the news and all hell broke loose. The Quantico spokesman denied it everywhere, and Glenn was on the defensive against a full-frontal Pentagon PR campaign. Fortunately David Coombs, Chelsea’s lawyer, decided it was time to make a statement, and he confirmed everything David had said about Chelsea’s conditions.
Soon the guards at Quantico began harassing David at the gate and making it hard for him to get to the brig to see Chelsea, so I began driving him down. On the third or fourth time, we were detained and threatened with arrest. I began live tweeting what was happening to us with no awareness that people were following it all over the world. What we did know that a collection of military brass had assembled in the guard house, and we weren’t released until just before visiting hours were over at the brig and it would be impossible for David to get in to see Chelsea.
In response to the media attention around our detention the Pentagon gave its first press conference in months, and spokesperson Geoff Morrell was peppered with questions as to whether the military was preventing Chelsea’s visitors from seeing her. A few days later the Quantico brig commander was replaced and we all had hopes that Chelsea’s situation would get better.
It got far, far worse. They began stripping Chelsea naked and forcing her to stand at attention in front of the guards each morning, according to the outraged David Coombs who went public immediately.
I can’t speak for anyone else in the situation but I know for myself I was sick with worry that we had only made things worse for Chelsea. Nobody can know that but Chelsea herself, and she hasn’t spoken about it. All I can say is that in retrospect I believe we made the best decisions we could based on what we knew at the time. And I can say with absolute certainty that everyone was trying to do what they thought was best for her.