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“Beautiful Souls”: Eyal Press on the Whistleblowers Who Risk All to “Heed the Voice of Conscience”

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From corporate whistleblowers to Army refuseniks, a new book, “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times,” explores what compels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention for the greater good. “I feel like we have two very different discourses about whistleblowers in this country,” says the book’s author, Eyal Press. “On the one hand, when you see them cast in Hollywood movies, they’re invariably heroes, played by leading actors and actresses, and everybody salutes them… On the other hand, when we have whistleblowers actually speaking up in real time, the response is very different.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to whistleblowers and the unprecedented attack they’ve come under during the Obama administration. Evoking the Espionage Act of 1917, the administration has pressed criminal charges against no fewer than six government employees, exactly twice as many as all previous administrations combined. Their crime? Leaking classified information to reporters.

Last month, Jake Tapper, the White House correspondent for ABC News, questioned the Obama administration for applauding truth-seekers abroad while simultaneously prosecuting them at home. Tapper raised his concerns shortly after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lamented the deaths of journalists Marie Colvin and Anthony Shadid, saying they had given their lives “in order to bring truth” while reporting in Syria. This is Jake Tapper.

JAKE TAPPER: How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court? You’re currently—I think that you’ve invoked it the sixth time. And before the Obama administration, it had only been used three times in history. This is the sixth time. You’re suing a CIA officer for allegedly providing information in 2009 about CIA torture. Certainly that’s something that’s in the public interest of the United States. This administration is taking this person to court. There just seems to be a disconnect here: you want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: Well, I would hesitate to speak to any particular case, for obvious reasons, and I would refer you to the Department of Justice for more on that.

AMY GOODMAN: When it comes to workers who have risked their careers to expose misconduct in the corporate and financial arena, the government seems less eager to prosecute the whistleblower than ignore her concerns. For example, broker Leyla Wydler sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2003 alerting them to her fears that her former employer, the Stanford Financial Group, was running a Ponzi scheme. Her concerns were met with silence for years. And just this week, Leyla Wydler’s former boss, Allen Stanford, was found guilty of defrauding investors of $8 billion by selling them phony certificates of deposit.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, a fascinating new book looks at how and why people such as Leyla Wydler become whistleblowers and why they take the risks they do. Written by journalist Eyal Press, the book is called Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. From corporate whistleblowers to Army refuseniks, the book explores what compels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention for the greater good.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Eyal Press, contributing writer to The Nation magazine and past recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.

Eyal, welcome to Democracy Now!

EYAL PRESS: Thank you, Amy. And thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us why you have written Beautiful Souls, and then start with the Stanford case.

EYAL PRESS: Well, one of the reasons I wrote it was because I feel like we have two very different discourses about whistleblowers in this country. On the one hand, when you see them cast in Hollywood movies, they’re invariably heroes, played by, you know, leading actors and actresses, and everybody salutes them. When Harry Markopolos went to Congress after the Madoff scandal, he was greeted as a hero. On the other hand, when we have whistleblowers actually speaking up in real time, the response is very different. And as mentioned in the opening to this segment, on the one hand, we have national security whistleblowers who are getting indicted and charged with espionage. On the other hand, a much less well-known but equally, to me, disturbing pattern is that corporate and financial whistleblowers who speak out get what I would call “the silent treatment.” That is, they speak out, and they do exactly what the law and what they’ve been encouraged to do, and no one responds. And as a result, we get fraud and corruption and all kinds of terrible social calamities and economic calamities that aren’t dealt with in time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the Stanford case, in particular, this long period of time between the actual exposing of what was going on and the final conviction of the person in charge.

EYAL PRESS: Yes. Well, Leyla Wydler was a broker at Stanford. She was hired in 2000, November of 2000. And I told her story, and it really fit with a lot of the other stories I tell in the book. This woman was not looking to make trouble in the company. To the contrary, she came to Stanford. It was what she thought was a dream job. She had two kids to support, a daughter in college. And she got a nice bonus and a nice office and so forth. She very much believed in the system and believed that if there was fraud and she spoke out about the fraud, the regulators would do something about it, because the system had integrity.

She learned otherwise, as Amy mentioned. She sent a letter to the SEC in 2003. There was no response. She sent the same letter to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and the National Association of Securities Dealers, the industry association. No one did anything. She called the SEC office in Texas in 2004 after she had lost her arbitration case. Again, no one did anything. She waited for years and years, until finally, in January of 2009, the SEC called. Someone in the SEC calls her and says, “Miss Wydler, we’d like to speak with you about a former employer of yours.” Now, this is during the financial crisis, and the company is losing all its money. And suddenly they want to talk to her. And she says, “Let me guess. Is it—you know, it’s Stanford.” And the man on the phone laughed. And Leyla said to me—I said, “Leyla, did you laugh?” She said, “I wanted to scream.” So, that sort of gives you a sense of how she was treated.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, last May, former Stanford employee Leyla Wydler appeared on Fox Business to explain why she blew the whistle and called the Securities and Exchange Commission.

LEYLA WYDLER: I wanted to get some answers. I wanted to talk to them and tell them about my experience, and that I was shocked that the FINRA arbitrators had ruled against me. I thought that I was—very serious concerns, especially because, you know, I was worried about the current investors and the future investors bringing their life savings into their—into the SIB CDA bank.

AMY GOODMAN: So what ultimately happened Leyla, Eyal Press?

EYAL PRESS: Leyla was fired. She was forced to pay back her bonus. She reached a settlement in which she retained the right to work as a broker, only by reaching a settlement where she paid the company $50,000. And her pride was destroyed. Her reputation was destroyed. No one believed her. All the brokers there who went on selling these CDs that she suspected were phony went on doing what they did. And she, in effect, came away learning, in a very hard way, that what she thought the financial industry stood for, this integrity—and this leads people to speak out—would get her in trouble. She really got in trouble, in terms of why she did what she did. She did her job. It’s really that simple in her case. She thought that her clients needed good information, due diligence. This is the law. This is what brokers are trained to do. And her reward for that was to have her career upended.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you, in your book, look at a variety of whistleblowers over many, many decades. And I’ve dealt with whistleblowers for many years, and it’s always been amazing to me the sense of isolation that most of them feel, that here they are, standing up for what they know to be true, and yet everyone else around them is either ignoring them or actively seeking to quiet them. And there is this almost sense of outrage, of many whistleblowers that I’ve encountered, that somehow this is not the world that they understood to be. And I’m just interested, as you interviewed folks and—some of the psychological aspects of daring to stand up when no one else will.

EYAL PRESS: That, I think, is the most painful part of it. I mean, losing your job, losing your money, having your integrity questioned, those things are very difficult. But having no one stand with you, having no—having the people you worked with, who liked you, who hugged you when you were suddenly ushered out of your office and said, “We believe in you” — and in Leyla’s case, no one coming to her and saying, you know, “What happened? Why is this happening? Maybe I should ask these same questions.” And I think, rightly, we emphasize that the government is not listening to these people. But in the book, I also—I think we need to expand that a little bit to the public, the citizenry. You know, after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, Time magazine did a poll of Americans: what do you think of whistleblowers? And three women were named the persons of the year. They were whistleblowers at WorldCom and other companies that had committed fraud. Two-thirds of the people in that poll said whistleblowers are heroes, and yet, when they do speak out, they are all too often ignored or silenced, or simply no one pays attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Eyal, you go back to World War II. Tell us some stories.

EYAL PRESS: Well, the first book—the first story in my book actually unfolds in 1938, and it’s the story of a police captain in Switzerland who is told to enforce a law barring Swiss—the Swiss border guards from allowing refugees fleeing Austria to come into Switzerland. Now, the context is Nazi Germany has just annexed Austria. Kristallnacht has happened. Jews are fleeing in terror. And Switzerland does what every Western country basically ends up doing, which is, says, “We don’t want these refugees to come. And please enforce this law,” he was told, “without exceptions.”

The story is that this guy, who is a very seemingly risk-averse, ordinary captain, not particularly outspoken before this, he makes the mistake of letting these refugees come directly to him. That is, he doesn’t delegate this task to someone else below him or elsewhere in the chain of command. As a consequence of that, he starts hearing their stories, and he—as he told his daughter, who I interviewed, he could not say no to them. So he ended up saying no to the law, even though he’s the police—the chief of police in this canton, very conservative guy. He lets several—between several hundred and several thousand Jews across the border, until he’s caught in 1939. And his fate was no better than Leyla Wydler’s. I can elaborate. It took until 1993 for the Swiss government to acknowledge that what he had done was right.

AMY GOODMAN: And you tell another story from back then.

EYAL PRESS: I do. I tell the—

AMY GOODMAN: Story of those who would not shoot.

EYAL PRESS: Ah, oh, yes, yes. Well, this is—this is a fascinating study, and it connects very much to Grüninger’s case. What Grüninger did in letting these refugees come to him is he took an issue that was an abstraction for most of his peers in the Swiss—most of the Swiss officials, and he made it concrete and human. And that changed everything. And it turns out—and this is really a theme of the book—that to the extent that people can follow cruel orders, being distant from the victims is of great help, because you don’t—you don’t actually see them, right? Dropping a bomb from an airplane on a city that incinerates a few buildings, you don’t hear the screams. You don’t hear—you don’t see the victims directly.

In World War II, the U.S. Army did a study of infantrymen: how many of the infantrymen in the Pacific and in other theaters of the war actually shot when in close combat directly looking at and facing the enemy? And the result of the study was that 15 percent, 15 percent of the infantrymen in this study, said, “Yeah, I actually held my gun, aimed it and fired at the enemy.” Now, this so disturbed the Army—this was not a happy finding for the person who did the study. It so disturbed the Army that they changed the training methods, and they started training soldiers to shoot reflexively at pop-up targets and also to think of the enemy not as a person, but rather as a Commie or as—

AMY GOODMAN: So, your point was, 85 percent would not shoot someone directly.

EYAL PRESS: Eighty-five percent would not shoot, indeed. In the study, the conclusion of the study was that in the average soldier, in the typical soldier, there is a conscientious objector. And that conscientious objector will come out if they’re directly in front of a human being that they see as a human being.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you take that, in other stories, up to more current times, and in the Occupied Territories and among Israeli soldiers, as well.

EYAL PRESS: Yes. There’s another story in the book that is about a soldier named Avner Wishnitzer—a former soldier, I should say—but a young man who grew up in Israel, very patriotic, very idealistic, very much dreaming of defending his country. And he fulfills this dream by being recruited into the top unit of the Israeli army, Sayeret Matkal, the most elite unit there is. He served there for three-and-a-half years. And after his service, his sister invites him to a lecture. And the lecture is about the situation in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank, and he sees images of Palestinians being harassed and mistreated and being driven off their land by Jewish settlers living there.

Now, he could have walked away. He could have said, “Well, that disturbed me, but, you know, I’ve got other things to do.” He decided to join a convoy that was taking blankets to these Palestinians. And I have to say, he really didn’t know what to expect. He was scared. He felt, you know, “I’m doing something wrong here.” He goes to the West Bank and gradually—that first encounter was, again, this first face-to-face encounter he had with people he had previously thought of as the enemy, as a threat to him. And hearing them talk about how they felt threatened by settlers and by soldiers started this process that gradually led to an awakening, to the point that he not only becomes a refusenik who tells his commander he will not serve in the Occupied Territories, he also co-founds an organization that is now very active in Israel called Combatants for Peace, which is an organization of former fighters, both Palestinians and Israelis, who are fighting the occupation but through peaceful means.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play voices of a couple of prominent whistleblowers that we have interviewed or broadcast on Democracy Now! Thomas Drake, the former employee of the National Security Agency, was initially charged under the Espionage Act for leaking information about waste and management—mismanagement at the agency. The case against him later collapsed.

THOMAS DRAKE: The fact remains that the heart of my case rests directly on whistleblowing and First Amendment activities involving issues of significant and even grave concern in terms of government illegalities, contract and program malfeasance, as well as fraud, waste and abuse, protected by the Constitution, case law and statutes. And yet the government is censoring and criminally prosecuting protected communications I made in furtherance of government investigations, and doing so under the Espionage Act. Espionage is the last thing my whistleblowing and First Amendment activities and actions were all about. This has become the specter of a truly Orwellian world where whistleblowing has become espionage.

AMY GOODMAN: He eventually pled to a reduced charge, a misdemeanor, of something like exceeding authorized use of a computer. Eyal Press? And link this to who else you’ve covered.

EYAL PRESS: Well, in the book, I write about—I was there when Thomas Drake gave that speech, and it really reminded me of a person I had just spent time with, a military prosecutor who was sent to Guantánamo named Darrel Vandeveld, who is the last character in my book. And Darrel Vandeveld, like Thomas Drake, a very patriotic guy, a believer in the Constitution, a believer that if you see the Constitution being violated in a serious way, you have to act, you have to—you have to—your conscience, something has to be triggered by that. Vandeveld is working on a case and discovers that the person being prosecuted, Mohammed Jawad, was likely 16 years old when he was prosecuted, he was likely innocent of the crime, he was likely tortured and mistreated while detained. He ends up testifying for the defense in the case. And as a result of that, he is—he no longer—he’s taken away from his role as a military prosecutor and goes through a similar process of humiliation and isolation, of having his pride battered and his integrity questioned.

The thing that Darrel Vandeveld said to me, which in some ways was the most haunting quote for me in the book, and I leave it for the end of the book, is he said that at a certain point in his ordeal—and I imagine Thomas Drake felt this, as well—he came to reluctantly conclude that the individual dissenter does not change anything. Rather, they only bring pain on themselves. And I say he reached that at a certain point, because today, I don’t think Darrel Vandeveld actually believes that. But the reason he doesn’t believe that is because it turned out he wasn’t the only individual dissenter. There actually were seven different people at Guantánamo who questioned what was going on, from the inside, and spoke out about it. As a result of groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU questioning what was happening, there is now a greater public awareness, and it makes Vandeveld feel, “You know, I spoke out, and other people, at least a little bit, did listen.” And I think if there’s a lesson in the book, it’s that Vandeveld is right: they don’t change anything if no one pays attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Eyal, finally, you come out of this from a personal tradition. Something like 14 years ago, Barnett Slepian was killed in Buffalo, the abortion provider, the doctor shot as he stood in his house. Your father is an abortion provider there.

EYAL PRESS: Yes. And in a way that that is—the seed of this book was—and of my first book, Absolute Convictions, which is really about my father—is an effort to try to understand what makes people act in ways that are risky, when it’s much more convenient to stay silent or to go with the majority. In my father’s case, a man who was not a feminist or a great outspoken champion of women’s rights, ended up acting in a way that was very principled, which is, “I need to be a provider in a community that doesn’t have providers.” And he continued to perform abortions after his colleague was shot.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much. Your book is remarkable. It’s called Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. It’s by Eyal Press.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, why is a Texas man smuggling books into Arizona? Stay with us.

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