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“Silenced” Film Explores the Human Toll of Obama’s Crackdown on National Security Whistleblowers

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How far would you go to tell the truth? That is the question posed by the new documentary “Silenced,” which follows three national security whistleblowers who fight to reveal the darkest corners of America’s war on terror while enduring the wrath of a government increasingly determined to maintain secrecy. The three are former Justice Department lawyer Jesselyn Radack, former senior National Security Agency official Thomas Drake, and former CIA officer John Kiriakou. On the heels of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, we speak with director James Spione about the extraordinary lengths the government has gone to in order to wreak havoc on the whistleblowers’ personal lives through a sustained campaign of intimidation and harassment.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How far would you go to tell the truth? That’s the question posed by a remarkable new documentary called Silenced, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It follows three national security whistleblowers who fight to reveal the darkest corners of America’s war on terror, challenging a government that is increasingly determined to maintain secrecy as it expands its powers. They are former Justice Department lawyer Jesselyn Radack, former senior NSA official Thomas Drake, and the former CIA officer John Kiriakou. The film depicts the extraordinary lengths the government traversed to wreak havoc on their personal lives through a sustained campaign of intimidation and harassment. This is the trailer for Silenced.

THOMAS DRAKE: Part of the purpose of doing what they’ve been doing for the last several years is to destroy you.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I never thought of myself as a whistleblower. Sometimes I go back and forth in my mind, where I wish I had kept my mouth shut, and other times I wish that I had shouted it from the rooftops.

JESSELYN RADACK: There is information that the public, in a functioning democracy, has a right to know.

PETER VAN BUREN: Thomas Jefferson said that an informed citizenry is the crucial part of the democracy.

THOMAS DRAKE: I had took an oath. I had to deal with a government who was in violation of the oath, and I couldn’t remain silent.

JESSELYN RADACK: I could not live with myself knowing that another human being could be put to death because I kept my mouth shut.

BRIAN ROSS: Would you call it torture?

JOHN KIRIAKOU: Waterboarding is probably something that we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.

I was the first CIA officer to confirm the use of torture techniques against al-Qaeda prisoners.

JESSELYN RADACK: Our country had instituted a torture policy, and we ran head into that.

PETER VAN BUREN: You’re supposed to accept these things as normal, because to the people who have been there, it is completely normal.

THOMAS DRAKE: NSA would now instrument of the United States of America for the purposes of dragnet, blanket electronic surveillance on a vast scale.

JESSELYN RADACK: I explained the facts of my case to my lawyer. He said, “Wow! You meet the classic textbook definition of a whistleblower.”

PETER VAN BUREN: We’re people who joined the government for all the good reasons, worked for a number of years and then confront something that just stops us.

THOMAS DRAKE: White House has approved it. It’s all legal. As soon as he said it’s all legal, the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: They began asking me questions. Well, I’ve spent my entire adult life working with the FBI. So the FBI needs my help? I’m happy to help.

JESSELYN RADACK: He looked at the file and said very matter-of-factly, “This file has been purged.”

THOMAS DRAKE: They’re now engaged in an active cover-up at the highest levels.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: It wasn’t until I was about an hour into this interview that I realized, wait a minute, they’re investigating me.

THOMAS DRAKE: The apparatus of the U.S. government was turned against me. Every phone call you’ve ever made, emails you’ve ever sent, your bank statements, tax records.

JESSELYN RADACK: I was trying to be honest and obey the law, and yet I’m the one who ends up having to hire a team of lawyers.

THOMAS DRAKE: They set the target. They put the bullseye on me and said, “We’re going to make an example of him.”

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I have to try to protect my children from being exposed to it. I’ve got the FBI surveilling me on and off for the last seven months.

THOMAS DRAKE: You have to mortgage your house. You have to empty your bank account.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I’ve applied for every job I can think of. Haven’t gotten even an email or a call back.

PETER VAN BUREN: The people that you used to work with have turned against you. Your neighbors are at least suspicious, because it’s not every day that government investigators are knocking on their doors.

HEATHER KIRIAKOU: What has now happened to my family, it’s a very tormented existence.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: You’re not loyal. You’re not a good American. You’re a terrorist sympathizer.

JESSELYN RADACK: That secrecy regime, despite President Obama’s pledges of transparency and openness, has only continued to expand.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: I’m not the pushover that these guys think I am. I’m as tough as they are. And I’m going to fight.

AMY GOODMAN: That trailer for the new documentary Silenced, just premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. We’re joined by the film’s director, James Spione. His previous documentary, Incident in New Baghdad, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about why you chose these three people—Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack, as well as John Kiriakou.

JAMES SPIONE: Thank you for having me, by the way.

Well, I really—making my previous film, Incident in New Baghdad, it was already—this was on my radar. Of course, that film was made possible because of that footage released by WikiLeaks, and we now know it was Chelsea Manning who released this footage of an Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad. And so, that got me to thinking about this whole—you know, who controls the information; who’s allowed to release it, who’s not; what is the American public allowed to see, and what aren’t they allowed to see; and who are the people who kind of have the courage to step up and say, “Wait a minute”—when the whole bureaucracy is going another direction, they say, “Well, I’m not sure about this,” you know, and dissenting against what’s the common practice. So I thought, well, these are kind of rare individuals, and I want to learn more about them. And that’s when I started researching the people in my film.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to a clip from Silenced. Here, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou talks with Jesselyn Radack about the implications of his silence.

JESSELYN RADACK: This is why they want you to bargain on this count. They know that they are weak. They know that IIPA is written so narrowly that it’s virtually impossible to prove.

JOHN KIRIAKOU: We talked about this all night long. That’s why I come home, I take the kids to school, I come back, and I sleep on the couch for an hour, because I’ve been up all night long. She doesn’t make enough money to support our household. We can borrow enough for two years to keep her going, probably without filing for bankruptcy. But if I—if I were to be found guilty and got more than two years, I mean—we think we’re ruined now? We’d be ruined permanently after that.

Tom Drake thinks I should fight it. And, you know, in my gut, I want to fight it. But I have kids. And I just can’t risk them losing me for six to 12 years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. The importance of his actions and his case?

JAMES SPIONE: Well, certainly, torture is back in the news right now, this whole program that we created. We’re still not sure what exactly it was. And the CIA is wrestling with the Senate right now to try and limit what we can know about it. But John Kiriakou was the first, of course, to publicly acknowledge—the first government official, or former CIA official, to publicly acknowledge that waterboarding was indeed a program, not just some rogue event, but an actually government-sanctioned policy that came from the top. And that got him in hot water, and investigations started behind the scenes.

And he did a number of things over the ensuing years that kind of irritated those in charge, and became a more vocal critic of these policies during that time and then, finally, ended up being charged in 2012 with releasing the name of a covert agent to a member of the press, in connection with—you know, it was sort of, from what I understand, a routine sort of inquiry, like, “Hey, is this guy someone I can talk to about this?”—the kind of thing that goes on all the time behind the scenes in Washington. You know, a lot of the stories you read are, you know, “Washington sources,” “inside sources say,” and a lot of this material that’s released is perhaps classified—

AMY GOODMAN: And the reporter didn’t use the name.

JAMES SPIONE: No, no, he did not. And, in fact, he didn’t even write about it. But the fact is, it’s—you know, whether you release classified information or not depends on whether it makes the government look good or bad. And if it makes the government look bad, then you get in hot water. And John certainly got in hot water.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s in prison now.

JAMES SPIONE: He is in prison. And this scene you just saw is a pretty good illustration of the kinds of pressures that are applied to people in these situations. And, you know, one of the things that my film—that I set out to do was to get behind the sort of sound bites that we’re used to seeing and the sort of media meme of “hero or traitor,” and just let’s look at who these people are as real-life human beings, with families and jobs. And, you know, they’re not heroes or traitors; they’re kind of like regular people who were kind of thrust into these extraordinary situations.

AMY GOODMAN: He was sentenced to?

JAMES SPIONE: Thirty months.

AMY GOODMAN: He has five children.

JAMES SPIONE: Yes, he has—yes, two older children from a previous marriage, and he has three young children at home. And all three of the people in my film were very gracious in allowing me into their private lives, and so I spent a lot of time with John and his wife and his children, seeing how this process of going through this Espionage Act charge against him really affected the whole family. And you see that in all three of the cases that I look at in my film.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’ve talked often on this show about the Obama administration prosecuting more whistleblowers than all other previous administrations in history. Your sense of the time in which we are in now and this anomaly of this liberal Democratic president being the one who’s prosecuting all of these whistleblowers?

JAMES SPIONE: Yes, well, it’s certainly been an education. I think one of the things the last few years have taught me, and especially making this film, is I think we need to get beyond the partisan blinders a little bit, to see—to look at the institutions we have and the laws we have and the government we have. And no matter who’s in charge, it’s been going in one direction in this one area. In this—in terms of national security, the policies between the Bush administration and the Obama administration have been pretty seamless. You know, as Jesselyn Radack puts it in my film, after 9/11, the pendulum swung in one direction, but then it just kept swinging, and it never came back. And so, yeah, there’s been this concerted effort under the Obama administration. It’s really been a coordinated effort to crack down on dissent, really. And that’s a very troubling notion, that—you know, that you’re not allowed to criticize government policy in certain areas. And they’ve kind of normalized that. The Espionage Act is this incredibly draconian, harsh charge that you really—very hard to prove against anyone, and never really gets proven against any of these people, because they—as happened with John Kiriakou and some other people, you sort of crack under that pressure and will plead to something else, because you’re looking at many, many years under an Espionage Act charge, which carries with it, you know, all sorts of other associations like traitors and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Jesselyn Radack, the former Justice Department spokesperson, in your film, Silenced.

JESSELYN RADACK: I’m fighting to have my September 10th country back. It’s a very, very dangerous direction. The pendulum swung after 9/11, and instead of swinging back to some kind of equipoise, it just swung even further in the direction of secrecy. And that includes overclassification. That includes a crackdown on whistleblowers. That includes secret signing statements. It includes shutting down lawsuits with the state secrets privilege. I mean, there is a whole bevy of secrecy tactics that the government uses. Every time you bring up civil liberties that have deteriorated or been tossed out completely in the name of national security, people think somehow you’re siding with the terrorists. “Oh, you want our country to suffer.” Quite the opposite: People want our country to continue to live up to the ideals on which it was founded.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Justice Department attorney Jesselyn Radack, who got ultimately pushed out because she said John Walker Lindh should have an attorney, and now is—works with whistleblowers like Tom Drake and John Kiriakou, who you feature in this film.

JAMES SPIONE: Right. All three of them—Jesselyn, Tom and John—sort of share this same, similar kind of story of believing in their job, being patriotic public servants, really, and then coming up against something that they feel like—that tweaked their conscience, in a way, and that kind of flew in the face of what they understood their constitutional obligations were, you know, to uphold the Constitution. And that’s the central conflict, really, right now, in a way, of our age, in this kind of unending war on terror. Even in your previous segments, you were kind of talking about the same thing, like what are individuals’ recourse, what are civil rights that we can rely on, our constitutional rights, in this time we’re—

AMY GOODMAN: James, we’re going to have to leave it there. James Spione, director, producer of the documentary Silenced. Congratulations on your film.

That does it for the show. I’ll be speaking at the Green Festival Saturday at 3:00 at 54th Street in New York at Pier 94. Juan will be speaking in the Congressional Building on Tuesday 5:30 after a showing of the film Harvest of Empire. And I’ll be at Dartmouth College the following Friday night.

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