Silenced by Academy Award nominated filmmaker James Spione is a documentary that every American who cares about this country and the direction it is headed in should see. Spione’s work is exceptional in its investigation of our rights and responsibilities as American citizens. He reminds us that the greatest power we have as Americans is our voice, our freedom of expression, our right to speak out against injustice and uphold the freedoms we retain under the first and fourth amendments as citizens of a constitutional democracy.
Spione shows us the importance of not remaining silent in the face of intimidation, bullying, and intense economic, social, and psychological pressure. He does this by relating the stories of whisteblowers, Jesselyn Radack, Thomas Drake, and John Kiriakou who took a stand and spoke out through proper channels (especially Drake and Radack), about what was illegal and counter to the public interest, despite their superiors’ injunctions and the intelligence community’s reprisals to bully them into silence. In their first-person accounts, these heroic, brave Americans discuss how they risked their lives, their emotional and mental well being, and their financial security to bring the rest of us the truth about the overarching power of the national security state and the freedom usurping intelligence community as the arm of political and bureaucratic hegemony.
Through Spione’s masterful editing and seamless narrative moving from account to account, Radack, Drake, and Kiriakou relate their shock in the recognition that they were being used as co-conspirators and accomplices in covert wrongdoing held in place by a vast network of systemic corruption. They knew of the tremendous complications they faced if they were going to go through inside channels and speak out against what they were seeing to identify the actions as wrongdoing. The covert acts had the appearance of legality and those in the intelligence community operated under their own folkways and mores apart from the American republic’s principles, values, and laws. To the intelligence community and the justice system that worked in concert, “might was right;” anything they did was legal, for they they were beyond the law: they were a law unto themselves after 9-11.
Because these twisted mores reinforcing the corrupt system remained in the shadows and were not in the light of public scrutiny, the NSA and Justice Department did what they pleased, breaking the laws that would have been used to imprison ordinary Americans. Because the network of individuals maintaining the corruption were too frightened, submissive, and weak-willed to identify the illegalities for what they were, acts violating the constitution that they had sworn to uphold, the national security state and Justice operated with impunity in darkness, unbeknownst to the public. The media, rather than to function independently as a check and balance to overarching government with the finest of investigative reporting, was weak-willed. It subverted its social contract and the public trust by toadying to institutional power, until Radack, Drake, and Kiriakou stepped into the light of day and identified what was going on. The media could not ignore them; however, they worked in concert with the “powers that be” against the whistleblowers.
In one instance a reporter identified Radack’s name in print, despite assuring Radack that she would be used as an anonymous source. Is this the state of our democracy’s “free, independent press?” The overall ethic being expressed to these whistleblowers and future potential whistleblowers was “silence was golden,” and there would be hell to pay if they opened their mouths.
The great resistance these three experienced in the form of character assassination and other reprisals to silence and destroy them is an important segment of the documentary. Radack who was the former Justice Department lawyer who challenged the Bush Administration’s treatment of American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, lost her job, was ostracized by former friends, faced financial ruin, and suffered a miscarriage after learning she might face criminal charges. Drake, a senior official at the NSA after years of whistleblowing through inside channels and Congress, revealed unclassified information to a reporter at The Baltimore Sun about the existence of “ThinThread,” a constitutionally legal, brilliant and cost effective surveillance program which the NSA had summarily rejected, instead choosing hugely expensive, blanket surveillance programs that spied on American citizens. Kiriakou, former Chief of Counterterrorist Operations in Pakistan, had the temerity to be televised disagreeing with the use of waterboarding and eventually was set up by media and a reporter who turned him over to the Justice Department instead of maintaining his anonymity.
Spione chronicles how Kiriakou and Drake were investigated, surveilled, monitored, arrested, lost their high paying jobs, faced character assassination and economic ruin as they went to trial and fought their charges brought under the Espionage Act of 1917 which does not differentiate between loyal American whistleblowers exposing governmental wrongdoing, and others. The charges against Drake were dropped because of the intense public scrutiny and support by the Government Accountability Project. Kiriakou chose to plea bargain and received 30 months in jail because of the exorbitant legal costs and for the sake of his children. None in the intelligence community or Justice Department supported or stood with Radack, Drake, and Kiriakou; they were considered anathema. These whistleblowers were considered wrongdoers to the national security state, the Justice Department and the two administrations. They were not allowed to show that the public trust was being violated and American constitutional freedoms were being eroded and eliminated. Instead of raising the issues presented to inform debate, instead of opposing the overarching power domination by questioning it, instead of educating the public, instead of investigating other possible violations enacted by the security state, instead of encouraging whistleblowers, the mainstream media flatlined.
The import of the message of Spione’s documentary demands that we consider and reflect upon vital questions about our social contract with each other, the media and our government. First, why hasn’t the mainstream media upheld its part of the contract by seeking out the truth and revealing it despite political pressure not to do so, making sure to protect the anonymity of whistleblowers in the process? To what extent is the media’s reluctance to engage in solid investigative reporting a demonstration that it is not free and independent? To what extent has the media become more of an arm of institutional power, in effect a media that censors vital news to keep Americans in the dark about shadow government? Should we accept the rationale that it is justifiable for the NSA, the Justice Department, and other branches of the intelligence community to act with impunity, to act beyond the reach of the constitution, to act beyond the reach of justice becoming a law unto themselves?
By examining how Jesselyn Radack, Thomas Drake, and John Kiriakou exposed the systemic corruption, waste, mismanagement, constitutional violations, and the collusion of the mainstream media to hide these truths, James Spione has sounded the alarm. The film reveals that individual Americans are the last force for good in an overarching, political miasma bloated by inefficiency, waste, and corruption which is disappearing American principles, freedoms and privileges. If the government and “free” media and press have stopped functioning, and the power in the shadows has taken over, only American heroes, whistleblowers like Radack, Drake, and Kiriakou can remind us of how to keep our government accountable: speaking out, defying the “silence is golden” rule and protesting injustice and wrongdoing whenever, wherever. Edmund Burke said, “For evil to flourish, good men do nothing.” Spione is asking us to consider where we stand as Americans as he provokes us to act as the “good” individuals Burke adjured us to be.
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