INTERVIEW: War on Whistleblowers' director Robert Greenwald
"Here are people who are putting it on the line, and who don't have a lot to gain, unless you believe in things like values, truth, and democracy"
War on Whistleblowers, a documentary by Brave New Foundation, premieres this week in Washington, D.C., and New York City. The film explores whistleblowing in concept and practice, and profiles five men in recent years who have suffered great loss to expose wrongdoing and corruption in the American deep state.
The documentary moves at a thoughtful pace, and introduces viewers to the surprisingly profound dilemma that would-be whistleblowers face, and the hard path that follows once the decision is made. The men and women who have exposed fraud, waste, and abuse by government and industry don't begin their journeys as implacable moral paragons or as known nemeses of the military-industrial complex. Rather, they are regular people who are suddenly faced with impossible decisions. The "right thing" is invariably a direct line to unemployment, industry blacklisting, financial ruin, and increasingly, criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act.
One whistleblower profiled in the film is Thomas Tamm, a former attorney for the Justice Department. After learning of the government's warrantless wiretapping program, Tamm went up the chain in hopes of convincing someone to put a stop to the blatantly illegal and unconstitutional program. He was eventually told to "just assume what is being done is illegal," and was instructed to drop the issue. Faced with no other choice, he became a whistleblower to the New York Times.
The professional consequences go without saying, but his recollection of the personal toll was perhaps the most moving moment of the film. Tamm recounted the egregious FBI raid on his home, saying, "18 agents, some of them in body armor, I'm told, had been banging on the front door, and my dog was barking. My wife was still in her bathrobe, and they were yelling at her, 'Show us your hands!' and things like that. And then when she opened the door, all 18 came in fairly quickly, all went to pre-assigned spots, and went up and woke my other two kids in bed, told them to get dressed."
The agents seized documents and electronics, and questioned Tamm's family about New York Times reporters. The government threatened to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. But after all that, to include the crushing of Tamm's career and a costly investigation that lasted over four years, no charges were filed, and the case was dropped. Thomas Drake, a whistleblower at the National Security Agency who endured a similar personal, professional, and financial assault, put the matter most succinctly: "Speaking truth to power is now a criminal act."
Robert Greenwald, the director and producer of War on Whistleblowers, was kind enough to speak with me and discuss what went into the film's creation, and the heroic whistleblowers who are defending liberty, and very often, saving lives. Here's a (slightly edited) transcript:
What motivated you to make the film?
The film started when I was reading about the crackdown on whistleblowers and especially those whistleblowers associated with the national security state. Connecting the dots is what we try to do with all of our films, and we wanted people to understand that the state wasn't just going after the occasional person. It was systemic and it was driven by the national security state. But what was a wonderful surprise to me was that every single whistleblower we talked to was very clear they ran up against a brick wall, they went to the press, and that made an enormous difference. And so the movie evolved, and turned out, in a way, as a valentine to journalism, which is under attack financially and in so many ways. Here I found such important and specific examples of the value of the press, of getting these important stories out there.
As you made the film, what most surprised you about the state of the national security state?
I had previously read Dana Priest and William Arkin's book, so I knew the numbers. But I think what surprised me is the way the sheer size and scope of the national security state influences so much of what we see in the newspaper each day, of what we read about and what we know about, and what these whistleblowers were taking on when they went up against them.
What most surprised you when meeting with whistleblowers and learning their stories firsthand?
The fact that each and every one of them was seriously conflicted about what they did. They knew it was important to do and they pursued a path they felt was essential, but they seemed surprisingly aware of the price that they were going to pay, and yet they went ahead anyway.
Whistleblowers are paying a tremendous price for speaking out. But they're speaking out because they're ultimately driven, both emotionally and personally, by the need to do the right thing. And that's a rare, rare breed in a universe, or in a culture, where there is always a sense of, "Well, I need to be careful. I need to protect myself." Here are people who are putting it on the line, and who don't have a lot to gain, unless you believe in things like values, truth, and democracy.
How can policymakers better protect whistleblowers?
For starters, do no harm. We explore this in the film. Historically, a whistleblower will expose an ill, and our elected officials respond by trying to silence the whistleblower rather than fixing the ill. So I'd say the first step would be to stop passing horrific laws that really serve only to put black masking tape over the words of whistleblowers.
The second thing would be for policymakers to truly understand that these men and women are really serving everything democracy is about. There's that great saying — "Democracy is not a spectator sport" — and here are people living it, practicing it, and willing to pay a price for it. We should be celebrating them and giving them dinners and awards.
This is not an easy issue from an advocacy standpoint. It's not something people get up in the morning thinking about. "Gee what can I do about whistleblowers, and how can I protect investigative journalism?" So with the film, we're trying to get the word out there, and to help people understand that there are fundamental questions in need of answers.
With kind of advocacy success are you finding, and what do you have planned for War on Whistleblowers?
One of the things I'm almost as proud of as the content of the films is that at Brave New Foundation, we always work very hard to stay ahead on the distribution side. For our films, we started by selling DVDs, then we did house parties, then we did short videos and social media. With this film we have our most ambitious distribution plan yet. There will be premieres in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, each followed by panel discussions. There will be theatrical openings in New York and Los Angeles. The film will be available through digital distribution — we'll have it available through Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and iTunes. There will be a college outreach in the fall, and house parties with different groups and organizations that are focused on the issue, and screenings for elected officials and staffers. And it's going to be sold in 15 different countries around the world. So with all of those pieces, we've been working on distribution, and with every film we get a little better at it, we try something new and different, and on this one we've been able to bring all the pieces together.