Remember George W. Bush? Your memory might be hazy. He doesn’t come around much anymore. During the last election, the Republican National Committee kept him locked in a room. These days he likes painting childlike self-portraits in the tub. And Lord knows that brush on his Crawford ranch isn’t going to clear itself.
Long before anyone ever heard of Edward Snowden, Dubya was using the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens in violation of federal law. Barack Obama ran on a platform of reversing Bush’s policies, and the country couldn’t vote him into office fast enough.
The resulting delirium was felt beyond our borders. In Oslo, for example, members of the Nobel Committee entered Obama’s nomination for the 2009 Peace Prize before he’d held office for two weeks. His 12 days as humankind’s beacon of hope, in fact, included a day off, two weekends and a Super Bowl Sunday. People were really happy change was coming.
And things did change. To the shock and awe of supporters, Obama didn’t just continue many of his predecessor’s most reviled programs and policies, he expanded them. Hope evaporated as he increased domestic spying, waged drone warfare on an unprecedented scale, failed to close Guantanamo, raised the number of troops in Afghanistan, deported record numbers of immigrants and conducted a campaign of intimidation against journalists, causing “a chilling effect on news gathering,” according to the Associated Press. As filmmaker Robert Greenwald (Koch Brothers Exposed) makes clear in his shocking new documentary, the president took a special interest in making life hell for anybody who felt compelled to spill the beans on government wrongdoing.
The film doesn’t so much unfold as detonate. It’s a swift kick in the pants at 66 minutes and utilizes a deft blend of archival footage, graphs, subject interviews and bites from knowledgeable talking heads such as David Carr, Seymour Hersh and the original whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg. A fun fact: “The Obama administration has indicted more people for violating secrecy than all previous administrations put together.” That’s not some conspiracy crank talking. It’s Bill Keller, Pulitzer-winning former editor of the New York Times.
Greenwald chronicles the sagas of four individuals — Michael DeKort, Thomas Drake, Franz Gayl and Thomas Tamm — with one experience in common: They discovered malfeasance within the government, reported the information to their superiors, were ignored and ultimately went to the press. OK, two experiences in common: The ordeal left their lives in tatters.
Imagine a movie with four Karen Silkwood (Silkwood) or Jeffrey Wigands (The Insider), and you have an idea of how inspiring yet dispiriting this picture proves to be. After all, the bad guy isn’t a corner-cutting plutonium plant or Big Tobacco; he’s the hoop-shooting idealist we made the most powerful person on the planet. Oops.
It’s hard to believe things have gotten so Orwellian so fast, just when they were supposed to get better, but Greenwald has done his homework. His film has just been released on DVD, and I strongly recommend it. You’re not going to see a lot about Obama’s attack on whistleblowers or on the press anywhere else. Journalists are understandably hesitant to comment. The filmmaker will even send you a copy free if you promise to watch it with friends. Google it. This may be as close to a “free press” as we get for a while.
And about that Nobel Prize: This spring a campaign was launched urging the committee to revoke it. As of Sunday, more than 23,000 people had signed the online petition. Want to bet we don’t see a lot about that on CNN anytime soon?