A legal group of criminal defense attorneys has formed to combat what they describe as the FBI and Justice Department’s use of harassment and over-prosecution to chill and silence those who engage in journalism, Internet activism or dissent.
The group, the Whistleblower Defense League, will, according to attorney Jason Flores-Williams, defend individuals engaged in investigating the United States government and those who are “in positions to reveal truths about this government and its relationships with other governments and corporations.”
The founding members include Internet rights attorney Jay Leiderman, Dennis Roberts, an attorney who is a veteran of the civil rights movement and Flores-Williams, who is now involved in representing online activists targeted by the government’s investigation into activist and former self-proclaimed spokesperson for Anonymous, Barrett Brown.
Attorneys in the group come from an “activist tradition,” according to Flores-Williams. They have decided to form this group to defend truth-tellers and dissenters because they identify with these people. They think many of the people being subjected to over-prosecution or prosecutorial abuses of power are heroes. “We’re going to pull out every stop and use every vector available us – media and constitutionally in the courts – to defend them.” And they intend to take on not only whistleblower cases but also the cases of journalists and activists facing prosecution.
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is a part of the defense team for WikiLeaks, said in reaction to the formation of this group, “Every effort that focuses on the defense of whistleblowers, internet free speech activists, publishers and others persecuted by the US government is to be applauded. This group joins the many other members of the criminal defense bar as well as non-profits such as Electronic Frontier Foundation and Government Accountability Project, who are already defending those accused of shining light on the dark secrets of government and corporations.”
Flores-Williams acknowledges there are other organizations doing necessary work on behalf of whistleblowers and activists, “Everyone who is out [there] trying to defend whistleblowers and activists and those who engage in dissent are heroes and are doing great work.” Yet, he adds this legal group is forming because there is more attention the legal community needs to be giving to what the government is doing to go after these individuals. There needs to be “aggressive forms of litigation.”
For example, he explains that this afternoon he submitted a motion to quash a government subpoena in the Brown investigation. The government subpoenaed content delivery network and domain name server service, CloudFlare, for information about a domain. The group was contacted because the government is using the case to “virally subpoena” information “about online activists around the world by using the Barrett Brown case as justification.” They want details on domain names that he used so “people who used the domain names that Barrett Brown was associated with I now represent.”
This is what needs to be done and the type of legal action will he be looking to do. Flores-Williams adds that they intend to get in the middle of this activity by prosecutors to abuse power and go after data and information in ways that violate the First Amendment, violate basic due process rights and fundamentally invade privacy.
With the zealous prosecutions of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January, and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who recently took responsibility in a military court for disclosing information to WikiLeaks, the government is “sending a message to everyone about stepping into the role of revealing truths about power structure,” Flores declares.
“The Whistleblower Defense League and organizations like it are very important to let potential whistleblowers know they have a support network in case of retribution from the government,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation states. “They can help mitigate the chilling effect from the recent increase of prosecutions of whistleblowers who have leaked information to the press. Hopefully, the Whistleblower Defense League can give whistleblowers any added encouragement they need to step forward if they witness wrongdoing or corruption in government.”
Flores-Williams concludes, “The greatest threat to democracy is the unchecked power of prosecutors,” on both the state and federal level. “These people have the mindset that there is always some threat to the United States that they have to be going after. Prosecutors are very simple people: they believe blindly in executing the law. They don’t share that there is a human being on the other side.” In 1850, they would prosecute a slave who escaped from Mississippi so “the law can be on the wrong side” and they do not always represent justice.
As someone who regularly covers cases of activists, whistleblowers and even journalists whom the Justice Department is targeting, it is refreshing to see a group form that is willing to inject some more spirit into the struggle to defend those who exercise their rights, challenge government policies, expose misconduct or wrongdoing and then wind up being subjected to the politics of personal destruction, which so many US prosecutors appear to be embracing these days.
The Justice Department seems to have plenty of zeal and commitment to go after activists like Swartz or Brown, to target whistleblowers like CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou or NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake or to even attempt to go after someone engaged in journalism, as in the case of Matthew Keys, who worked on social media for Reuters and was recently indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act over past work he did on Anonymous.
However, the Department does not have much zeal at all when it comes after going after criminals in government who authorize and engage in torture, a war crime, and attempt to cover up their involvement by destroying evidence. They aren’t interested in making examples out of individuals contractors like Blackwater who violate weapons laws and smuggle arms, engage in obstruction of justice when under investigation or murder innocent civilians in Iraq. They certainly seem to have trouble cobbling together a case—trouble they wouldn’t have if they pursue an activist or whistleblower—when bank executives commit financial fraud at “too big to fail” corporations and face no criminal penalty.
The work of defense attorneys to combat the trend in law enforcement to use the surveillance state to investigate activists and whistleblowers and then pass information on to the Justice Department for targeting is more important than ever. And the more groups there are out there vigorously defending victims of prosecutorial misconduct and abuses of government power, the better off citizens in this society will be.