Donald Trump’s Administration Is Reportedly Weaponizing The Surveillance State To Target Whistleblowers

A van with a billboard in support of American whistleblower Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is driven around Westminster on April 3, 2019 in London, England.
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A new report by computer security engineer Micah Lee for The Intercept claims that Donald Trump’s administration is targeting government whistleblowers using laws such as the 1917 Espionage Act. According to Lee, the people charged are often normal workers ⁠— not spies ⁠— that are targeted using surveillance technology, which is supposed to catch espionage, watch for interference from foreign entities, and to better enforce United States criminal law.

Lee outlines situations in which government officials may make concerning discoveries that push them to search government databases for more information. For example, the discovery of the FBI’s use of “hidden loopholes” to infiltrate political and religious groups, which effectively lets the agency bypass its own rules. Although these people work under security clearances that require a promise to “never [to] divulge classified information to anyone,” the information whistleblowers disclose is often disturbing and sheds a light on troubling or publicly harmful government activity.

While there are some protections for whistleblowers, many of these people are punished for speaking out. The Intercept reports that there are four cases during the Trump era in which whistleblowers have been charged using the Espionage Act. In these cases, the whistleblowers were reportedly not given the opportunity to defend themselves.

“The act is blind to the possibility that the public’s interest in learning of government incompetence, corruption, or criminality might outweigh the government’s interest in protecting a given secret,” Jameel Jaffer, head of the Knight First Amendment Institute, wrote in a New Yorker piece.

“It is blind to the difference between whistle-blowers and spies.”

One of the strangest cases of whistleblowing in the Trump era is former CIA software developer Joshua Schulte, who is accused of leaking CIA documents and hacking tools. After the FBI confiscated Schulte’s desktop computer, phone, and other devices, the agency claims to have discovered images of child sexual abuse on his computer and chat logs of him discussing child sexual abuse images. The 30-year-old is facing child pornography charges as well as espionage charges, although he pleaded not guilty to all of them.

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Per Cyberscoop, Schulte claims that the U.S. Department of Justice has violated his civil rights. According to court documents filed in April, he has suffered “irreparable harm from torture imposed by the Federal Terrorists” and claims that he must be released so he can prepare a legal defense.

But not all whistleblowers are successfully muzzled. The Guardian reports that a former climate scientist for the National Park Service, Maria Caffrey, was able to testify before Congress that she was unable to publish data about the potential flooding of coastal parks due to sea-level rise.

“Politics has no place in science,” Caffrey said in a Guardian op-ed. “I am an example of the less discussed methods the administration is using to destroy scientific research. I wasn’t fired and immediately told to leave; instead they sought retribution by discretely using governmental bureaucracy to apply pressure and gradually cut funding.”