Despite currently serving a thirty-month prison sentence, John Kiriakou’s presence was deeply felt this weekend during Tribeca Film Festival's screening of "Silenced," a documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker James Spione. The film follows Kiriakou’s account of learning of and exposing the CIA’s use of torture as well as his subsequent trial and guilty verdict for disclosing classified files to a reporter. His wife was present at the post-screening panel to read, on his behalf, a statement in which he maintains his unstirred devotion to his country and its democratic ideals.
In addition to providing the significant details on his case as well as those of fellow whistleblower Thomas Drake and their legal advisor Jesselyn Radack, the film gives a personal context to the process and aftermath of whistleblowing. It felt fitting, then, to have Kiriakou’s wife become emotional at the letter’s mention of their son’s suffering from nausea as a result of missing his dad. The film-subjects display a deep bond apparent not only in their shared political principles and courage but too in their personable, warm interactions. The stern, well-spoken Drake told us that he considers Kiriakou as a brother, and Radack is seen in the film holding his arm before his trial and giving him a big hug the day before reporting to prison.
The audience was mostly sympathetic to the whistleblowers, applauding them for their sacrifices—among them risking financial ruin, imprisonment, and depression. Yet the post-screening Q&A, moderated by Pulitzer Prize winning Barton Gellman, brought out the critics.
Radack, who lost her job and was targeted as a criminal after she discovered and protested the Department of Justice’s cover-up of ethics violations in its interrogation of John Walker Lindh, gave a spirited answer to one such critic who demanded a justification for leaking classified documents. She highlighted the ways in which government leaks are only considered criminal activity when they reveal damning information on the government. Leaks happen all the time, she said, but they are done purposefully to condemn an enemy or praise an achievement from within the government or army. The full weight of the Department of Justice does not come down on the “leaker” unless what is leaked risks a positive, manufactured image of government.
When someone insisted that Snowden had "gone too far" and questioned
where we draw the line between acceptable whistleblower behavior and what
should be punished, Radack defended Snowden’s actions, claiming he had handed
over invaluable information to the press and left it to the media to decide
what the people should or should not know.
The eloquent, composed Thomas Drake was also on hand to set the critics straight. "Silenced" too documents his struggles to first fight the corruption from within the NSA and later, after being discharged and turning to the media, be targeted as a spy and charged with violations under the Espionage Act. His criminal case was dismissed after media outlets rose to his defense and there was no clear evidence found to condemn him. In the Q&A, he – as a former NSA official commissioned to find faults in the NSA’s handling of September 11th-related intelligence prior to the attacks – assured us that the NSA had had substantial evidence of the attacks and yet failed to communicate it in any significant way as to prevent it from taking place. The NSA, he insisted, to this day refuses to admit to any wrongdoing or responsibility in the matter.
One man asked why he should care about NSA surveillance when the most they’ll have on him is playing one too many games on Facebook. The unflinchingly sharp Drake responded with a well-known quotation, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear"—courtesy of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister. That was enough to draw applause and close the discussion on why we “innocents” should care about violations of privacy.
The night ended with a question for Spione, whose previous film "Incident in New Baghdad" had been nominated for an Academy Award. When asked if he considered showing the government’s "side" of the issue, Spione immediately began to shake his head and confidently said, "No." "I wanted to show the subjective experience of these people, which had not before been seen in this way." He concluded with wise words everyone should remember: "Frankly, if you want the perspective of the government, turn on the TV."
"Silenced" is a documentary feature currently in competition at the
Tribeca Film Festival. It premiered this past Saturday, along with a
panel discussion with the filmmaker and subjects, and can be seen again
this Thursday, at 2:30pm.