What Will Be the Costs of Whistleblowing in Trump’s America When They Were Already Extreme Under Obama?

Drone whistleblower Daniel in the documentary “National Bird.” Photo by Torsten Lapp courtesy of FilmRise.

It was around four in the morning when I received the phone call. “I was raided by the FBI,” said a trembling voice on the other end. “I need help.”

I was immediately alarmed. I was in the middle of production of a highly risky investigation into the U.S. drone war, and I had gained exclusive access to film with two whistleblowers who wanted to go on the record about their experiences in the drone program. The voice on the phone belonged to one of them, and my research would later become the documentary film “National Bird.”

When I answered the phone, I was at a veterans’ convention near Denver and had just established contact with a third whistleblower.

I reached out to Jesselyn Radack, a prominent attorney who has represented Edward Snowden and other important whistleblowers. It became clear that my protagonist had become the target of a secret investigation for espionage.

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As an investigative journalist who has worked on military and national security issues for over a decade, I understand the risk of reporting in this area. I also comprehend the need for secrecy to protect sensitive government information, such as nuclear technologies or troop movements.

But during the last eight years of President Obama’s administration, our First Amendment rights have been so seriously undermined that it is threatening our democracy.

It has been widely reported that under Obama’s leadership more whistleblowers have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act than in all previous administrations combined. But there is no knowing how many times this law has been used to investigate, raid, and intimidate whistleblowers in secret, like the protagonist in my film.

Considering that whistleblowing means to expose waste, fraud, abuse, crime and other illegal activity, this development is alarming. It has also opened a pathway to even more dangerous civil rights abuses during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Sonia Kennebeck
Sonia Kennebeck, director and producer of “National Bird.” Photo by Torsten Lapp courtesy of FilmRise.

And it is not only the whistleblowers who have become targets, but journalists as well. James Risen and Laura Poitras were subject to public investigations and searches, but every reporter and filmmaker is affected by electronic surveillance and the storage of data, which could potentially be used against them and their sources. To know that the new administration — or any subsequent administration for that matter — will have all this information at its fingertips should concern us all.

Already today we are seeing that the Snowden revelations have a chilling effect on public expression. A survey by the writers’ alliance PEN America found that one in six authors who filled out the questionnaire had censored themselves by not writing or speaking on a topic that they thought would subject them to surveillance. Another one in six have seriously considered such self-censorship.

This should be a grave concern for all citizens who believe in a democratic society with freedom of expression and a functioning independent media that keeps the government transparent and accountable.

While organizations like the ACLU and the Freedom of the Press Foundation are playing important roles in trying to protect our rights, the public has to get involved as well.

I believe most people in America want to live in a society where corruption and other illegal activities can be exposed by whistleblowers, where journalists can report free from political control, and where people do not have to be afraid to speak their minds. It is essential to push our political decision makers to value these rights and to support reporting and filmmaking that fulfills these standards. 

Heather Linebaugh
Drone whistleblower Heather Linebaugh. Photo by Torsten Lapp courtesy of FilmRise.

Especially now when the campaign and rhetoric of Donald Trump foreshadows a presidency that will suppress these rights even further.

After the raid of my protagonist’s home by the FBI, we decided in consultation with our lawyers that we would continue to film. It might be the first time that a secret espionage investigation has been captured on camera. To see the impact it has had on my protagonist is heart-wrenching. But his story also shines light on a dangerous suppression of our rights.

In the end, “National Bird” became not only a film about drones, but also about the cost of whistleblowing.

“National Bird” opened in theaters on Veterans Day 2016 and premieres on PBS’​​​​​​s Independent Lens May 1, 2017. More information is at nationalbirdfilm.com and http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/national-bird.

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The constitutional role of the U.S. Supreme Court is to interpret the letter & spirit of individual amendments. The high court doesn't have the authority to amend the meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

The 1968 U.S. Supreme Court in the so-called "War on Drugs" started this slippery slope which was then exploited further after 9/11. In "Terry v. Ohio" in 1968 the court defied the letter & spirit of the Fourth Amendment - instead of requiring a constitutional amendment which requires approval by 3/4 of all states.

To reverse this slippery slope we must first reverse the unconstitutional War on Drugs rulings.

Dan M

How true and sad.

D.S. in Louisville

You have no idea how deep this trend goes. I am a novelist in Louisville Kentucky and in late 2013 I finished my fifth novel. The novel is called Somewhere There's a Place: A Vulgar Comedy. In accord with the blatant clue in the title as to what readers can expect in the 543 pages, there is a page between the flyleaf and the title page which reads "XXX Adults 18+ Only". The book is a dark, sardonic and acerbic comedy and the four main characters are gay (two men and two women). The story involves military action, law enforcement action and national intrigue with the central characters all playing a kind of "hero's role", for lack of a better term. The man who reads all of my work before I put it out to any other readers called it "a work of genius". Well, about a week after I finished the writing of the book (and before it had been made available to be read by any other person, which is to say that it only existed on my computer at this point) I began to get harassed and, frankly, terrorized in the city I have lived in my entire life. I was getting police officers showing up everywhere I went to shop, eat, see a movie, etc. I was getting men with Confederate flags pulling up next to me at stop lights, driving by my home as a waited to pull from my driveway, parking next to me in parking lots, etc. I was getting Harley-Davidsons going by the house 20 times a day. It was quite literally as if some machine of harassment got the switch turned on due to my writing. I've also dealt with vandalism and theft of my property. This harassment got so extreme that, for the preservation of my sanity, I flew up to Alaska and stayed with a friend for three months in a tiny little town of less than 2000 people. It took me some time, in hindsight, to deduce what triggered this abuse from law enforcement and these groups of Confederate flaggers and Harley riders. My whole life has been vastly different since I finished my fifth novel. Not sure how much worse it could get under Trump. Someone would have to put a bullet in my head to ramp up the terrorizing and all due to what I put on a page of paper in the privacy of my own home.

Mary C

Every statement made on this site is true. For 5 years, my brother, an active duty soldier has been held hostage by his own commanders right Walter Reed hospital for Whistleblowing about illegal activities he witnessed while stationed in Korea. It all makes sense now! Even with all of the proof( e.g. recording, video, audio, ema, etc...he has been refused a whistle blower protection order. However, he was given the infamous"delusional" status and is now in the psych ward at Walter Reed.
I filed so many federal complaints and interestingly they all got " shut down" closed abruptly although we have irrefutable proof. As a result of my complaint on my brothers behalf, Ive been hacked, phone taped, and stalked for about 6 months now.


I have an open complaint against our two local police departments filed with the FBI. It's a Denial of Rights Under Color of Law complaint that I filed at our local FBI field office on 11/15. I also faxed a copy of the complaint to the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. and spoke by phone with a staffer in the Civil Rights Division to confirm they received my fax. I haven't heard back from anyone yet. I'm keeping my hopes up though. Sometimes bureaucracies turn slowly. I am sorry for what you are going through with your brother's and your own life. I send you many positive wishes for the situation to right itself and improve.


The "War on Drugs" was arguably if not in terms of explicit intent, a response to the Voting Rights Act. See https://www.aclu.org/other/drug-war-new-jim-crow. People "convicted" of drug offesnes have a felony record and can't vote in many places. What if unruly political protest, such as moving outside the "protest zone" were also made a felony offense? These people would also be ineligible to vote in the same places. Thomas Jefferson once wrote "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Maybe that time is upon us.

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