During President Barack Obama’s presidency, a record number of government employees have been prosecuted for leaking or blowing the whistle. Several of them have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that was intended to be used against spies and not for punishing people who disclose information without authorization. Simultaneously, the amount of information being kept secret by the government has increased exponentially while the United States expands the reach of its global security state.
Silenced immerses viewers in this world.
The film, directed by James Spione, tells the personal stories of three whistleblowers—former NSA employee Thomas Drake, former Justice Department employee Jesselyn Radack and former CIA officer John Kiriakou. These three stories are likely familiar to those that regularly read Firedoglake, however, no piece of writing here at FDL has offered the intimacy that Spione’s film powerfully achieves.
Drake blew the whistle on NSA surveillance and what the government should have known prior to 9/11. Radack blew the whistle on how John Walker Lindh (“American Taliban”) was being treated when she uncovered evidence that the Justice Department was trying to conceal how it had violated his due process rights. Kiriakou blew the whistle when he said on ABC News in 2007 that waterboarding was torture and it was part of Bush administration policy.
Spione draws the audience into the lives of these whistleblowers. He demonstrates they are not government drones but thinking and breathing intelligent people with families and children. And consciences too.
The emotional arcs of each of their stories combine to show the merciless nature of the government in their commitment to making an example out of whistleblowers who challenge the abuse or misconduct of institutions. The very real impact on the families of each of these people is depicted and recounted on screen.
Spione developed a rapport with Drake, Kiriakou and Radack, like all good documentary filmmakers must do. This made the three whistleblowers comfortable with opening up and describing very intimate aspects of their struggle so viewers could truly begin to grasp what someone means when they say President Obama has engaged in a war on whistleblowers.
The crucial role of media in these cases is given attention as well. For Drake, he says it was a “saving grace.” Part of what contributed to his case collapsing was the coverage from “60 Minutes,” an editorial from the Washington Post against his prosecution and a feature story in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. (That story is a major part of how Spione discovered what was happening to him.)
One of the more remarkable scenes in the film is when NBC anchor of “The Today Show,” Savannah Guthrie, is interviewing Kiriakou just after he has been sentenced to time in prison. Many of Guthrie’s questions seem to come straight from a government prosecutor.
The full interview is online, however, Spione was granted access to bring a camera into the studio while the interview was happening. He was able to capture the aggressive nature of Guthrie’s interview right up to where she whispers, “Take care,” just after grilling Kiriakou on television.
The sequence raises the question: Is it really the job of a media anchor to litigate the government’s case or should she have had someone from the Justice Department on the show if this is really what she wanted to talk about? Because in this moment when Kiriakou had rare access to the court of public opinion, the scene in the film shows Guthrie impeding his effort to argue he is a whistleblower and should be pardoned.
Finally, with Citizenfour, the documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden by Laura Poitras, screening in select theaters, it is worth briefly comparing the two films. Citizenfour provides a remarkable glimpse at what goes through the mind of a whistleblower, as he is making split-second decisions that will determine how the public responds or does not respond to his disclosures of information and whether he remains free. That real-time drama was not captured on video for Silenced. On the other hand, Silenced does a better job of presenting the war on whistleblowers as it has unfolded during Obama’s presidency. The way the film is structured also is better, making it easier for people who know very little about this topic to understand the issues whistleblowers in America face.