seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

A Whistleblowing Patriot

Occasionally, ordinary people find the strength to do something extraordinary. During the Vietnam war, Daniel Ellsburg discovered a wealth of information that the government knew the war was a disaster but would not reveal the hopelessness to the American people -- sentencing thousands of American troops to their death (supposedly in the act of defending our freedom). At great risk to himself, he smuggled the evidence out of the RAND Corporation and got it the New York Times. They eventually published excerpts - called the Pentagon Papers - that forced substantial changes in policy.

Some regard Ellsburg as a hero and others undoubtedly as a traitor. I consider him a patriot - someone who has the strength to act against the government in the best interest of the people. Thomas Tamm is a similar patriot who deserves to be honored - and treated with as much respect as any other person who puts the welfare of the many above himself at great risk to himself. Newsweek ran "The Whistleblower Who Exposed Warrantless Wiretaps."

In the spring of 2004, Tamm had just finished a yearlong stint at a Justice Department unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies—a unit so sensitive that employees are required to put their hands through a biometric scanner to check their fingerprints upon entering. While there, Tamm stumbled upon the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency program that seemed to be eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. The unit had special rules that appeared to be hiding the NSA activities from a panel of federal judges who are required to approve such surveillance. When Tamm started asking questions, his supervisors told him to drop the subject. He says one volunteered that "the program" (as it was commonly called within the office) was "probably illegal."

We are supposed to be a nation governed by the rule of law, not the whim of man. The Bush Administration -- aided and abetted by an army of right-wing pants-crappers (at the fear that some terrorist might someday hurt someone) and chickenshit Democrats who are only interested in upholding the Constitution if they see political gain in it -- chose to ignore the rule of law, secretly declare the Constitution null and void, and begin wiretapping anyone they wanted to. For years, no one outside of a few selected officials knew about it.

But Tamm found out and alerted others. And, as you would expect, he is paying a price for it. Ironically, some insist that he has broken the law and therefore must be punished -- a conclusion they do not extend to those in the government who violated the law by illegally wiretapping untold numbers of Americans. Congress has extended retroactive immunity to the telco's that turned over our private information to the government illegally (disappointingly, Obama supported the measure while running for office) -- so it looks like the only person who will be punished for this program is the person who alerted the country to it.

Still, Tamm is haunted by the consequences of what he did—and what could yet happen to him. He is no longer employed at Justice and has been struggling to make a living practicing law. He does occasional work for a local public defender's office, handles a few wills and estates—and is more than $30,000 in debt. (To cover legal costs, he recently set up a defense fund.) He says he has suffered from depression. He also realizes he made what he calls "stupid" mistakes along the way, including sending out a seemingly innocuous but fateful e-mail from his Justice Department computer that may have first put the FBI on his scent. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Tamm has an impish smile and a wry sense of humor. "I guess I'm not a very good criminal," he jokes.

You can mail donations to his defense fund - the address is here. I just sent a few bucks, we need to stand up for those who put themselves at risk to expose illegal activities that impact us all - especially when so few in the government are interested in upholding the rule of law.