How not to become a whistle-blower

The New York Times reports:

When Shamai K. Leibowitz, an F.B.I. translator, was sentenced to 20 months in prison last year for leaking classified information to a blogger, prosecutors revealed little about the case. They identified the blogger in court papers only as “Recipient A.” After Mr. Leibowitz pleaded guilty, even the judge said he did not know exactly what Mr. Leibowitz had disclosed.

“All I know is that it’s a serious case,” Judge Alexander Williams Jr., of United States District Court in Maryland, said at the sentencing in May 2010. “I don’t know what was divulged other than some documents, and how it compromised things, I have no idea.”

Now the reason for the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the Obama administration’s first prosecution for leaking information to the news media seems clear: Mr. Leibowitz, a contract Hebrew translator, passed on secret transcripts of conversations caught on F.B.I. wiretaps of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Those overheard by the eavesdroppers included American supporters of Israel and at least one member of Congress, according to the blogger, Richard Silverstein.

In his first interview about the case, Mr. Silverstein offered a rare glimpse of American spying on a close ally.

He said he had burned the secret documents in his Seattle backyard after Mr. Leibowitz came under investigation in mid-2009, but he recalled that there were about 200 pages of verbatim records of telephone calls and what seemed to be embassy conversations. He said that in one transcript, Israeli officials discussed their worry that their exchanges might be monitored.

Those same officials are probably now chuckling as they read this story.

A story that could have shed much needed on light on the extent of the Israeli government’s influence in Congress is instead now a story about the FBI tied up with a blogging melodrama. Moreover, the ability for the FBI to continue conducting this kind of surveillance may well have been impaired.

Predictably, there are commentators who see this as an opportunity to attack the FBI and defend Israel.

Jacob Heilbrunn writes:

Should the FBI, then, be spying on embassy conversations? Much of it is probably a waste of time and resources, which includes having to punish Leibowitz for transgressing the law. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has made no secret of his desire to take out Iran’s facilities. What Israeli leader wouldn’t want to do so—if the costs didn’t exceed the benefits? It doesn’t require monitoring the phones of the Israeli embassy to figure that out.

Oh. And we can take it as a given that such a cost-benefit analysis conducted by Israel would reach a conclusion that also served US interests?

The reason the US government sees the need to closely monitor the clandestine activities of Israel inside the United States is precisely because the interests of the two governments do not perfectly overlap.

As for Shamai K. Leibowitz — who Heilbrunn refers to as a “self-appointed whistle-blower” (is there any other kind?) — I have my doubts whether he really was a whistle-blower of any kind.

Anyone who has sensitive information that they believe as a matter of conscience needs to get into the public domain should choose their outlet carefully. A leak that goes up in smoke creates more mystery than revelation.

Did Leibowitz like the idea of becoming a whistle-blower but then had second thoughts when he realized he could end up in jail? Or was he one blogger sharing some hot information with another blogger without thinking carefully about where this might lead?

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3 thoughts on “How not to become a whistle-blower

  1. Colm O' Toole

    It’s a murky one and hard to tell what’s really going on with it. Some Questions:

    1) What was the FBI doing wiretapping the Israeli Embassy in Washington? Also is that even legal to wiretap a foreign embassy?

    2) Why did Silverstein burn all the records in his backyard in Seattle after he found out that the person who leaked it was under Investigation. Is this not obstruction of justice, destroying evidence?

    3) Leibowitz motives are unknown. He could have deliberately leaked the information to highlight that the FBI was wiretapping the Israeli embassy and collapse the case. Why just leak it to one blogger and not a major network or wikileaks or the US Office of Special Council (where leaks of criminal behaviour are supposed to go). The goal of whistblowing is to alert the public but the public doesn’t know anything about what these documents contained other than its exposed an FBI wiretap.

    4) Also fairly light sentence, 20 months, given that the contents were so secret not even the judge knew what was in them. Leibowitz was sentenanced in May of 2010 so likely he is due to be released soon. Bradley Manning was also arrested in May of 2010 and he hasn’t even been tried and is facing a life sentenence.

  2. Richard Silverstein

    It would be nice in your reporting on this story if you might’ve been willing to put yourself in the shoes of both Leibowitz & myself & the resources & knowledge we had at the time, instead of using 20/20 hindsight to judge what ended up happening.

    You also lose track of the fact that the NY Times has reported on the substance of highly a highly dubious political campaign within the U.S. That seems to have slipped your attention.

    Further, I destroyed the documents BEFORE Shamai was indicted & before he or I knew he was under investigation (that is the only error in the NY Times rpt) & did so at his specific request. In fact, everything I did in 2009 was in direct consultation with him and under his direction or with his approval. Though I have had no contact with him since before his indictment and my decision to go public was mine alone.

  3. Paul Woodward

    Richard — “The FBI has been caught out spying on one of America’s allies.” This is how the BBC leads its interview with you. You might want to cast this as a story about the efforts of two bloggers to prevent a war against Iran. The problem is, you did not as far as I’m aware reveal any information about Israel’s efforts to prepare for such a war. If there was evidence of that in the transcripts, why wouldn’t you have published it? But if there was no such evidence then I guess the documents had more value as a pile of ashes.

    As it stands, this is a story about wiretapping and a blogger who craves publicity. The only people who have good reason to be satisfied about the way this has played out are the Israelis.

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