I scanned social media headlines on my way to this year’s Ridenhour Awards at the National Press Club. The awards, which I covered last year for the Washington Monthly, have significantly elevated the profile of whistleblowers.
I was looking for a couple of issues that I thought might have grabbed Ron Ridenhour’s attention. Did the FBI’s interrogation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev help radicalize him? (The Nation). “Majority of Gitmo Detainees now on Hunger Strike” (Think Progress). But, the one that sounded the most up Ron’s alley was from Salon: “Rand Paul would’ve been OK using drones to hunt Boston suspect.”
Ron Ridenhour was the citizen soldier who blew the whistle on a US military unit’s massacre of civilians in the village of My Lai during the Vietnam War. He and I were friendly competitors in the news business in New Orleans in the late 1970’s and we worked for about a year together in radio.
The thought that Ron would have been digging into our government’s semi-open, yet secret drone policy came to me last week. I believe he would have been in the hunt long before Rand Paul’s Boston decree.
I bounced the idea off author Nirk Turse, a 2011 Ridenhour Prize winner and author of “Kill Everything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” at this year’s Awards. He readily agreed. “It’s a strange dichotomy with the drone program,” Turse said. “It’s still officially secret, but we know in the CIA gift shop, for a while, they were selling shirts that had a drone logo on it. So, it’s something that they are proud of and, when it’s convenient they keep it in the shadows. I think it’s just the kind of thing that he would want to expose.”
Ridenhour had a taste for complicated issues, like the drone war story, that don’t lend themselves to ten second sound bites, let alone today’s 140 character tweet. And as Turse notes, these deadly strikes are happening in far off lands that few of us can pronounce let alone find on a map. “They are conducted in out of the way places,” Turse said, “so it’s tough for reporters to get to, they are dangerous areas to report from.” He added, “even if you are reporting it from the United States it’s tough with two different agencies: the Department of Defense and the CIA each running their own drone war—so there’s a lot layers to peel back on this story.
Seth Rosenfeld won this year’s Ridenour Book Prize for Subversives: The FBI’ War on Student Radicals and Regan’s Rise to Power. He says you would think the Freedom of Information Act would be making it easier for today’s investigative reporters to uncover wrong doing, but he says you would be wrong.
“We live in a time of increasing government surveillance,” Rosenfeld told me, “and increasing secrecy which poses inherent problems for democracy and I think if Ron were alive today he would be focusing on these subjects.”
I believe Ron would have admired Rosenfeld’s journalistic stamina. Rosenfeld devoted 27 years going after one story, government misconduct against so called “student radicals.” The FBI spent over a million dollars trying to silence Seth and his story. He got a cheer at this year’s Ridenhour Awards when he explained that seven federal judges eventually ruled that FBI would have to fork over another million dollars in legal fees to his pro bono law team, the same team that forced the Justice Department to reveal several hundred thousand pages of formerly secret documents. To little surprise, Rosenfeld noted, his research confirms the FBI was also keeping a file on Ron Ridenhour.
This is now the tenth year that Awards have been presented in Ron’s memory. Rosenfeld believes the awards remain relevant today, especially when he says that the Obama administration has failed to deliver on early promises of transparency. “I was hopeful,” Turse said, “because one of Obama’s first acts in office was to issue a statement strongly supporting the Freedom of Information Act; apparently that memo never reached the Justice Department, because the FBI continues to unlawfully withhold public information.”
For my part, I think I knew Ron pretty well. We played handball together, just a week or two before he died on a handball court in New Orleans. If Ron were alive today, another friend and champion of his – Randy Fertel, the co-founder of the Prize – also believes that Ridenhour would have been focused on drones. He mentioned one of the potential issues facing those seeking justice in US courts. “Who are you going to indict?” Fertel asked the audience at the National Press Club, “Some guy pushing a button a Creech Air Force base?” That base in Las Vegas is one of 60 worldwide that Nick Turse was among the first to report on in a story for TomDispatch.com in 2011.
Earlier this week, the hashtag #dronewar was trending on Twitter. Who knows if Ron would have ever bothered to tweet? I do believe he would be tirelessly pursuing the story; no matter how hard it is to tell, and he might even be taking heart that social media seems to be catching on. Are drones today’s My Lai? Its impossible to tell – and that’s why truth-tellers like Ron, Seth and Nick are so indispensible.
Nick Turse, notes that Ron was more than just a journalist, he was also a soldier who learned of an atrocity and felt the need to report that wrongdoing to lawmakers in Congress.
Turse says when it comes to America’s drone wars, the nation needs that part of Ron Ridenhour, too. “The more information we get,” Turse said, “the more questions that arise. I really hope we have a Ron Ridenhour whistle blower, someone who is able to get the information on the inside and bring it to us.”
More information on the Ridenhour Prize is available at www.ridenhour.org.