Thomas Drake, a life-long military man and federal employee, stands accused of betraying his country. His crime? He blew the whistle through proper government channels on massive fraud, waste and abuse within the National Security Agency.
Wendell Potter had a high-paying job as a spokesman in the insurance industry when he had an epiphany—our health care system, the one he was a part of, was allowing corporate America to get away with murder. He has since become an outspoken critic of the insurance industry.
For their courage to speak truth to power, Drake and Potter, along with former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold and the team that produced the documentary Budrus, were honored Wednesday afternoon at the 8th annual Ridenhour Prizes in Washington, D.C.
The awards are given to those who exemplify the courage and truth-telling of the late Ron Ridenhour, the former U.S. Army helicopter gunner who exposed the My Lai Massacre based on accounts he had heard from fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War. As many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese villagers—many of them women, children and the elderly—were killed during the mass murder on March 16, 1968.
After he finished his tour in Vietnam, Ridenhour, who later became an award-winning investigative journalist, wrote letters to 30 Members of Congress, telling them about the massacre—an effort that eventually led to congressional hearings and one criminal conviction.
Wednesday's award winners and presenters paid homage to Ridenhour's legacy.
Drake, who received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, was defiant as he awaits trial on espionage charges.
"Whistleblowing has become espionage ... dissent has become the mark of a traitor," Drake said. "As an American, I will not live in silence to cover for the government's sins.
"This is not the America we are supposed to be."
Potter, who won the Ridenhour Book Prize for his nonfiction work Deadly Spin, spoke about how he sold his soul for a high-paying job. Now, Potter's criticism of the insurance industry carries the weight of someone who knows the business from the inside.
"The less they spend on our care, the more they can spend on the salaries of their CEOs," Potter said.
It was the death of 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan that brought it home for him. His former employer, CIGNA, denied her a life-saving kidney transplant, even after a perfect match was found. The bad publicity about their decision spurred the company to reverse itself, but it was too late for Nataline, who died two hours after the company's change of heart.
Many in the audience at the National Press Club were moved to tears as Nataline's mother, Hilda Sarkisyan, presented the award to Potter. Sarkisyan, who has formed a nonprofit in Nataline's memory, has vowed not to stop fighting until the law that allowed CIGNA to deny Nataline coverage is overturned.
Julia Bacha, Ronit Avni, one of the producers of Budrus, a film about the peaceful Palestinian struggle for self-determination, said that she hoped the Ridenhour Documentary Film Award would help bring attention to the under-told story of the non-violent Palestinian movement.
Feingold was honored with the Ridenhour Courage Prize. Feingold, who lost re-election in 2010, built a reputation of integrity and always voting his values, even if it meant bucking his Democratic colleagues. Since leaving office, he has founded Progressives United, a nonprofit that is standing up to the deleterious effects of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which opened the door for unlimited corporate spending in our elections.
Feingold warned that the country is entering the "second gilded age" where Wall Street's power and wealth are stark threats to our Democracy.