© Josh Sager – June 2012
In recent years, there have been a series of very high profile whistleblowers revealing information about the government’s secret programs. These whistleblowers have a wide range of backgrounds and revealed a variety of secret and controversial programs. Here are a few examples:
Bradley Manning: A Private in the US Army who released numerous secret cables and video evidence of American soldiers committing war crimes. When he was exposed, Manning was detained, held in inhumane conditions (according to both the UN and our own military), and charged under the Espionage Act—currently, he is on trial and is likely to spend decades, if not the rest of his life, in jail.
John Kiriakou: A CIA agent who had knowledge of the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) program and who became a source for several journalists. After he released information about instances of torture, including the identities of several agents who had tortured, he was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act. After legal proceedings began, Kiriakou eventually pled down to a sentence of 2½ years in prison—he is now currently serving his sentence.
Edward Snowden: An independent contractor working for the government defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden released proof about several government spying programs to the media (Glen Greenwald and The Guardian). The programs that he revealed represent a huge data-mining program that is aimed at collecting huge amounts of online/phone data for analysis and, potentially, for scrutiny by intelligence analysts. After he leaked proof of this program, Snowden fled to Hong Kong and is currently attempting to evade extradition back to the USA.
Loyalty and Whistleblowing
When the government and many in the media discuss whistleblowers, they inevitably begin discussing the concepts of loyalty and betrayal of oaths. Those who disagree with whistleblowers attempt to attack their character by saying that they have betrayed their oaths to their country and that they are disloyal for disobeying official orders and revealing secrets. While there is some validity to this argument, it represents an overly-simplistic and self-serving analysis of the concept of a whistleblower.
A government whistleblower is a person who sees something illegal or immoral being done, in secret, by their government and risks their security by revealing proof of the wrongdoing to the public or to the media—they do not sell their secrets, rather, they give them away for free to improve accountability. Oftentimes, the release of these secrets is extremely dangerous to the leaker and the government attempts to target them for legal consequences (case in point: Bradley Manning’s inhumane detainment). In the past, whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg were protected and sometimes lauded for their revelations, but the modern era has seen a trend towards treating whistleblowers as traitors.
By definition, a whistleblower is disobeying orders and it is inarguable that they are violating some component of their oath to obey the chain of command. When he reveals secrets, a whistleblower may be violating his oaths and loyalties to his government/boss, but he is only doing this because those loyalties were overwhelmed by a greater loyalty to country and the American people.
If the government—or a small part of the government—is doing immoral and illegal actions behind the backs of the American people, they have betrayed the trust of those who put them in power. As such, the person who reveals this betrayal may be betraying their co-workers, but they are the one who is truly being loyal to the American people.
The NSA and FBI betrayed the American peoples’ trust, as well as the Constitution, when they decided to enact massive online spying programs that violate the 4th Amendment—everybody to willingly participate and cover up these programs is partly guilty of this betrayal. Out of these people who were involved, one (Snowden) decided to betray the others and expose their illegal actions to the American people. To Snowden’s former coworkers, this revelation is certainly a betrayal, but, to us, Snowden’s actions make him the only one of his fellows not to betray our trust.
To put this into perspective and strip the complexities of technology from the equation, here is an analogous situation with a police department: A police department in the USA decides to enact a secret anti-drug program that illegally tracks the cash withdrawals and phone records of every person in their jurisdiction. This program creates an information dragnet over the jurisdiction that flies in the face of the 4th Amendment, but is secret and people don’t even know that they are being spied upon. After a while, an officer is transferred into the program and realizes how immoral it is but lacks the institutional authority to change it—his only chance to change this illegal program from being continued is to inform the public. Once he reveals the program to the press, the officers who were conducting the illegal program label him a traitor to the department because he brought about public scrutiny to their favorite program; they investigate him and try to charge him with a variety of offenses for his “crime” of revealing their criminal behavior. In this situation—as with the one on the federal intelligence level—the people who are calling the only honest officer a traitor are the ones who betrayed the trust of the public and who would persecute the only honest man in the room.
Whenever you hear a government spokesperson describe whistleblowers’ revelations as a betrayal, you must keep in mind that the whistleblower betrayed the government, even at great personal risk, for your benefit. The government is certainly justified in hating the whistleblower and calling him disloyal—after all, the whistleblower did just betray them by revealing their illegal actions—but you should feel an equal level of gratitude to the whistleblower for the fact that they cared more to keep you informed then they cared for their personal safety, position of power, or coworkers.
By letting your government go after those who blow the whistle on the illegal actions of the government, you are, in effect, siding with those who betrayed you over the person who always stayed loyal. Such a choice will only result in fewer people choosing to risk retaliation in order to keep you informed, and will eventually let the government act illegally with impunity.