The truth shall set you free, as the saying goes. As far as whistleblowing in America is concerned, however, the truth seems to be doing rather the opposite — it’s locking an increasing number of people up. Along with the furor surrounding Edward Snowden and his infamous leak of NSA surveillance methods, the recent trial of Private Chelsea Manning, who faced twenty-two charges this July for her involvement in disclosing classified information to Wikileaks and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, perfectly encapsulates the United States’ furious crackdown on leakers and secrets-releasers. Manning escaped the most serious charge of aiding the enemy — an accusation which carries a potential death sentence — but was convicted on nineteen other charges, including six counts of espionage, which could’ve led to a maximum sentence of ninety years.
While much has been made of the Manning trial, the ruling is not so much a landmark moment as it is indicative of a greater trend. Our government has gone far beyond measures necessary to fulfill their mandate for national security; instead, they’re merely infringing upon freedom of speech in order to ensure absolute control over what information is released. The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act six times in prosecuting government officials — not only a presidential record, but more than all the previous administrations combined. In the wake of the Wikileaks revelations, the President launched what is called his ‘Insider Threat Program,’ which encourages employees to use behavioral profiling to spy on co-workers and determine if they might be likely to leak information. This initiative, which is certainly unprecedented in its scope, now expands beyond governmental agencies to organizations like the Peace Corps.
Civil liberties advocates decry this slew of attacks on whistleblowers, claiming that our most basic liberty — freedom of speech — is under assault. The common argument against this administration’s actions is that they have gone beyond the government’s legitimate mandate to protect its citizenry, and have now begun transgressing upon those liberties it is sworn to uphold. In the case of Pvt. Manning, for example, the impact of his disclosures on national security has been nearly nonexistent; for her disclosure of wrongdoings, she should have been lauded for opening the door to improved governmental practices. Instead she was detained without trial for a year and must sit in military prison for at least 8 years, perhaps several decades longer.
There is another, less common argument that can made against this concerted effort to crack down on leaks as well — that of practicality. In seeking to stamp out those who might reveal unflattering or downright ugly truths, the United States is determinedly ignoring the fact that we have entered a new age in which the handling of information has been forever altered. Whether we like it or not, the technological infrastructure which has rapidly developed over the past few decades has made it nearly impossible to fully eradicate pieces of the past.
Whether we like it or not, the technological infrastructure which has rapidly developed over the past few decades has made it nearly impossible to fully eradicate pieces of the past.
Just as the embarrassing freshman-year photo is still on Facebook, or just as your Internet history isn’t totally erased when you ‘clear’ it (sorry), any tidbit or event can be archived and stored on the Internet, accessible to either concerted information-seekers or accidental access by an ambling web-surfer.
Is all classified information going to be discovered and unearthed? No. But it definitely raises the likelihood that information detrimental to our country’s image — secret dealings, unconstitutional activity, and the like — is eventually going to be viewed by eyes that don’t have pre-clearance. For Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers, he had to covertly steal a few volumes of highly classified and guarded information and copy it on a Xerox machine over several consecutive all-nighters. No such physical obstacle stood in the way of Edward Snowden or Pvt. Manning, who had digital versions of their respective leaks ready to share with a click.
What is a government to do, then, when the advent of the Internet Age has made whistleblowing easier for would-be leakers? The simple answer is that it must cease trying to remove protection for whistleblowers, and move in the opposite direction: strenuously encouraging these individuals to report illegal activity. The recurrence and strength of hacker groups like Anonymous, as well as whistleblower forums like WikiLeaks, make it more likely than not that illegitimate acts a government has committed will eventually see the light of day. If just having the government not commit illegitimate or abhorrent acts is out of the question, it is far less ruinous for government employees to reveal this activity themselves in the name of accountability and openness than to have a situation similar to what has occurred with Snowden — a messy diplomatic affair and U.S.-Russia relations indefinitely soured. In fact, President Obama just recently cancelled a planned meeting with Russian President Putin over the Snowden controversy, cementing the international impact of this avoidable debacle.
The Insider Threat Program demonstrates how desperate the government is at this point to reduce the threat of leaks. Numerous experts have spoken as to the inefficacy and unverifiable nature of profiling tactics like Insider Threat, and the fact that it was adopted so haphazardly proves that the Obama administration is grasping at straws. They’re realizing that in this information age, the NSA may be able to collect previously unimaginable amounts of metadata, but silencing whistleblowers is also a far more difficult task than in years past. Instead of acknowledging the futility of harsher crackdowns in pursuit of a no-leaks environment, President Obama is missing a vital chance to follow through on his campaign promises of government transparency.
Several court rulings since mid-July have served to continue this pattern. On July 20, a federal appeals court ruled that journalists can be forced to reveal an anonymous source in a criminal trial, effectively removing any ability a journalist might have to protect his whistleblowing source. And less than a month ago, a district court ruling found that prosecutors don’t have to prove that government whistleblowers caused damage to the country or aided a foreign entity in order to prosecute them under the Espionage Act. Despite a public outcry for government transparency, whistleblowers are losing protection at an alarming rate.
The United States does itself more damage than good by relentlessly pursuing and prosecuting these people. It removes basic liberties, lessens the opportunity for improved government practices, and spends inordinate amounts of time and money for minimal levels of secrecy. The protection of the country comes first and foremost — that is to be sure. But given the national outcry and international backlash that have come from both the revelation of our country’s shortcomings and the government’s reaction to those leaks, security might actually be served better by fostering a more open environment. Openness and honesty with our allies is a more prudent tactic than secrecy and deceit. What is more, the information that leakers such as Pvt. Manning made public has had the positive effect of unearthing war crimes, and has had little to no effect on national safety. Despite the government’s claims to the contrary, the judge in Manning’s trial threw out those security claims as inadmissible. The danger is not the information itself, but the government’s response, and it’s clear that this trend needs to end. This administration needs to truly prioritize our nation’s security, and tear down roadblocks for the Chelsea Mannings and Edward Snowdens of the world, not create them.