Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The perils of whistle-blowing

As I write this, Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in military prison for passing classified documents to Wikileaks containing information about military atrocities going on in Iraq.  The extent to which the revelations actually caused the military any harm, other than to its reputation, isn't known with certainty, but seems to be negligible.  And Edward Snowden is a fugitive after he leaked classified information about the National Security Agency's massive eavesdropping policies.  What these two cases have in common is that the whistle-blowers revealed classified information, which is clearly illegal and represents a compromise of security.

But the problem with the 'security' classification of this information is that it was, effectively, being used to cover up what amounts to illegal activities.  We have seen this many times during my life.  Politicians like Richard Nixon used a similar tactic ('executive privilege') to deny access to information that would be embarrassing or even criminal.  Yes, those who reveal classified information usually have broken laws - laws that are necessary for national security, but laws that also allow unscrupulous people to cover up their misdeeds.  I have mixed feelings about both Manning and Snowden - no question they broke laws - laws that are necessary for national security.  But the deeds being covered up also are illegal.  Should someone be tried, convicted, and sentenced harshly for revealing the truth about criminal activities?  Why are not those committing those revealed crimes also on trial for their actions? 

Any whistle-blower must confront the reality that revealing what truths they have is not going to be well-received by the unscrupulous.  The target of whistle-blowing is quite likely to fight back with accusations of their own, teams of lawyers, and the tacit support of government, including judges!  For instance, we now have laws in several states that make it illegal to film agricultural practices (e.g., industrial production of foodstuffs from livestock) that might reveal extreme cruelty to the animals.  The agricultural corporations and other big producers don't want anyone to know how the food they buy is produced, and they have the explicit support of state governments in their wish to maintain secrecy about their practices.

Several years back, my wife and I were photographing some thistle flowers in the Texas panhandle, when an unmarked car drove up and an armed security guard told us that we could not photograph the chemical plant several miles away.  We explained what we were doing and he admonished us to be sure not to shoot towards the plant, and we agreed not to do so.  After he drove away, we noticed that many of the thistles were malformed in ways that suggested the toxicity of the conditions in which they were growing - no doubt something the company operating the plant would not want to be known.  No, I didn't know the identity of that company at the time, so I can't name them now.  If I could, I would.

Choosing to be a whistle-blower is quite likely to result in loss of your job, and may well lead to your arrest and conviction for various reasons, often seemingly unrelated to the deeds you revealed by blowing the whistle.  Your reputation can be smeared, your life destroyed, and the people whose criminal activities you exposed are likely to escape scot-free.  Is this really the sort of justice system we want in America?  Are we not becoming a crypto-fascist police state where the rich call the shots, backed up by government police power, and the rest of us have to toe the line?  The 4th Amendment to the Constitution is becoming irrelevant in our so-called justice system, where "probable cause" is no longer required for many searches and seizures.  I repeat:  is this the sort of America we want?

1 comment:

Garrett Fornea said...

Such is certainly not the America I want to live in. I'm a constitutionalist, but I'm not going to sit here and claim that the U.S. Constitution is perfect...or the Founding Fathers, for that matter. Places that I find our constitution to be flawed, is that it does not explicitly hold our government to the same laws imposed on us, and defines no punishment for when our leaders step out of line. Of course, even if it did, I can't promise that such a clause wouldn't be ignored! A national constitution is a contract of its constituent people, and only has as much power as that people gives it. It wields no power if we as a people do not enforce it, and with that said, we ourselves must hold our government and our corporations responsible for their actions.