Edward Snowden leaked classified information about government surveillance programs. He sparked a global debate about the state of phone and internet surveillance practices, won the German “whistleblower” award as well as the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, and is recognized by many as a hero and a patriot. Currently he is stranded in the semi-sane asylum of Russia and faces charges of espionage against the most powerful organization in the world, the US government.
Chelsea Manning leaked classified documents about the state of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic cables, Guantanamo bay detention camp files and video footage of an American helicopter firing on journalists. She sparked global outrage over the abuses in the policy and practices of the US military, won the Sean MacBride Peace Award and is viewed by many as a hero and a patriot. Currently she is serving a 35 year sentence for espionage which was partially reduced due to the poor treatment she received while awaiting trial.
Daniel Ellsberg leaked classified papers detailing misinformation used to promote the Vietnam war. He caused national outrage over the lies of the Johnson and Kennedy administration, won the Ron Ridenhour Courage Prize, The Ghandi Peace Prize and the Right Livelihood award. He was tried for charges of theft and conspiracy, carrying a maximum sentence of 115 years, but due to illegal evidence gathering and misconduct by the government all charges were dismissed.
These are only some of the most prominent and contemporary cases involving whistleblowers; there are countless cases which share the same pattern: someone tries to expose what they believe to be misconduct, crime or incompetence on the part of an organization, and while the revelations cause outrage over the previously unknown facts, the whistleblower is prosecuted for their activities and often faces physical or psychological abuse. Finally, and in many ways irrelevantly, they are hailed and rewarded for their courage by some who are grateful to have access to the previously unavailable truth.
We do not have a culture of truth, we have a culture of ideals, and while truth is one of these ideals, it is too often in conflict with our other ideals to be well received. This environment fosters an assumption of conspiracy, that if we do not know of an organization’s misconduct it is only because no one has yet attempted or managed to reveal it. We see whistleblowers confirm our fears, and then they are persecuted for it, encouraging other would-be whistleblowers to keep quiets and further supporting the assumption of conspiracy. When we see non-disclosure agreements enforced by the courts despite the odious nature of the information that was disclosed, it seems as if the governments priority is not transparency and truth, but instead intimidation and obfuscation.
There is a conceptual scale that measures the weight of the incomes and outcomes of whistle blowing for any person that has access to proof of violations on the part of any organization. The weight of persecution, reprisal, incarceration, dislocation, bodily harm in some cases, the pressure of authority and the damage to ideals of loyalty weigh heavily against the act of whistleblowing. Across the fulcrum of this scale is the personality of the potential leaker, their sense of the greater good, their valuation of truth, their frustrations with complicity in the corrupt system, their hope for changing the situation and thus vindicating their actions. It is typically not until after the decision has been made that the world can offer more than this in support, awards and fame, though the promise of these may indeed be an aspect of the decision on the part of the whistleblower. Most of us would see this as heavily stacked against whistleblowing, and indeed most historical whistleblowers were only one of many people who had access to the information, and yet no one else leaked it. In his Interview, Snowden asks a rhetorical question: that if you were in his position, “what would it take to make you leave everything behind?” This is another weight on the scale, the gravity of the offense that is being hidden, but it remains a hard scale to tip, and getting harder. Reports have been claiming for some time now that sources are scare as the institutions tighten ranks and prove their intention to persecute, so what is the information to do if it wants to be free?
One strategy is to add more weight to the incentive side of the scale, and though there is demonstrably little to offer in the way of protection and privacy (as we now know thanks to Snowden’s leaks), organizations that prioritize truth and transparency are hoping to weight the scales with something that they can offer, money.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is a trade agreement that is being developed in secret that has many activist very worried, but the details and the state of negotiations is unknown. It falls into that category of assumed conspiracy, as in “it would not be secret if it did not contain some objectionable in it”. While some parts of the negotiating text have been leaked, the complete copy is still unavailable to the press or the public, and in an effort to shift the balance of someone’s scale, an organization known as Just Foreign Policy is offering a hefty reward for anyone who can furnish a copy.
If this works we may see a new era of private organizations pushing back against the government by providing incomes as a counter to the negative outcomes of being a whistleblower.