on the world: a view on human rights
“In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act”, so the saying goes, particularly when governments go to increasingly desperate lengths to keep their activities secret while increasingly encroaching on the private space of individuals. As the Conservative government seeks to introduce a Snooper’s Charter through the Investigatory Powers Bill, it is becoming easier for the government to obtain information about citizens, while public transparency and accountability – essential ingredients of any functioning democracy – continue to beat a steady retreat.
By blowing the whistle on illegal practices in local government, the National Health Service, young offenders’ institutions, and immigration detention centres, many people are often involved in bringing vital information into the public domain without even knowing it. The ramifications can be severe: from job loss, to demotion, loss of benefits, harassment and blacklisting, telling the truth is a risky business. Where international relations, military secrets and warfare are concerned, the upshot can even include lengthy prison sentences and other penalties. Telling the truth, a vital public service, some may argue, can seriously damage your financial, mental and emotional health.
It is now five years since former US military analyst Chelsea Manning leaked military documents that revealed the truth of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently serving a 35-year sentence while the architects of those devastating wars remain at large. June 9th will mark the second anniversary of Edward Snowden emerging as the NSA whistleblower; he remains in exile in Russia for his revelations of the US spying on both its own citizens and abroad. Not a passing fad, in recent weeks, Royal Navy nuclear weapons engineer William McNeilly blew the whistle on safety problems related to the British government’s multibillion pound Trident nuclear programme.
In recognition of both the work and the need to protect whistleblowers worldwide, an international week to support whistleblowers is currently underway, from 1-7 June – Stand Up For Truth – supported by a number of organisations, with aims that include standing for a “free press, individual privacy, governmental and corporate transparency, due process and rule of law as we seek to reveal official information that the public has a right to know”. A week of talks and webcasts, including a speaking tour visiting London, Oslo, Stockholm and Berlin kicked off with a full house at the University of London’s Birkbeck College on 1st June.
Boosting a stellar cast of whistleblowers, with seven speakers, Justin Schlosberg, a lecturer in journalism and media at Birkbeck College, and the author of Power Beyond Scrutiny started off the proceedings by looking at the relationship between the mainstream media and whistleblowers. He stated that there is “no greater agent of social change than whistleblowers”. He criticised the media’s inability to protect whistleblowers, in spite of the public service they provide and the risk they incur. Using the Edward Snowden story as an example, he stated that the issues are sometimes unintentionally manipulated when journalists fail to use the disclosures to challenge the official narrative. In this case, the NSA’s rationale for mass surveillance was to protect against terrorism threats, even though it was simultaneously used for other purposes, yet journalists rarely explored the issue further, or questioned it in a limited manner.
Daniel Ellsberg, a former US military analyst who served in Vietnam and leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 revealing how the US public had been misled about the Vietnam war, started off with the case of GCHQ whistleblower Katherine Gun, a former translator who leaked a secret e-mail to The Observer newspaper in which US intelligence was asking its UK counterparts to spy on states ahead of a UN Security Council vote on the war in Iraq in 2003 to pressurise dissenting countries. Charged, but not prosecuted, the leak had a considerable impact nonetheless. Ellsberg stated that the argument that mass surveillance protects the public is as credible as the argument that torture provides protection. He stated that while the media and politicians fear being blamed if they do not comply with agencies like the NSA, it is likely they will be blamed anyway and they should act in the public and not their personal interest.
Jesselyn Radack from the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is a lawyer and former ethics advisor to the US Department of Justice who in 2001 disclosed that the FBI illegally interrogated John Walker Lindh without a lawyer present. She has since represented high-profile whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake. Radack stated that national security whistleblowers in the US, such as Snowden and Drake, have far less protection than corporate whistleblowers, who often expose fraud and waste issues. She described how people like Drake, the only person since Daniel Ellsberg to be charged with espionage, are given disproportionately lengthy sentences – Drake was given 35 years although the case against him later collapsed – whereas people in positions of power like ex-CIA chief David Petraeus, who leaked confidential information to his girlfriend, was put on probation and given a $100,000 fine. She described the war on whistleblowers as a backdoor war on journalists and stated that in order to protect whistleblowers, the practice needs to be normalised in the public eye.
Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, described the rise and acquiescence of the surveillance society as a Faustian bargain with the secret side of government under the pretext that society must exchange its rights for the ostensible offer of security and safety. He stated that the issue is essentially about control, that people cannot be trusted with their own freedom and thus, the government must interfere.
The only British whistleblower on the panel, Eileen Chubb is from the Bupa 7, one of seven care home workers who lost their jobs after reporting widespread abuses of elderly people at Bupa care homes, and founder of the charity Compassion in Care, which supports whistleblowers. The case was the first to be heard under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998, which is supposed to protect whistleblowers. This was not the case. Instead, Compassion in Care is lobbying for Edna’s Law to protect whistleblowers who speak out on behalf of vulnerable people. Chubb stated that of the more than 3000 calls the charity has received since it started in 2003, 70% have been from the healthcare sector. She stated that whistleblowers are harassed and lose their jobs, and are placed in difficult situations for telling the truth. Many are too frightened to speak out and are left in poverty for reporting the abuses they witness. While support from the authorities has not been forthcoming, the media has been helpful in breaking stories of abuse in different places and sectors.
Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent, who in 2002 sent a memo to the FBI director exposing some of the agency’s pre-9/11 failures, which was leaked to the press, spoke about how secrecy is counterproductive to security, as in the words of Lord Acton, “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice”. While there is increasingly a secret state within the state, individuals have less privacy. Information is power: if you can control information, you can control people.
Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, stated that democracy is at the core of what is at stake, and that it is the mutual relationship between independent media and whistleblowers that heads of state like David Cameron and Barack Obama are trying to destroy. Without it, there is only the official narrative of half-truths and lies, and more powerful than lies, what Aldous Huxley called “silence about truth”. Democracy requires the informed consent to be governed. Uninformed consent is what is being done in our names and with our tax money without our knowledge. Solomon stated that there is a need to organise to protect whistleblowers; our ability to organise is what those in power fear. The issue is about social monitoring and social control.
The brief talks were followed by interesting questions and discussion on the issues from the floor. The key issues highlighted by all the speakers were the role of the media and the government’s need to control the public through surveillance and managing information. In a time when victims, from survivors of war to child abuse, are not believed and taken seriously, whistleblowers provide a safeguard against those who abuse and silence the vulnerable, providing a vital public service. We cannot protect the vulnerable unless we protect those who blow the whistle on abuse, whether of power, people, or both.