President Obama has presided over one of the most opaque administrations in history, even worse than the Bush administration that was so bad that Obama’s promise to have the most transparent administration ever was greeted with great hope and optimism by advocates of open and clean government.
But as a consequence of his complete reversal on this issue, people who are aware of wrongdoing have had to resort to whistleblowing and going public, since the normal channels by which problems are addressed have proven to be ineffective. The Obama administration has responded by cracking down hard on whistleblowers and the journalists they leak to using heavy-handed police tactics, throwing all manner of charges (including espionage) against them, ruining them financially by having them lose their jobs and spending their savings on lawyers, and essentially making the lives of their families a living hell. The Obama administration has accused more people of violating the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined, a truly astonishing statistic. In the end, almost all of those efforts yielded nothing but that was not the point. The point is to discourage other potential whistleblowers by signaling to them the fate that awaits them if they did anything similar.
Glenn Greenwald describes the extraordinary steps that the Obama administration is taking, suggesting Nixonian levels of paranoia and vindictiveness. Yesterday there were new revelations of yet another action by them that is pushing even some Obama apologists close to the edge of revolt.
But there will always be people who know the truth and want to get it out and others who will help them do so. What is now developing is an arms race in whistleblowing technology. WikiLeaks was the first major effort to enable anonymous whistleblowing and was largely successful with Bradley Manning using its services. His identity was revealed only because Adrian Lamo, someone he trusted, told the authorities. What the Obama administration has done is to try and bankrupt WikiLeaks financially by coopting US financial agencies to prohibit people contributing to it and going after Julian Assange personally. But other organizations such as Freedom of the Press Foundation have sprung up to enable people to bypass those restrictions. (I regularly contribute to WikiLeaks and other organizations through this site and encourage others to do so.)
What is interesting is that even more mainstream news organizations are realizing that government secrecy and persecution is getting out of hand and are setting up their own whistleblowing sites where people can send documents anonymously. Even the venerable New Yorker magazine (where excellent investigative reporters like Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh work) has launched something called Strongbox where people can drop off documents anonymously. One of its designers was Aaron Swartz who committed suicide because of government persecution because of his efforts to free up information. Amy Davidson describes how it works.
I am not sure how it will deal with the fact that it is possible to secretly insert digital and identifiers into documents so that even if the reporters who receive the documents don’t know the sources and thus cannot be forced to reveal them, it may be possible to locate where they came from. I am assuming that sophisticated hackers like Swartz are aware of this and have taken steps to combat it but am not enough of a techie to judge for myself.
Tom Tomorrow weighs in with a cartoon on this topic.