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Jun 27 2013

A new paradigm of whistleblowing

As an advocate of the rule of law, I have naturally supported efforts to increase government transparency. If you allow governments to act in the dark and claim secret knowledge and powers and an unfettered right to take actions based on that secret information, you have pretty much abandoned the rule of law. I have long been frustrated with how subservient the US mainstream media has been to governments, not aggressively probing and investigating but instead being satisfied with authorized leaks by high government officials who give out this information either to promote the government’s agenda or advance their own careers or both.

The media has become so dependent on these high-level official leaks that they value their access to these sources more than telling the truth and this is what has enabled successive governments to lie to the public and lead the country into criminal wars and appalling policies. The media seem to ignore people who have important information but are not seeking to advance the government’s or their own agendas. Such unauthorized leakers know they will be severely punished for revealing anything that shows the government in a bad light. The Obama administration has been particularly vicious in tracking down and persecuting whistleblowers. Despite the threats of punishments, we have seen many courageous whistleblowers who risked their careers and freedom to reveal wrongdoing. It is wrong that people should suffer so much for telling the truth about what the government was doing.

Hence I was absolutely delighted when WikiLeaks emerged on the scene because it seems like an excellent way for people who want the truth about illegal actions to get out to supply that information without getting caught. I think WikiLeaks provides an invaluable service and has spawned efforts to create similar structures. Bradley Manning’s identity was revealed not because of flaws in the WikiLeaks system but because he trusted and revealed himself to someone (Adrian Lamo) whom he got to know in in internet chat room who turned him in to the authorities.

But while WikiLeaks can hide the source of the materials it receives, that does not mean that the sources are untraceable. We see with the Snowden revelations that the government tracks almost everything about everyone and I suspect that they will have means of putting things in documents that will enable them to know who had access to them and use their pattern matching software and other techniques to unearth the sources.

This is why the Edward Snowden case represents a new front, a new paradigm of whistleblowing. One reason is that he did not try to keep his identity secret indefinitely but went public as soon as he was out of the grasp of the US government. So secrecy was necessary for only a short while, which is much easier to pull off. Another is that he, like Manning, is very young. This is significant. Younger people are less encumbered by family responsibilities, mortgages, career considerations, and all the other things that tie one down as one gets older and make one cautious. Furthermore, young people are more likely to be risk-takers.

The last significant feature is that Snowden comes from the computer technology side, whose world is closer to that of hackers than policy wonks. Previous whistleblowers have tended to be older, higher-level analyst types whose jobs it was to understand and deal with the information they leaked. While such people have access to high-level information, the scope of it can be limited to their particular area. But the vast information gathering network that has been created by the government has necessitated the need for large numbers of lower-level system administrators who job is not to analyze and understand the information that passes through their hands but to make sure the information system runs smoothly. Such people often have much greater access to a wider range of information than the higher-level people because they need to in order to just do their jobs. The assumption seems to have been that these people would be mere cogs in the machine, doing grunt work and not particularly knowledgeable about what they were dealing with or able to understand it or even have much interest in it, let alone have strong opinions about it.

This turns out to be wrong. Not only are there people at these lower levels capable of understanding what is going on, they actually care about what the government is doing in their name. Such people are a weak link in the government’s secrecy regime.

The government’s problem is that they have created an information monster that requires a large number of handlers to keep it under control. If even a small fraction of them have the sensibilities of a Manning or Snowden that truth about government wrongdoing should be in the public domain, then the government is in real trouble.

Intelligence whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden will continue to leak state secrets in the public interest despite being “aggressively pursued” by the Obama administration, the president of Associated Press has said.

Gary Pruitt, the head of the global news agency, warned Washington that it cannot control the “inevitable” flow of information to the media in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures about classified surveillance programs in the US and UK.

He said: “The Obama administration has made it clear that it will aggressively pursue leakers and whistleblowers. I think there will inevitably be leakers and whistleblowers, however, because there are so many people who have access to classified information.”

This is why the government must be really worried that Snowden seems to be cutting such a dashing figure, openly defying a massive government, and that people all over the globe are rooting for him and delighting in the US government’s inability to lay their hands on him. The monumental success of the Star Wars saga illustrates how much people love a story of a plucky underdog defying an evil empire. The US government cannot afford to have lots of young people see them as an evil empire, with Obama as Palpatine and Snowden as Luke Skywalker, someone to be admired, cheered on, and even emulated, because the more young people think like this, the more likely there will be more such whistleblowers.

It must be very worrying to the government that polls show that younger age cohorts overwhelmingly support Snowden, with 70% of those in the 18-34 age group thinking that Snowden did a good thing. You can be sure that the US government will enlist their servile media and pundit and establishment allies to aid them in an effort to trash Snowden and the people who are helping him get his message out, such as the Guardian journalists, in order to chip away at this support.

We should be prepared for them to do some very ugly stuff.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Corvus illustris

    We should be prepared for some very ugly stuff.

    Practically everybody expects our Premier Consul (or a later one, it doesn’t seem to matter) to appoint himself judge, jury and executioner of Mr Snowden; enabling legislation will be passed at some later time, as in the case of the tapping of telecom fiber-optic lines, and that will make it easier to go after the next whistleblower. The behavior of the servile media is just a little extra PR.

  2. 2
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    While there is something very important here in your analysis about the sheer volume of collected secret data requiring a large number of employees, some of whom will enter government service from an idealistic standpoint, it is also true that

    the sheer volume of collected non-secret data that is classified b/c of government overclassification tendencies and obsession with secrecy *also* create the same need for a high volume of cleared employees.

    If you classify that the vice president likes strawberries, then you need to give a security clearance to anyone who knows the vice president likes strawberries and anyone you would like, in the future, to so inform. To what info will that person then have access that would otherwise be beyond the employees reach?

    When in doubt, classify, is a tendency that ever expands (because the next person in your job sees what you classified and things close to your line – already expanded from what was strictly necessary – get classified by this new person…and so on. This is thought to be a pro-security stance, but in fact may be genuinely anti-security if it multiples the number of leakers.

    While actual whistleblowers – persons that expose governmental corruption which, by definition, includes actions prohibited by the government’s constitution (whichever government we may be discussing in any given moment) – are the subject of Mano’s post, and while I support the revelation of illegal actions tolerated by the highest powers (as the only way to have accountability and thus prevent illegal action of this kind in the future), just as multiplying the numbers of persons given clearance multiplies the number of persons who care more about justice for the country than justice for themselves…

    …it ***also*** multiplies the numbers of persons given clearance who care more about scoring some cash from a foreign government than who care about justice (or safety) for the country.

    Overclassification is not only a threat to democracy, it’s a threat to our safety. More knowledgeable people than I can quantify that threat and compare it against any perceived benefits and come up with a recommendation for the best possible classification regimes, but it drives me batty that the question is always framed in the media as, “Security vs. corporate media’s ability to make money talking about things” instead of “Security vs security”.

    What if we were honest in our policy debates? Where would that leave us on classification?

  3. 3
    Aliasalpha

    So if Obama is Palpatine and Snowden is Skywalker, does that mean Biden is actually Snowden’s father?

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