The whistleblowing arms race

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.


  1. Aimee Lewis says

    Whistle-blowing occurs when a person with knowledge of serious wrongdoing by a person, company, or public body chooses to reveal this information to management or external stakeholders with the intention to minimizing harm (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2013, M2, p. 16). Whistle-blowing is an ethical issue with real-life consequences affecting our personal and professional lives. But when we consider the whistle-blowing policies of the United States government, the consequences can be felt worldwide, as was the case when Stephen Jin-Woo Kim blew the whistle on the North Korean government’s plans to continue nuclear weapons testing (BooMan, 2013), putting the world on its toes. Therefore it is important to consider whether or not the Obama administration’s whistle-blowing policy is ethical from various ethical standpoints, however I will focus on the utilitarian perspective.
    Utilitarianism’s underlying principle declares an action to be ethical when we “maximise happiness and minimise suffering, considering equally the interests of all affected” (Open Polytechnic, 2013, p.18). The ‘Standard Theory’ of whistle-blowing means that by definition, whistle-blowing only occurs when a person reveals information entrusted to them which could prevent harm to the public (Davis, 2009, p.6). In most scenarios the act of whistle-blowing will be beneficial to a large number of people (i.e., the greater public), and harmful to a smaller number of people (i.e., the business and its employees who are out of work as a result of a loss of reputation), making whistle-blowing in general an ethical behaviour by definition from a utilitarian perspective.
    In this scenario, Singham (2013) refers to whistle-blowers who aim to reveal information that the Obama administration wishes to remain ‘opaque’, for example in 2012 the Associated Press (AP) revealed that the Obama administration misled the public by stating that there was no evidence to suggest a terrorist threat on the anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death, when in fact there had been an terrorist plot to bomb an airplane in United States airspace (Elliot, 2013).
    Utilitarian’s would ask whether exposing this information, or keeping it secret, would cause the most happiness and least suffering to the greatest number of people (Panza & Potthast, 2010). Gary Pruitt, CEO of AP claims that the public ‘needed to know’ for security reasons, and that the government only wanted the information withheld so they could revel in the public praise when they announce the threat simultaneously with news that they have extinguished it (Elliot, 2013). From this perspective leaking the information causes the greatest good by giving the AP more credibility and informing the millions of American citizens of possible security threats so that they may make necessary security arrangements, while suffering is only felt by the Obama administration who suffers a slightly damaged reputation. Therefore from a utilitarian perspective, this whistle-blowing scenario is ethically acceptable.
    As Singham (2013) explains, the government’s response to whistle-blowing actions such as this has been aggressive -- not to get specific results, but to send a message that whistle-blowers will not be tolerated. They have used police intervention, espionage charges, and damaged reputations so severely those whistle-blowers lose their jobs and personal freedom. Rationally, if the act of whistle-blowing is considered ethical from a utilitarian perspective, then the attack on whistle-blowers by the government (“more so than all previous administrations combined” (Singham, 2013)) is not ethical.
    Essentially, the administration seeks to quell whistle-blowers and disguise unfavourable media attention in an attempt to protect the government’s popularity and maintain an illusion of control. These actions only benefit the government and its employees by keeping them in office, whereas the suppression of crucial information creates suffering for the entire American public and beyond by leaving them ill-informed and unprepared for situations such as terrorist threats. For example, hypothetically if information was known, and leaked by media about a possible bomb threat at the Boston marathon then the bombers may have abandoned their plans, extra security may have been introduced, or people may have decided to stay home, potentially reducing the harm caused to many people.
    Furthermore, exposing whistle-blowers and damaging reputations creates a disincentive to reveal information that would be beneficial to the public (Simpson, & Taylor, 2013). People in possession of information about serious government wrongdoing may decide not to share this information to protect themselves and their family, given the threat of government retaliation. Although this may decrease suffering to one person and their family, the suffering of the greater public has increased because they are not adequately informed of the issues that affect them, making this an unethical choice from a utilitarian perspective.
    Critics may suggest that whistle-blowing policies in Obama’s administration are not ethical because they do not always provide the greatest good. However, in situations where whistle-blowing has resulted in more harm, than happiness, to more people, it may not be whistle-blowing in the first place. This is based on the premise that justified whistle-blowing only occurs when there is serious wrongdoing that will cause substantial harm or moral wrongdoing if not exposed (Davis, 1996). This is even more important when you consider the government’s obligation to serve the people they were elected to serve. If Obama’s administration were elected on a premise of “open and clean government” (Singham, 2013), then this is what they are obligated to deliver. If they are unable to do so, then whistle-blowing is an effective and ethical way to ensure the public is protected.
    Overall, from a utilitarian perspective most scenarios will create the most happiness and the least suffering to the greatest number of people. Whistle-blowers should be encouraged to speak out and given the anonymity to do so when they have information on issues crucial to public safety. The Obama administration is making journalists fearful of doing so is judged to be unethical from a utilitarian perspective as the administration seems to only be concerned with protecting their own popularity as opposed to serving Americans. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective, the Obama administration’s policy on whistle-blowing would not be ethically acceptable.

    Note: This message has been posted as part of a Business Ethics Assignment requirement.

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