When leakers are justified in releasing information

Before the latest reports emerged of of an alleged new NSA contractor leaker Reality Leigh Winner, David Sirota had a wide-ranging interview with Glenn Greenwald (who is one of the founders of The Intercept and whom Snowden chose as one of his conduits to release his documents) asks about when leaks are justifiable, how they should be handled, whether the motives and the identity of the leaker are relevant, and the role of journalists.

Here is just one small part where Sirota asks Greenwald to respond to those who say (even by Obama and Clinton supporters) that Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden should not have released their secret information to the public or to journalists as they did but should have instead taken it through the proper channels that supposedly have provisions to to protect whistleblowers who reveal government wrongdoing.

Greenwald responds:

Let me address the argument that typically is made by these national security insiders, which is that if you’re inside the government and you discover information or evidence of wrongdoing or lawbreaking, you have whistleblower protections. There are mechanisms and procedures that have been created to enable you to bring to the attention of supervisors, or members of Congress, what it is that you found.

But this is such an empty offer. It’s such a symbolic gesture at best. Because in the case of Manning, what she revealed was not anything illegal. It was a whole range of war crimes. Or at least not domestically illegal. They were war crimes. They were deceit of the public. They were complicity with foreign corruption.

Imagine if she brought these things to her supervisor, like her sergeant or a lieutenant in Iraq, and she said, “I’ve seen evidence showing that civilians are being killed recklessly,” or, “I’ve seen evidence that we’re detaining people, not for terrorism in Iraq, but for political dissent.” Who didn’t know that inside the structure in Iraq? There were no laws broken. They probably would have punished her had she done that.

The same with Edward Snowden. When he discovered this mass surveillance system that the public didn’t know about, the scandal of it wasn’t that it was illegal. There were small parts of it that ended up being declared unconstitutional, particularly the parts about how the NSA was spying on Americans, but the mass surveillance system itself was permitted by Congress. It was authorized by D.C. It was something that people inside the government wanted. They just hadn’t told the public about it.

If he had gone to his supervisors at NSA, or to [California Sen.] Dianne Feinstein, and said, “Oh, I discovered that the government is keeping records of everyone who is talking to everybody else,” they already knew that. They would have probably called the FBI on him, which has happened a lot in whistleblowers. In these cases — whistleblowers who aren’t necessarily discovering garden-variety corruption, like, “Oh, I found a document that this person is stealing government funds or this person is breaking the law,” but instead, these kind of mass programs that the public doesn’t know about, but should know about — their only alternative, their only recourse, is to find a way to make it public through journalists, or media outlets, through places like WikiLeaks.


  1. says

    Imagine if some mafia insider went to the police with evidence of crimes, and people said “no! You promised you’d keep those secrets! You ought to be willing to suffer whatever revenge they mete out to you!”

    I don’t believe the US is a democracy or anything close to it, but if I did I’d have to observe that a government that is an emergent property of the people’s will cannot act in secret since the people cannot approve what they are not aware of (“representative democracy” incurs an infinite regress of “trust me!”) Voltaire once observed that secret diplomacy leads to dictatorship and I think he was right: it starts with spies using secrecy to hide their incompetence and ends with a state that ignores its own laws. The US crossed that Rubicon a long time ago but it’s ok because there are “no boots on the ground.”

  2. lanir says

    I think secrets are fine and necessary in some cases. Details can and should be secret at times but broad strokes should be known to anyone curious enough to look. But the kicker is like what Heinlein once wrote about Autocracy as the idea that one man is wiser than a million men: Who decides?

    Sometimes it’s not comfortable being able to logic your way through to realizing your ideas are full of it.

    This is why I’m very alienated whenever politicians try to invent new meanings for words. It’s nothing less than 1984 doublespeak. Or if you prefer the modern artsy comedy version by Samantha Bee: Fantastic Words and Where Not To Find Them.

  3. says

    I think so too, except that the times when I have an opinion about what should or shouldn’t be secret, my opinion means nothing because I’m not even aware about it because it’s classified. That’s a bit much like a blank check for anything that can be done in secret.

    Put differently, the US senate health care bill is a good example of why nobody should tolerate government secrecy in a democracy.

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