5 invaluable lessons from government whistle-blowers

"Surveillance doesn't guarantee security" and other revelations in the age of Edward Snowden

Published November 27, 2014 4:00PM (EST)


This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post LONDON, UK — No matter how much they dislike it, governments need calling out.

That’s what a group of whistleblowers who risked their careers, reputations and personal freedom to uphold said Friday. Now serving on the advisory board of ExposeFacts.org, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy in Washington, they said the nature of government secrecy ensures that more people will have to take similar risks in the future — and that the consequences could be even greater.

“If whistleblowers are suppressed, which is the clear intention of the US and British governments, all that’s left is a flow of official information… which adds up to lies and war,” said ExposeFacts coordinator Norman Soloman.

The government doesn’t need to spy on people all the time to keep them in line. It just needs them to know that it can.

The US National Security Agency and British equivalent, GCHQ, aren’t using all the information they’re gathering today, said J. Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA employee who went public after his 2001 retirement with information about the agency’s mass collection of individuals’ data. It’s being stored in a server to be used as evidence of crimes committed down the road.

Those who condone spying because they personally have nothing to hide should remember that it’s not clear what future governments will consider illegal, he said.

“The next time you hear someone saying ‘I’m not worried, I’m not doing anything wrong’ — rubbish,” Wiebe said. “You don’t get to choose what’s wrong.”

Surveillance doesn’t guarantee security.

“We are told that governmental secrecy is protecting us, when the truth is the opposite,” said Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent who exposed the agency’s intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

A refusal to share intelligence within agencies, across agencies and with the public contributed to the attacks, the 9/11 Commission found.

Matthew Hoh, who resigned from the US State Department in 2009 to protest American policy in Afghanistan, offered another example. In the wake of disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Obama administration argued that the NSA’s surveillance tactics thwarted 54 terror attacks. After pressure from journalists and US Sen. Patrick Leahy, the NSA confirmed just four cases, none of which were a direct result of the spying program.

“The government can scare and intimidate, but there has been no evidence that these tactics are helping,” Hoh said. “This is actually causing us to be much less secure.”

In the US, whistleblowers are worse than foreign spies.

The Obama administration has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined, Solomon wrote in The Nation last month. It’s gone after journalists and government employees suspected of leaking information. It also created the National Insider Threat Policy, requiring government employees to report coworkers who may be passing on classified information.

“In effect, the people of the US are to be viewed as the enemy from whom basic information about government actions should be withheld,” Solomon said.

“There’s nothing a government hates worse than embarrassment,” Wiebe added. “It’s almost worse than leaking a top secret.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate scoop probably couldn’t happen today.

Deep Throat, The Washington Post’s key anonymous source implicating President Richard Nixon’s administration, was FBI associate director Mark Felt.

Today, the first call reporter Bob Woodward placed to Felt would have been logged into NSA databases and easily traced by officials searching the leak’s source, Rowley said. Never mind all the security cameras that are surely covering the parking garage where they met.

History proves whistleblowers right. Eventually.

In 1963, the FBI called surveillance target Martin Luther King, Jr. the “most dangerous… Negro leader in the country.” Today, Rowley pointed out, he’s an American icon with his own federal holiday.

“It’s incredible what time can do,” she said. “And the reason is, facts come out.”

Similar reappraisals could be in store for whistleblowers such as Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who passed documents to Wikileaks, panelists said. Today, Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence and Snowden is in exile in Russia.

"Both Chelsea and Edward are on the right side of history," Hoh said, "and they will be vindicated."

By Corinne Purtill

Corinne Purtill is a journalist based in London.

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