The United States is trying to extradite Edward Snowden, the former CIA assistant-turned-whistle-blower who outed the National Security Agency’s incredible, Orwellian surveillance dragnets of phone and computing data, from Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Bradley Manning, the disgraced Army private who handed WikiLeaks a trove of military communication data in the hope of exposing the hypocrisy of American war-making, is in court-martial proceedings. The government alleges Manning aided terrorists by making classified military information public.
Whatever their stated reasons for taking on the Feds, these two figures operated out of their own inscrutable motives; and we’ll never know the extent of their nobility or guile. The media, and those who consume media, will form widely divergent opinions about whistle-blowers like these two men.
Some will see them as abject criminals who knowingly committed treason against the United States by usurping its laws, even if their goals were honorable. Others will see them as heroes, men who realized that citizens have to act to “prune the tree” of government and that waiting for someone else to act is to grow ever more numb inside the slow boil toward tyranny.
But whoever the whistle-blowers are, and whatever their motives as individuals, consider the words of computer security guru Bruce Schneier: “We need whistle-blowers.”
Writing early Monday, just before Snowden’s identity became known, Schneier said the U.S. government:
…is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.
Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal — or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law — but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state…
…Mark Klein, Thomas Drake, and William Binney have all been persecuted for exposing technical details of our surveillance state. Bradley Manning has been treated cruelly and inhumanly — and possibly tortured — for his more-indiscriminate leaking of State Department secrets.
The Obama Administration’s actions against the Associated Press, its persecution of Julian Assange, and its unprecedented prosecution of Manning on charges of “aiding the enemy” demonstrate how far it’s willing to go to intimidate whistle-blowers — as well as the journalists who talk to them.
But whistle-blowing is vital, even more broadly than in government spying. It’s necessary for good government, and to protect us from abuse of power… Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power.
In the end, government whistle-blowing isn’t about the person blowing the whistle; it’s about shining light on the government.
If that light turns out to reveal unConstitutional and extraConstitutional powers and abuses, along with a necessary system of secrets, distortions and lies to cover it up, then be grateful for those courageous enough — or crazy enough — to haul the truth into the public square.