Whistleblowers, Leaks and Secrets
Two trends seem to be taking information gathering and dissemination in our society in diametrically opposed directions. Our personal lives are becoming more and more an open book subject to the ever-increasing scrutiny of corporations and government alike. At the same time, our government appears to have become shrouded in an unprecedented degree of secrecy.
Whistleblowers, journalists and others seeking to unmask questionable practices of government and corporate entities are increasingly subjected to attack by those wishing to maintain secrecy and keeping the people uninformed as to what they are up to. The nature and scope of what is being done using our tax dollars and in our names both here and abroad, is hidden from us, often in the name of “national security” or in the battles being wages in the “war on Terror”. Electronic surveillance and the ability to gather and compile huge amounts of data, along with the ability to do so with or without our individual awareness of its scope, creates the ability for enormous breaches of what we have always considered to be our right to individual privacy.
Some of this intrusiveness we see as a societal good. Video surveillance makes it far more difficult for many criminal acts to be committed without the perpetrators being identified and subsequently brought to justice. The rapid identification of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing is a recent example of this. DNA testing can also be used to identify criminals ( or exonerate the innocent). However, other aspects of the information gathering capacity of modern technology are not as welcome. Most would be utterly shocked to know the totality of the information regarding them that is easily accessible to anyone with sufficient knowledge of use of the internet. This includes, of course, people and corporations attempting to separate them from their money by whatever means necessary.
Law enforcement and spy agencies have a wide range of abilities to gain information that were not available to them until relatively recently. Legal frameworks for using the technology available, as well as protecting individuals from unwarranted and unwanted intrusion by the government are often non-existent or have not been adequately defined for us to even know when our rights may have been violated by the government in gathering information. What are the limits, and who determines checks and balances? Are our 4th and 5th Amendment rights obsolete now that the technology is so pervasive and invasive that there is hardly anything describable as a private conversation or correspondence any longer?
Meanwhile, lip service has often been paid by political leaders to the concept of transparency in government. We expect to be informed, within limits, of what our government is trying to do and how. Few expect 100% transparency. Most know the need for a certain amount of secrecy, especially during wartime (though the meaning of what constitutes war seems to be slipping into almost indefinability since 9/11). However, it seems like the need for secrecy is increasingly being invoked to override the public right to know what its government is doing to further the national interest.
Investigative journalists have been unearthing scandals of various sorts where corruption and abuse of power by government departments, agencies and/or elected and appointed officials have been prosecuted, removed from office and even imprisoned for their crimes for generations. Wars have been brought into a new light by leaks such as the Pentagon Papers. Information has come to light that was not really a secret at all – except from the American people. Cambodians new full well they were being carpet-bombed by American aircraft way before the American public had any knowledge of it. The Watergate scandal forced a President to resign in disgrace.
Turning the revelation of illegal or questionable activity by part of the government into a crime is wrong. National Security is used way too frequently, in my view, as an excuse to cover-up acts committed by our government that most of us would find abhorrent if we knew about them. We collectively are responsible for what our government does and fails to do to our fellow citizens and to the rest of the world. We need to know what our government is doing so we can act to change its course should it stop reflecting our values. That is one of the reasons why Freedom of the Press has been valued throughout our history – as another check so that government cannot run roughshod over the collective will of the people.
Cowing journalists into submission with the threat of imprisonment under charges of aiding and abetting an ill-defined enemy when they are performing their ages-old function in our society is wrong. People like Manning and Hammonds, if guilty (and they have pled so to some charges), will go to jail. Most of the information they provided, however, should never have been kept secret from us in the first place, in my opinion.
A balance must be struck that both protects us from excessive governmental and corporate (corporations, after all, provide much of the information to the government) intrusion into our everyday lives and forces the government to keep us more fully informed as to what it does in our name and how. We do not need a future government that has learned how to quash dissent to such an extent that another Watergate or Iraq War can happen with no consequences to the guilty parties. The whistleblowers exposing illegal conduct by others should not be punished more severely than the perpetrators of the activities that they expose.
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