The Age of Transparency?

Black_sheep_text?Well, this is an inter­est­ing case in the US.  Thomas Drake, a former senior exec­ut­ive at the Amer­ican National Secur­ity Agency (NSA), the US elec­tronic eaves­drop­ping organ­isa­tion, is being charged under the 1917 US Espi­on­age Act for allegedly dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied inform­a­tion to a journ­al­ist about, gasp, the mis­man­age­ment, fin­an­cial waste and dubi­ous legal prac­tices of the spy­ing organ­isa­tion.  These days it might actu­ally be more news­worthy if the oppos­ite were to be disclosed.…

How­ever, under the terms of the Espi­on­age Act, this des­ig­nates him an enemy of the Amer­ican people on a par with bona fide trait­ors of the past who sold secrets to hos­tile powers dur­ing the Cold War.

It strikes me that someone who reports mal­prac­tice, mis­takes and under-performance on the part of his (secret­ive) employ­ers might pos­sibly be someone who still has the motiv­a­tion to try to make a dif­fer­ence, to do their best to pro­tect people and serve the genu­ine interests of the whole coun­try.  Should such people be pro­sec­uted or should they be pro­tec­ted with a legal chan­nel to disclosure? 

Thomas Drake does not sound like a spy who should be pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age under the USA’s anti­quated act, he sounds on the avail­able inform­a­tion like a whis­tleblower, pure and simple.  But that won’t neces­sar­ily save him leg­ally, and he is appar­ently facing dec­ades in prison.  Pres­id­ent Obama, who made such a song and dance about trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, has an even more egre­gious track record than pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents for hunt­ing down whis­tleblowers — the new “insider threat”.

This, of course, chimes with the Brit­ish exper­i­ence.  So-called left-of-centre polit­ical can­did­ates get elec­ted on a plat­form of trans­par­ency, free­dom of inform­a­tion, and an eth­ical for­eign policy (think Blair as well as Obama), and promptly renege on all their cam­paign prom­ises once they grab the top job. 

In fact, I would sug­gest that the more pro­fessedly “lib­eral” the  gov­ern­ment, the more it feels empowered to shred civil liber­ties.  If a right-wing gov­ern­ment were to attack basic demo­cratic freedoms in such a way, the offi­cial oppos­i­tion (Democrats/Labour Party/whatever) would be obliged to make a show of oppos­ing the meas­ures to keep their core voters sweet.  Once they’re in power, of course, they can do what they want.

One stark example of this occured dur­ing the passing of the Brit­ish Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) which, as I’ve writ­ten before, was spe­cific­ally designed to gag whis­tleblowers and pen­al­ise journ­al­ists.  The old OSA (1911) was already in place to deal with real traitors.

And who voted against the passing of this act in 1989?  Yes, you’ve guessed it, all those who then went on to become Labour gov­ern­ment min­is­ters after the 1997 Labour elec­tion land­slide — Tony Blair, Jack Straw, the late Robin Cook and a scrum of other rather for­get­table min­is­ters and Attor­ney Gen­er­als.….  And yet it was this very New Labour gov­ern­ment in the UK that most often used the OSA to halt the free-flow of inform­a­tion and the dis­clos­ures of informed whis­tleblowers.  Obama has indeed learnt well.

It’s an oldie but still a goodie: as one of my law­yers once wryly told me, it doesn’t mat­ter whom you vote for, the gov­ern­ment still gets in.….

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