A debate is currently under way in the (ex) Land of the Free about how much protection intelligence whistleblowers should be accorded under the law.
Yes, the country that has brought the world the “war on terror”, Guantanamo Bay, and the Patriot Act, is having a moral spasm about how to best protect those who witness high crimes and misdemeanors inside the charmed circle of secrecy and intelligence.
And about time too, following the mess of revelations about spy complicity in torture currently emerging on both sides of the pond.
Interestingly, intelligence officials in the US already have a smidgeon more leeway than their UK counterparts. In the US, if you witness a crime committed by spies, you have to take your concerns to the head of the agency, and then you can go to Congress. In the UK, the only person you can legally report crime to is the head of the agency involved, so guess how many successful complaints are made? Even taking your proven and legitimate concerns to your elected UK representatives is a crime under the OSA.
Spooks in the UK now have access to an “ethical counsellor”, who has reportedly been visited a grand total of 12 times by intelligence officers since 2006. But this person has no power to investigate allegations of crime, and a visit guarantees a career-blocking black mark on your record of service: ie if you are the sort of person to worry your head with quaint ideas like ethics and morality you are, at best, not a team player and, worse, a possible security risk.
This is surely culturally unsustainable in a community of people who generally sign up to protect the citizens of the country and want to make a positive difference by working within the law? Those who have concerns will resign, at the very least, and those who like to “just follow orders” will float to the top. As one of the leading proponents for greater whistleblower protection in the USA states in the linked article:
“The code of loyalty to the chain of command is the primary value at those institutions, and they set the standard for intensity of retaliation.”
Some enlightened US politicians appear to be aware that intelligence whistleblowers require protection just as all other employees receive under the law: perhaps more so, as the nature of their work may well expose them to the most heinous crimes imaginable. There is also an argument for putting proper channels in place to ensure that whistleblowers don’t feel their only option is to risk going to the press. Effective channels for blowing the whistle and investigating crime can actually protect national security rather than compromise it.
The nay-sayers, of course, want to keep everything secret — after all, the status quo is currently working so well in upholding democratic values across the globe. Critics of the new legislation talk of “disgruntled employees .… gleefully” spilling the beans. Why is this hoary old line always dragged out in this type of discussion? Why are whistleblowers always described in this way, rather than called principled, brave or ethical?
Blanket secrecy works against the real interests of our countries. Mistakes can be covered up, group-think ensures that crimes continue, and anyone offering constructive criticism is labelled as a risky troublemaker — no doubt a “disgruntled” one at that.
Of course, certain areas of intelligence work need to be protected: current operational details (as ex-Met Assistant Commissioner, Bob Quick has discovered), agent identities, and sensitive techniques. But the life blood of a healthy democracy depends on open debate, ventilation of problems, and agreed solutions. Informed and participatory citizens need to know what is being done in their name.