The US government has apparently been getting its knickers in a twist about the excellent Wikileaks website. A report written in 2008 by US army counter-intelligence analysing the threat posed by this haven for whistleblowers has been leaked to, you’ve guessed it, the very subject of the report.
Wikileaks was set up three years ago to provide a secure space for principled whistleblowers around the world to expose corruption and crimes committed by our governments, intelligence agencies and mega-corporations. The site takes great care to verify the information it publishes, adheres to the principle of exposing information very much in the public interest, and vigorously protects the identify of its sources.
By doing so, Wikileaks plays a vital part in informing citizens of what is being done (often illegally) in their name. This free flow of information is vital in a democracy.
Well, no government likes a clued-up and critical citizenry, nor does it like to have transparency and accountability imposed on it. Which led to the report in question.
As I have written before ad nauseam, whistleblowers provide an essential function to the healthy working of a democracy. The simplistic approach would be to say that if governments, spies and big corporations obeyed the law, there would be no need for whistleblowers. However, back in the real, post‑9/11 world, with its endless, nebulous “war on terror”, illegal wars, torture, extraordinary rendition and Big Brother surveillance, we have never had greater need of them.
Rather than ensuring the highest standards of legality and probity in public life, it is far simpler for the powers that be to demonise the whistleblower — a figure who is now (according to the Executive Summary of the report) apparently seen as the “insider threat”. We are looking at a nascent McCarthyism here. It echoes the increasing use by our governments of the term “domestic extremists” when they are talking about activists and protesters.
There are laws to protect whistleblowers in most areas of work now. In the UK we have the Public Interest Disclosure Act (1998). However, government, military, and especially intelligence professionals are denied this protection, despite the fact that they are most often the very people to witness the most heinous state abuses, crimes and corruption. If they try to do something about this, they are also the people most likely to be prosecuted and persecuted for following their consciences, as I described in a talk at the CCC in Berlin a couple of years ago.
Ideally, such whistleblowers need a protected legal channel through which to report crimes, with the confidence that these will be properly investigated and the perpetrators held to account. Failing that, sites like Wikileaks offer an invaluable resource. As I said last summer at the Hacking at Random festival in NL, when I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, I just wish that the organisation had existed a decade earlier to help with my own whistleblowing exploits.
The Official Secrets Act (1989) in the UK, is drafted to stifle whistleblowers rather than protect real secrets. Such laws are routinely used to cover up the mistakes, embarrassment and crimes of spies and governments, rather than to protect national security. After all, even the spooks acknowledge that there are only three categories of intelligence that absolutely require protection: sensitive operational techniques, agent identities and ongoing operations.
This US counter-intelligence report is already 2 years old, and its strategy for discrediting Wikileaks (by exposing one of their sources pour encourager les autres) has, to date, manifestly failed. Credit is due to the Wikileaks team in out-thinking and technologically outpacing the intelligence community, and is a ringing endorsement for the whole open source philosophy.
I’ve said this before, and I shall say it again: as our countries evolve ever more into surveillance societies, with big brother databases, CCTV, biometric data, police drones, voting computers et al, geeks may be our best (and last?) defence against emerging Big Brother states.