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…..