Ibsen and Whistleblowers

The Chichester Fest­iv­al Theatre in the UK has been sta­ging Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, explor­ing the com­plex­it­ies of whis­tleblow­ing.

The CFT asked me to write an art­icle for the fest­iv­al pro­gramme about the value and role, the dangers and oppor­tun­it­ies, for twenty-first cen­tury whis­tleblowers. Here it is:

The Reg­u­lat­ors of Last Resort

Let us play a little game of word asso­ci­ation. I write “Edward Snowden” — and what is the first thought to leap into your mind? Hero? Trait­or? Who?

Or might it be whis­tleblower?

The con­tro­ver­sial issue of whis­tleblow­ing, which is at the heart of Ibsen’s play, has been firmly thrust into the pub­lic con­scious­ness over the last few years with the ongo­ing saga of Wikileaks and with high pro­file cases such as that of Chelsea Man­ning and, of course, Snowden him­self.

Often whis­tleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be trait­ors, grasses or snitches. Or they are set on such an hero­ic ped­es­tal that their example can actu­ally be dis­cour­aging, mak­ing you con­sider wheth­er you would ever take such a risk, often with the depress­ing con­clu­sion that it would be impossible for a whole range of prac­tic­al reas­ons – pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion, job secur­ity, fam­ily safety, even liberty.

How­ever, you have to ask your­self why, when faced with these risks and reper­cus­sions, indi­vidu­als (in the man­ner of the fic­tion­al Dr Stock­mann) do indeed speak out; why they do still con­sider the risks worth tak­ing? Par­tic­u­larly those emer­ging from the world of intel­li­gence, the mil­it­ary or the dip­lo­mat­ic corps who face the most griev­ous pen­al­ties.

The UK spy com­munity is the most leg­ally pro­tec­ted and least account­able of any West­ern demo­cracy, but the USA is catch­ing up fast. So, as a res­ult of such entrenched gov­ern­ment­al secrecy across these areas, whis­tleblow­ing is real­ist­ic­ally the only avail­able aven­ue to alert your fel­low cit­izens to abuses car­ried out secretly in their name.

I have a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the pro­cess. In the 1990s I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, gen­er­ally known as MI5, before resign­ing to help my former part­ner and col­league Dav­id Shayler blow the whistle on a cata­logue of incom­pet­ence and crime. As a res­ult we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hid­ing and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, fam­ily and journ­al­ists arres­ted around us. I was also arres­ted, although nev­er charged, and Dav­id went to pris­on twice for expos­ing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.

How­ever, it could all have been so dif­fer­ent if the UK gov­ern­ment had agreed to take his evid­ence of spy crimes, under­take to invest­ig­ate them thor­oughly, and apply the neces­sary reforms. This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could poten­tially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinct­ive response is always to pro­tect the spies and pro­sec­ute the whis­tleblower, while the mis­takes and crimes go unin­vestig­ated and unre­solved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the mal­efact­ors with pro­mo­tions and gongs.

The dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any dis­clos­ure what­so­ever. As a res­ult, we the cit­izens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integ­rity. There is no mean­ing­ful over­sight and no real account­ab­il­ity.

Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a dif­fer­ence and poten­tially save lives. How­ever, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any eth­ic­al con­cerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just fol­low orders”.

In such an envir­on­ment there is no vent­il­a­tion, no account­ab­il­ity and no staff fed­er­a­tion, and this inev­it­ably leads to a gen­er­al con­sensus – a bul­ly­ing “group think” men­tal­ity. This in turn can lead to mis­takes being covered up rather than les­sons learned, and then poten­tially down a dan­ger­ous mor­al slide.

As a res­ult, over the last 15 years we have seen scan­dal heaped upon intel­li­gence scan­dal, as the spies allowed their fake and politi­cised inform­a­tion to be used make a false case for an illeg­al war in Iraq; we have seen them des­cend into a spir­al of extraordin­ary rendi­tion (ie kid­nap­ping) and tor­ture, for which they are now being sued if not pro­sec­uted; and we have seen that they facil­it­ate dodgy deals in the deserts with dic­tat­ors.

Since the Shayler case in the late 1990s, oth­er UK whis­tleblowers have hit the head­lines: GCHQ’s Kath­er­ine Gun, who exposed illeg­al spy­ing on our so-called allies in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. She man­aged to avoid pro­sec­u­tion because of a pos­sible leg­al defence of neces­sity that res­ul­ted from Shayler’s case. Or Ambas­sad­or Craig Mur­ray, who exposed the tor­ture of polit­ic­al dis­sid­ents in Uzbek­istan – and when I say tor­ture, I mean the boil­ing alive of polit­ic­al oppon­ents of the régime, with the pho­to­graphs to prove it. Mur­ray was not pro­sec­uted, but he lost his career and was tra­duced with taw­dry slurs about his per­son­al life across the Brit­ish media.

The USA is little bet­ter. Since 2001 many intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers there have faced a grim fate. Ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s tor­ture pro­gramme, lan­guished for three years in pris­on while the tor­tur­ers remain free; Bill Bin­ney, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe of the NSA were houn­ded and nar­rowly escaped pro­sec­u­tion for expos­ing NSA mal­feas­ance; a col­league, Tom Drake faced a 35-year pris­on sen­tence, des­pite hav­ing gone through all the approved, offi­cial chan­nels; and in 2013 a kangaroo court was held to try Chelsea Man­ning for her expos­ure of US war crimes. Inev­it­ably, it is the whis­tleblower Man­ning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in pris­on, not the war crim­in­als.

Pres­id­ent Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espi­on­age Act against whis­tleblowers dur­ing his years in the White House more times than all his pre­de­cessors put togeth­er, while at the same time allow­ing a bone fide spy ring – the Rus­si­an illeg­als includ­ing Anna Chap­man — to return home in 2010. This para­noid hunt for the “insider threat” — the whis­tleblower — has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from doc­u­ments leaked, iron­ic­ally, to Wikileaks in 2010.

Against this back­ground, fully aware of the hideous risks he was tak­ing and the pro­spect of the rest of his life behind bars, in 2013 a young man stepped for­ward – Edward Snowden.

He was clear then about his motiv­a­tion and he remains clear now in the few inter­views he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge con­cern. The Amer­ic­an intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture, along with its part­ner agen­cies across the world, was con­struct­ing a glob­al sur­veil­lance net­work that not only threatens the con­sti­tu­tion of the United States, but also erodes the pri­vacy of all the world’s cit­izens.

Even against such a back­ground of oth­er brave whis­tleblowers, Snowden stands out for me for three key reas­ons: his per­son­al and con­scious cour­age at such a time, the sheer scale of his dis­clos­ures, and the con­tinu­ing, glob­al impact of what he exposed.

Unfor­tu­nately, while whis­tleblowers under­stand the leg­al risks they are tak­ing when they emerge from the intel­li­gence world or the dip­lo­mat­ic corps, they are often media vir­gins and are etern­ally sur­prised by the way the treat­ment meted out to them.

Until the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers had no choice but to entrust them­selves to the estab­lished media. Some like “Deep Throat”, the source of the Water­gate scan­dal in 1970s Amer­ica, were dis­trust­ful and remained in the shad­ows. Oth­ers, such as Daniel Ells­berg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, or Clive Pont­ing who in 1982 released inform­a­tion about the sink­ing of the Gen­er­al Bel­grano dur­ing the Falk­lands War, were for­tu­nate to work with cam­paign­ing journ­al­ists who fought both for their sources and the prin­ciple of press free­dom. Even when Shayler went pub­lic in the late 1990s, he had no option but to work with the estab­lished media.

From per­son­al exper­i­ence, I can attest to the fact that this is not always a pain­less exper­i­ence. With a few hon­or­able excep­tions, most of the journ­al­ists will just asset-strip their whis­tleblowers for inform­a­tion. They make their careers, while the whis­tleblower breaks theirs.

Plus, There are many ways our soi-dis­ant free press can be manip­u­lated and con­trolled by the spies. The soft power involves induct­ing journ­al­ists to be agents of influ­ence with­in their organ­isa­tion, or cosy chats between edit­ors and spies, or pro­pri­et­ors and top spies – that is how stor­ies can be spun or dis­ap­peared.

The hard power is extens­ive too — the applic­a­tion of laws such as libel, counter-ter­ror­ism laws, injunc­tions, and also the use of the OSA against journ­al­ists them­selves. Or even blatant intim­id­a­tion, as happened after The Guard­i­an news­pa­per pub­lished the early Snowden dis­clos­ures – the police went in and phys­ic­ally smashed up the hard drives con­tain­ing his inform­a­tion.

All this casts that well known chilling effect on the free­dom of the press and the free-flow of inform­a­tion from the gov­ern­ment to the gov­erned, which is so vital for an informed and par­ti­cip­at­ory cit­izenry.

Which brings me back to Wikileaks. Estab­lished in 2007, this provides a secure and high-tech con­duit for whis­tleblowers that gives them more con­trol and securely stores the doc­u­ments to prove their alleg­a­tions. This is also why the US gov­ern­ment saw it as such a threat and has pur­sued it in such a dra­coni­an and pun­it­ive way over the years since the first big rev­el­a­tions in 2010. Iron­ic­ally, this is also partly why much of the tra­di­tion­al media turned on Wikileaks – it threatened the old media busi­ness mod­el.

But from a whistleblower’s per­spect­ive, Wikileaks and its suc­cessors offer a brave new world. The tech­no­lo­gic­al genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

There is, of course, anoth­er pos­sible path. The intel­li­gence agen­cies could estab­lish mean­ing­ful chan­nels for vent­il­a­tion of staff con­cerns, where the evid­ence is prop­erly invest­ig­ated and reforms made as neces­sary. Hav­ing such a sound pro­ced­ure in place to address con­cerns strikes me as a win-win scen­ario for staff effi­ciency and mor­ale, the organisation’s oper­a­tion­al cap­ab­il­ity and repu­ta­tion, and poten­tially the wider pub­lic safety too.

How­ever, unless and until secret­ive gov­ern­ment­al organ­isa­tions insti­tute such legit­im­ate and effect­ive aven­ues for poten­tial whis­tleblowers to go down, embar­rass­ing dis­clos­ures will con­tin­ue. Nobody sets out to be a whis­tleblower but, absent effect­ive reforms, they will remain our reg­u­lat­ors of last resort.

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