What price whistleblowers?

First published on Consortium News.

Forgive my “infamously fluent French”, but the phrase “pour encourager les autres” seems to have lost its famously ironic quality. Rather than making an example of people who dissent in order to prevent future dissidence, now it seems that the USA is globally paying bloody big bucks to people in order to encourage them to expose the crimes of their employers – well, at least if they are working for banks and other financial institutions.

I have been aware for a few years that the USA instituted a law in 2010 called the Dodd-Frank Act that is designed to encourage people employed in the international finance community to report malfeasance to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in return for a substantial percentage of any monies recouped.

This law seems to have produced a booming business for such high-minded “whistleblowers” – if that could be the accurate term for such actions? They are celebrated and can receive multi-million dollar pay days, the most recent (unnamed) source receiving $20 million.

Nor is this US initiative just potentially benefiting US citizens – it you look at the small print at the bottom of this page, disclosures are being sent in from all over the world.

Which is all to the public good no doubt, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash and the ensuing fall-out that hit us all.  We need more clarity about arcane casino banking practices that have bankrupted whole countries, and we need justice.

But does rather send out a number of contradictory messages to those in other areas of work who might also have concerns about the legality of their organisations, and which may have equal or even graver impacts on the lives of their fellow human beings.

If you work in finance and you see irregularities it is apparently your legal duty to report them through appropriate channels – and then count the $$$ as they flow in as reward – whether you are a USA citizen or based elsewhere around the world. Such is the power of globalisation, or at least the USA’s self-appointed role as the global hegemon.

However, if you happen to work in the US government, intelligence agencies or military, under the terms of the American Constitution it would also appear to be your solemn duty under oath to report illegalities, go through the officially designated channels, and hope reform is the result.

But, from all recent examples, it would appear that you get damn few thanks for such patriotic actions.

Take the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive, who in 2007 went public about waste and wanton expenditure within the agency, as I wrote way back in 2011. Tom went through all the prescribed routes for such disclosures, up to and including a Congressional Committee hearing.

Despite all this, Tom was abruptly snatched by the FBI in a violent dawn raid and threatened with 35 years in prison.  He (under the terrifying American plea bargain system) accepted a misdimeanour conviction to escape the horrors of federal charges, the resulting loss of all his civic rights and a potential 35 years in prison.  He still, of course, lost his job, his impeccable professional reputation, and his whole way of life.

He was part of a NSA group which also included Bill Binney, the former Technical Director of the NSA, and his fellow whistleblowers Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loumis and Diane Roark.

These brave people developed an electronic mass-surveillance programme called Thin Thread that could winnow out those people who were genuinely of security interest and worth targeting, a programme which would have cost the US $1.4 million, been consistent with the terms of the American constitution and, according to Binney, could potentially have stopped 9/11 and all the attendant horrors..

Instead, it appears that backs were scratched and favours called in with the incoming neo-con government of George W Bush in 2000, and another programme called Trail Blaizer was developed, to the tune of $1.2 billion – and which spied on everyone across America (as well as the rest of the world) and thereby broke, at the very least, the terms of the American constitution.

Yet Bill Binney was still subjected to a FBI SWAT team raid – he was dragged out of the shower early one morning at gun-point. All this is well documented in an excellent film “A Good American” and I recommend watching it.

Rather a contrast to the treatment of financial whistleblowers – no retaliation and big bucks. Under that law, Bill would have received a payout of millions for protecting the rights of his fellow citizens as well as saving the American public purse to the tune of over a billion dollars. But, of course, that is not exactly in the long-term business interests of our now-global surveillance panopticon.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in his valedictory speech in 1961, warned of the subversive interests of the “military-industrial” complex.  That seems so quaint now.  What we are facing is a steroid-pumped, globalised military surveillance industry that will do anything to protect its interests.  And that includes crushing principled whistleblowers “pour encourager les autres“.

Yet that manifestly has not happened, as I need to move on to the even-more-egregious cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

The former, as you may remember, was a former American army private currently serving 35 years in a US military prison for exposing the war crimes of the USA. She is the most obvious victim of outgoing-President Obama’s war on whistleblowers, and surely deserving of his supposed outgoing clemency.

The latter, currently stranded in Russia en route from Hong Kong to political asylum in Ecuador is, in my view and as I have said before, the most significant whistleblower in modern history. But he gets few thanks – indeed incoming US Trump administration appointees have in the past called for the death penalty.

So all this is such a “wonderfully outstanding encouragement” to those in public service in the USA to expose corruption – not. Work for the banks and anonymously snitch – $$$kerching! Work for the government and blow the whistle – 30+ years in prison or worse. Hmmm.

If President-Elect Donald Trump is serious about “draining the swamp” then perhaps he could put some serious and meaningful public service whistleblower protection measures in place, rather than prosecuting such patriots?

After all, such measures would be a win-win situation, as I have said many times before – a proper and truly accountable channel for potential whistleblowers to go to, in the expectation that their concerns will be properly heard, investigated and criminal actions prosecuted if necessary.

That way the intelligence agencies can become truly accountable, sharpen their game, avoid a scandal and better protect the public; and the whistleblower does not need ruin their life, losing their job, potentially their freedom and worse.

After all, where are the most heinous crimes witnessed?  Sure, bank crimes impact the economy and the lives of working people; but out-of-control intelligence agencies that kidnap, torture and assassinate countless people around the world, all in secret, actually end lives.

All that said, other Western liberal democracies are surely less draconian than the USA, no?

Well, unfortunately not.  Take the UK, a country still in thrall to the glamorous myth of James Bond, and where there have been multiple intelligence whistleblowers from the agencies over the last few decades – yet all of them have automatically faced prison.  In fact, the UK suppression of intelligence, government, diplomatic, and military whistleblowers seems to have acted as an exemplar to other countries in how you stifle ethical dissent from within.

Sure, the prison sentences for such whistleblowing are not as draconian under the UK Official Secrets Act (1989) as the anachronistic US Espionage Act (1917). However, the clear bright line against *any* disclosure is just as stifling.

In the UK, a country where the intelligence agencies have for the last 17 years been illegally prostituting themselves to advance the interests of a foreign country (the USA), this is simply unacceptable. Especially as the UK has just made law the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), against all expert advice, which legalises all this previously-illegal activity and indeed expanded the hacking powers of the state.

More worryingly, the ultra-liberal Norway, which blazed a calm and humanist trail in its response to the murderous white-supremacist terrorist attacks of Anders Breivik only 5 years ago, has now proposed a draconian surveillance law.

And Germany – a country horrified by the Snowden revelations in 2013, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi – has also just expanded the surveillance remit of its spooks.

In the face of all this, it appears there has never been a greater need of intelligence whistleblowers across the Western world. Yet it appears that, once again, there is one law for the bankers et al – they are cashed up, lauded and rewarded for reporting legalities.

For the rest of the Poor Bloody Whistleblowers, it’s prosecution and persecution as usual, despite the fact that they may indeed be serving the most profound of public interests – freedom, privacy and the ability to thereby have a functioning democracy.

As always – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. So back to my fluent French, referenced at the start: we are, it seems, all still mired in the merde.