At the end of June, Edward Snowden stepped forward to the Guardian as a whistleblower. As you may be aware, he was hiding in Hong Kong at the time, fearing arrest. Snowden was leaking classified documents containing information about surveillance schemes from the USA and the UK, the schemes in question are an embarrassment to both countries as they could be seen as invasive of public’s privacy.
Snowden then spent several weeks on the run, attempting to find a country that would grant him asylum. It is known that he made it to Russia, where he was expected to board a plane to Cuba – which he didn’t. It was realised that he was hiding in the airport, attempting to get asylum granted to him by several authorities – Russia, after much discussion, granted this on the condition that Snowdon stop leaking sensitive information and he agreed. Much to the USA’s disappointment, Snowden has a one year visa for asylum in Russia.
I followed Snowden’s story with great interest as it was unfolding, in my eyes he is a hero, throwing away his entire life simply to tell us the truth about how our governments are watching and monitoring us. Of course there having been other opinions on Snowden’s actions, not just limited to individuals but nations, for example, in the UK press he has largely been met with a positive reaction, however, in the USA the press’ bias is against him. I can’t find the original quote from CNN, but it wasn’t friendly.
British MOD (Ministry of Defence) issued a D notice – in effect, a more politically correct gagging order. The D-Notice limited the information the British press could release, supposedly to protect national security. The Frightening thing about the D-Notice is that it does not require the support of the Government: it is an MOD decision.
Here are the MOD’s official reasons: “to prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations and methods, or put at risk the safety of those involved in such operations, or lead to attacks that would damage the critical national infrastructure and / or endanger lives.”
In some ways it could be argued that the reasons behind the D-Notice are fair; we don’t want people being put in danger and we wouldn’t want this information falling into the wrong hands – like the public’s. After the D-Notice was served the media fell very quiet about Mr Snowden, which is fair enough, the MOD aren’t an organisation you want to upset – all the information they’ve gathered on you make them a more than worthy opponent.
So, how should we react to whistleblowers? Not all whistle blowers expose government dealings, Peter Francis, who spent four years undercover within protest groups, has stepped forward to say that he had been tasked with finding “dirt” on the family of Stephen Lawrence. Mr Francis is a whistleblower, the difference is that he stepped out against the police force, not the government. The reaction he received from our government was a mostly positive one, a public inquiry has been set up to investigate his claims.
Or Bradley Manning, the US Army private who leaked hundreds of secret documents to Wikileaks, has just been convicted of 20 charges of espionage and is likely to be sentenced to 136 years in jail. Bradley released a video taken from an American helicopter, the helicopter in question opened fire on a public square, injuring and killing innocent civilians in New Baghdad in 2007. The US covered this up, claiming that it had been a hostile attack. The video (easily Google-able) proves this story to be false.
The interesting thing – brought to light after Manning’s conviction – is that since the creation of the espionage act in 1917, there have only been ten convictions, seven of which have occurred during the Obama administration (which of course the US is under).
So, how should we feel about whistleblowers, especially political ones such as Snowden and Manning? Are they terrorists trying to leak sensitive information about both the US and the UK to undermine our global position and “war on terror” efforts? Or are people such as Manning and Snowden alerting us to corruption within our leaders? For instance, Manning’s most famous release was that video I mentioned earlier. Not one of the soldiers in that helicopter, nor their senior commanders, have been tried for war crimes, even though as the video proves, they all knew full well of the civilians in that square, and knowing they were innocents, they opened fire. Did Manning not do a good thing by releasing that video? Did he not bring to light that atrocious crime?
Before we judge or condemn whistleblowers, we need to make sure we take a long hard look at the information they are giving us. Some whistleblowers aren’t doing a good thing, but many are. It is only after we have the whole story that we should judge.