Sprung a leak: the rise of the whistleblower

July 31, 2013

I ask you something else: What is the difference between the punishment of Bradley Manning and that of a snitch's caught by the Mafia? Other than our ruling Mafia being truly outside the law?

In the internet age, it has become much easier for people to expose what’s going on at the very top of government. Recently, people with access to this information have sounded the alarm on everything from who’s shagging who to governments spying on their own citizens. Sometimes, this is nothing more than pointless tabloid fodder, at other times, however, it can represent a serious threat to our personal freedoms. One example of the latter is the recent exposé by Edward Snowden of the covert Prism programme.

With its sciencey sounding name and a logo that could easily belong to a Bond villain, Prism seems to be the very embodiment of clandestine clichés normally saved for Cold War novels and dodgy action films. In reality, Prism gives the US government (and probably ours) access to all of our Facebooks and Gmails. So much for being the ‘land of the free’. Since leaking some of the most significant documents in US political history, Snowden has shown himself to be willing to sacrifice his home, his salary and, in all probability, his freedom in order to expose the ‘massive surveillance machine’. The fact that Russia have declared they would consider any appeal for asylum made by Snowden just shows how Cold War-esque this all really is. Thirty years ago, it was just called defecting.


Snowden’s motives seem remarkably similar to those of another famous whistleblower: Bradley Manning. Manning, having grown disillusioned and depressed with US foreign policy, leaked thousands of secret military files to WikiLeaks in an attempt to ‘spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy’. Unlike Snowden, Manning has no chance of political asylum, but he is facing his own Cold War trial as he is charged with, amongst other things, the broad and archaic sounding ‘aiding the enemy’. Another similarity between these two whistleblowers is that they were both previously hugely committed to their country, Manning as a soldier and Snowden through his work with the National Security Agency (NSA).

It’s a pretty extraordinary transition to make from their previously patriotic jobs to performing an act that they knew would have them branded as traitors, showing just how seriously they regarded the information they had seen. Presumably, these two men had been privy to hundreds, if not thousands, of other secrets hidden from the American people, so what made them leak these particular secrets?

Because of their previous roles in defence, Manning, Snowden and others like them will be acutely aware of the delicate balance needed between security and privacy. Both of these are considered by most to be two hugely important, and basic, human rights. Therefore, a debate is raging over whether or not you can be entirely secure and have your privacy completely intact and, if not, which of the two is more important? It is relatively widely known that Facebook sells the information of its members to big, multinational businesses. With over a billion people on Facebook (therefore sacrificing some privacy anyway) can we complain too much about the fact the government is also able to see that information? If people aren’t outraged about that, but are about Prism, you might say that people are more willing to sacrifice their privacy in order to look through people’s holiday albums than in order to maintain some level of national security.


With the beginning of Manning’s trial coinciding almost exactly with Snowden’s leaks, whistleblowing has been in the news more than ever. It is against this backdrop that the most famous whistleblower of recent years becomes relevant once again. That’s right, Julian Assange. The accused lothario and mud-stained hero of the free world is approaching the first anniversary of being holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange’s story is more mature than that of Manning and Snowden. But all three contain, to some degree, serious attacks on their personality. Straw-man arguments, which too often succeed in distracting public attention from the actual, confirmed evil. Any conscious debater will exclaim that this kind of ‘ad hominem’ argument is proof of desperation, a sign of the squirming defeated. Spin, regardless of its truth.

On paper, the Swedish government are attempting to extradite Assange to question him on allegations of rape. Both complainants openly admit to having had consensual sex with Assange and neither went to the police with the intention of accusing Assange of rape (instead, they claim to have been angling for a law enforced AIDS test, which Assange had refused to take on the grounds of time and absurdity). So, his charges are greyer. They are also not what you or I would necessarily consider rape. In Sweden it is (legally) rape if you have sex with someone who doesn’t know that you aren’t wearing a condom. This what Assange stands accused of. There are undoubtedly aspects to this case that are far more confusing than many people think, but these are seldom reported by the media. You might say that it is too late, the damage has been done and Assange’s personality has been tarnished regardless of his innocence or guilt. With his reputation ruined, his voice has very nearly been silenced.

Assange is convinced that Sweden wish to extradite him as a result of American pressure, based on his role within WikiLeaks. This is believable when you consider that Assange is perfectly happy to be questioned by Swedish police on UK soil, or even to travel to Sweden for questioning if they can guarantee he will not be extradited to the U.S.A. Of course, both of these proposals have been rejected. So naturally, Assange has locked himself away in his very own slice of Ecuadorian heaven, creating a total, diplomatic stalemate. Assange and his legal team have been keen to dismiss his charges as an attempt to discredit him and what he has revealed, a claim perhaps easy to dismiss when considering his perceived ego. But In reality, it is very easy to see where he is coming from. The claims made against Assange (be they true or untrue) have spread like wildfire across the globe, and his media vilification has replaced the debate surrounding WikiLeaks with a debate on Assange’s criminality. It’s the unverified accusations against Jullian Assange versus the exposition of a state that has killed over 90,000 innocent Iraqi humans. Why is the former the talking point? What a heartbreaking (and convenient) victory for those who stand to gain from Assange’s vilification.

Both Assange’s extreme paranoia and Snowden’s decision to pre-emptively flee to Hong Kong show a genuine fear of reprisal from the American government. This is not without basis. Despite his trial only recently beginning – never mind the fact he is yet to be found guilty – Bradley Manning has spent the best part of three years in solitary confinement, causing some people to claim that the United States have broken international law. All a bit scary really. But can people really complain about being harshly treated for breaking a law they knew existed? Well, clearly you can when being held without charge a-la Manning. But When people like these make the decision to disclose classified information, they are fully aware that their government will be pretty pissed off and want to punish them for it. However, Manning could never have predicted just how vicious the government would be, or just how powerless his own supporters would be in the face of government pressure.

The question of whether or not these men, and others like them, have broken the law is a pointless one (they have). Instead, the focus of the debate that will inevitably follow such a news story should focus on the validity and necessity of these laws and their enforcement. Because in these instances, we see that there are in fact laws in place to protect the state from accountability. To deter the public from exposing crimes committed on our behalf. I ask you, how can you have democracy unless you protect the whistleblowers?

Laws such as the Patriot act, and the Official Secrets Act in this country, are undoubtedly in place to protect the citizens of the country in question and they’re not some arm of the New World Order trying to mould our thoughts into non-resistance, as such (because that would be ridiculous). However, these laws do need to be applied with intelligence and rational thinking, for a greater humanitarian good. Not in a way that takes the lives from those who expose murder and injustice.

I ask you something else: What is the difference between the punishment of Bradley Manning and that of a snitch’s caught by the Mafia? Other than our ruling Mafia being truly outside the law?

It is an undoubted truth that governments make mistakes. When these mistakes are made in public and we, the electorate, can see them for all they are, this represents less of a problem – depending on the scale or illegality of the mistake. But when ‘mistakes’ like the iraqi death toll or Prism, take place in the shadowy world of secret surveillance and James Bond villains, where we are none the wiser… we know that we are not free. Not free because we can’t do anything to stop it. We can’t even keep the people who told us from incarceration.

During the writing of this article (30th July), Bradley Manning was found guilty of multiple accounts of espionage and theft. Thank fuck that the prosecution’s ‘Aiding the Enemy’ wild card didn’t stick, because he now only faces a potential 136 years in jail. Sentencing began today.

In an ideal world of open, honest and transparent government there would be no need for people like Manning and Snowden. This isn’t an ideal world, and we need them more than ever.

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