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Column: The drama surrounding Manning and Snowden is diverting attention from what matters

Manning’s gender identity crisis and the drama surrounding Snowden’s exile have simultaneously propelled them further into the media spotlight, while diverting us from the substance and consequence of their leaks, writes John Devitt.

John Devitt

WHEN UNITED AIRLINES Flight 175 hit the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, I was watching Sky News from what could be best described as a fortress on Dublin’s leafy Merrion Road.

I was working as a junior press officer at the British Embassy at the time. And although I always thought the embassy building looked a little out of place beside the rows of Edwardian mansions in Dublin 4, I was little more relaxed knowing that I was surrounded by reinforced steel, bomb-proof glass and granite.

I was especially thankful for the tight security when a bomb-threat was made against the embassy during the week of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

I was authorised to read sensitive British government documents

The UK Foreign Office, and their American counterparts, clearly take security very seriously and justifiably so. Diplomatic and embassy staff are particularly vulnerable to violent attack and kidnapping. They also have access to information that could be damaging to their employers’ interests.

In my case, it took a couple of months for my security clearance to come through but once it did, I was authorised to read sensitive British government documents and had access to the political section of the embassy.

In truth and for the most part, I filled envelopes with brochures for school kids, read the newspapers and wrote the odd press release. But every now and again, documents marked ‘classified’ would cross my desk or come through on the office fax machine. I don’t think I ever considered leaking any of them.

A cost-benefit analysis

In hindsight, I consider myself very lucky. I never felt the need to disclose anything to a journalist that my boss didn’t want me to. I believed that the cost to my employers and myself would have outweighed any benefit to the public interest in learning about the usually mundane contents of Foreign Office memos.

It was a cost-benefit analysis that I’m sure Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden found more than challenging. Manning and Snowden faced ethical dilemmas that few conscientious public servants would want to handle.

Both were presented with a stark choice: release the information and help expose wrongdoing, knowing that they were taking huge risks to their own lives and livelihoods. Or remain silent, leave the public in the dark, and walk away with their lives and careers intact.

The description of whistleblowers as conscientious people in the wrong place at the wrong time is rather apt.

A catalyst for public movements against corruption

And however history judges them, both Manning and Snowden’s leaks have already served as a catalyst for public movements against corruption (most notably in North Africa), extraordinary rendition, the torture and abuse of detainees in military custody; and in Snowden’s case, a hidden and potentially unlawful intelligence gathering programme on US and EU citizens.

Neither Manning nor Snowden are the first national security whistleblowers to lift the lid on wrongdoing. Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers that exposed the big lie behind the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago. More recently, former NSA analysts William Binney and Thomas Drake revealed a wasteful and unconstitutional intelligence gathering programme called Trailblazer that foreshadowed Snowden’s revelations.

Nevertheless, Manning and Snowden have captured the public’s imagination in a way that Drake, Binney and even Ellsberg have not.

The media circus is diverting attention from the substance of the leaks

Manning’s gender identity crisis and the drama surrounding Snowden’s exile have served to simultaneously propel them further into the media spotlight, while diverting us from the substance and consequence of their leaks. The media circus surrounding the cases has also served to distract from the punitive 35 year sentence handed down to Manning, and the concerted and counterproductive man-hunt of Snowden.

However, in some ways, it is the over-reaction to the leaks that is more revealing than the leaks themselves.

Punitive action against Manning and Snowden shows us how even elected governments can sometimes get their priorities wrong. It sends the message to public servants that the release of information on abuse is worse than the abuse itself, and warns other prospective whistleblowers to keep their concerns to themselves.

A war on whistleblowers

The war on whistleblowers in advanced democracies also emboldens authoritarian regimes in their campaign against political dissent and free speech. After all, if it’s good enough for the ‘leader of the free-world’ to brand a whistleblower a criminal before her trial, then it must be good for self-appointed political leaders too.

We have been asked is this Transparency International’s fight? After all, TI is meant to focus on corruption: defined by us as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. I don’t speak for everyone at TI, but I believe this is an issue for anyone concerned about the potential abuse of power. Protecting whistleblowers and journalists that expose the abuse of power is important whether or not power is abused for private or financial gain.

Information offers political and commercial advantage

What’s more, information and data can be valuable commodities for those who use it for political or commercial advantage. Last year, we saw how insurance companies in Ireland routinely paid investigators to access private data on citizens from civil servants at the Department of Social Welfare. Earlier this year, we learned how senior Gardaí were able to manipulate data on the Garda Pulse system with impunity and at significant cost to the taxpayer – not to mention the integrity of our road safety programme.

Now imagine if Gardaí or civil servants had access to every email you ever sent, and without any proper control or political oversight on how they use them.

The mass accumulation of data and information potentially hands public bodies and their employees enormous power – it might be worth reminding ourselves of Lord Acton’s famous maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Whistleblowers need our protection

As governments accumulate more information, they potentially acquire more power and control over our lives. It is important therefore that that power be held to account. This involves ensuring that legal controls are put in place to ensure that governments can be held accountable. Where those laws and institutions fail, it is left to journalists and whistleblowers to let us know.

This is not to suggest that information be leaked without any thought to the consequences for other peoples’ welfare and safety. But at the very least, it is critical that public servants who are unlucky enough to witness wrongdoing be equipped with the knowledge and skills to weigh up know why, when and how they should let the public know.

After all, if Manning and Snowden’s cases demonstrate anything, it’s that we sometimes need someone to guard us against our guardians.

John Devitt is Chief Executive of Transparency International Ireland which operates a free service for whistleblowers. More information is available at www.speakup.ie.

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