Killing the Messenger

The US government’s persecution of whistleblowers is akin to the jailing of dissenters in authoritarian regimes, and undermines democracy’s very foundation — the public’s right to know.

I was born in 1984, the year Orwell foretold, in China, the country whose reigning government has ruthlessly implemented Orwellian tactics. My grandfather was a professor of philosophy and political science, the worst job title one can hold during a violent regime change. He was branded “right-wing”, and spent twenty years in “reform through labor” (doublespeak for forced manual labor in subsistent conditions).

China’s record of jailing dissenters is well-known. Controlling information is one of the main tools the government uses to maintain tight grip on power. Well, duh, you might say, it’s China, an authoritarian one-party state. Of course the government doesn’t want its citizens to be well-informed, because a well-informed citizenry would start questioning the government agenda, and ultimately the legitimacy of the government itself.

We live in the United States. We are nothing like that. We have freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We are a democracy.

Democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest, in any given circumstance. — Aldous Huxley

It shouldn’t require stating, but a functioning democracy depends on well-informed citizens, which is why the US government’s overreaching efforts to hide information from the public and its zealous persecution of whistleblowers is deeply disturbing and cause for alarm.

In China it is dangerous business to seek out and spread information the government doesn’t want people to know. Prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been one of the critical voices against the Chinese government. One of his investigations was into how many children died in the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake from being crushed inside shoddily built schools (an indictment of corrupt construction practices overseen by the local government), because the government has refused to release the death toll. Many believed Ai’s international fame would protect him, but even he “dissappeared” for 81 days, detained under secret police custody.

The way the current US administration has been zealously prosecuting whistleblowers smacks of the same motivation to silence those who are trying to help the public be more informed about government activities — activities which are questionable at best and downright unconstitutional at worst.

A Journalist

Barrett Brown is a journalist who was investigating the emails of a US private security firm, Stratfor, which were leaked by hacktivists. Brown uncovered that “government contractors were attempting to undermine Americans’ free speech—with the apparent blessing of the Department of Justice.” Information that was important enough for a group of Democratic congressmen to ask for an investigation into it (which was denied).

The FBI has gone after Brown on charges of credit card fraud, because the leaked emails contained unencrypted credit card data, and Brown had shared the data with other journalists. The FBI then tacked on additional charges so that Brown was facing over a century in federal prison.

Considering that the person who carried out the actual Stratfor hack […] is facing a maximum of 10 years, the inescapable conclusion is that the problem is not with the hack itself but with Brown’s journalism.

It’s worth noting that the Chinese government also likes to prosecute activists not for dissenting per se, but on some other trumped up charge. For example, when Ai Weiwei was finally released, he was charged with tax evasion to the tune of more than $2 million US, which most view as “political retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the government”.

A Soldier

Bradley Manning is an American soldier that leaked a large amount of military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, including the “Collateral Murder” video that shows US soldiers opening fire and killing a group of men, including a Reuters journalist and his driver, who were just standing around. Manning’s court martial for this offense is currently ongoing. Manning has pled guilty to 10 of 22 charges, which already total 20 years in jail, but the US government is trying to pin on the hefty charge of “aiding the enemy”, a claim which Amnesty International has called “ludicrous” that an individual leaking information to a news organisation could be guilty of helping Al-Qaeda. Former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay testified in Manning’s defense the leaked information is of no use to enemy groups and poses no threat to US national security, and that most of the information was already in the public domain, including on government websites. The leaks have not caused anyone harm, and even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates admitted the consequences for US foreign policy is “fairly modest”.

Manning believed the information should be public so the public can be informed about foreign policy, and to promote “discussion, debates, and reforms.” The way the US government has persecuted Manning — from inhumane and illegal imprisonment pre-trial, to now seeking to put Manning away for life (plus 154 years on additional charges) — is making an example out of Manning to deter other potential whistleblowers, and also dampens further discussion or criticism of the uncovered foreign policy that is embarrassing to the US. Foreign policy that tacitly endorses the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

There is no body of theory or significant body of relevant information, beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy immune from criticism. To the extent that “expert knowledge” is applied to world affairs, it is surely appropriate—for a person of any integrity, quite necessary—to question its quality and the goals it serves. These facts seem too obvious to require extended discussion. — Noam Chomsky

A Defense Contractor

Edward Snowden is now infamous for publicizing the massive surveillance programs by the NSA, gross intrusions on the privacy of Americans that encroach on the US Constitution. The US government is calling Snowden a traitor and is prosecuting him as a spy. Snowden was smart to leave the US to avoid similar treatment to Manning and other whistleblowers.

Obama defended NSA’s massive data collection, saying it’s only applied narrowly, despite continuously more evidence coming out that the amount of data being collected is much more than previously revealed. Obama says it’s only “metadata” that’s being collected, even though anyone familiar with big data in the slightest knows how powerful this metadata is. Obama says there is “transparent” oversight in the form of the FISA court, despite it being a secret court that only hears from one side, the government, and acts like a rubberstamp.

Obama wants to reassure us that all of this surveillance, and shrouding it in secrecy, is necessary for our security, but again, it seems like another case of killing the messenger and squelching debate about the legality of such mass-surveillance programs.

Even if you agree with the government’s approach to wanton mass surveillance, the absolute secrecy under which it has been carried out is inherently troubling. There can be no public discourse about secret policies and secret laws being passed though they directly impact the public. These maneuvers erode the democratic process and wrest away the power of the people to discern for themselves what is in their best interest.

The US government is heavy-handedly going about silencing whistleblowers, while shirking accountability for the information uncovered by them. The government has used dubious interpretations of the law to ensure whistleblowers get the full brunt of consequences for daring to publicize information about the government. Information that helps the public be well-informed about what kind of activities the government is engaged in behind the curtain, which — it shouldn’t need mentioning — are funded by the public. The message is clear: Don’t question the government and keep your mouth shut. Is this how a “democratic” government should behave?

It’s worth noting that China’s Constitution actually asserts that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.” I was astounded by this, because in practice, anyone could tell you this is patently false. Anyone who dares to exercise rights of free speech and assembly are routinely persecuted, under the guise of maintaining social stability.

I hope that the United States Constitution will not become a similar farce, under the guise of maintaining national security.

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