History is on the Side of the Whistle-Blowers

Those who reveal secret abuses of power are the friends of society and of history


Corporal Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are quite the center of controversy. The claim made by the government and the corporate elite is that Manning and Snowden are traitors to their country and have placed our national security at risk by revealing state/corporate secrets. They should face the full severity of the law and be made an example of for those who might be so inclined to follow in their footsteps.


Is the United States now suddenly less safe due to these blown whistles? If you believe that we are, then you must believe that our enemies did not know about the collateral damage done by drones in their own communities, or the fact that people were being tortured by the US. Could it be that al Qaeda is so technologically backward that it did not realize that any information sent through communication lines could be intercepted by the NSA? But now the gig is up. Everyone now knows that the NSA has significant technical sophistication at hand with which to spy on anyone. Perhaps al Qaeda operatives have never gone to a movie, or bothered to look at the DARPA website.

Indeed, the vast majority of the government’s “national security” secrets, or corporate “proprietary secrets” have nothing to do with national or corporate security. They are about controlling bad press, about keeping embarrassing and even criminal information from reaching the public. Whistleblowers are not a threat to national security; they are a threat to elite privilege. When President Obama claims that he does not know how many innocent civilians were killed in Iraq, or by drone strikes, it is embarrassing when some whistle-blower comes forward and proves that that is not true. When companies claim that they are protecting our privacy, it’s embarrassing when it turns out that they are not. It’s not that we, the public, don’t know that politicians and corporations lie, but if we lack information we are inclined to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true in foreign relations or military matters. When we find out that our leaders really are lying just as much as we always thought, well, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Yet, it does put our political and economic leaders in an awkward position.

Of course, the scariest thing for our leadership is for the revelation of their secrets to become catalysts for change. When Daniel Ellsberg revealed the extent to which the US government lied to the American people about Vietnam he fanned the flames of an already growing anti-war movement. He was called a traitor and put on trial, facing over a hundred years if found guilty. His actions became a crucial part of a larger anti-war movement that may have taken some time to end Vietnam, but was certainly a force that kept American leaders from engaging in more extensive wars up until the post 9/11 era. The first President Bush had the so called Vietnam Syndrome in mind when he insisted upon a limited war against Iraq during his administration. Who knows how many lives were saved?

When Mark Felt, A.K.A Deep Throat, spilled the beans about the extent of the infamous Watergate break-in, he was instrumental in taking down a president. Certainly, the cover-ups and secrecy of the Nixon Administration had nothing to do with national security. Watergate, like most of the secrets kept by those in power, was more about control than it was about protecting American citizens.

After all, did American citizens have to be protected from the knowledge that their country was torturing people in Abu Ghraib? Perhaps the claim could be made that such information could be used by our enemies to justify their violent actions against us. On the other hand, if torturing people is fuel for our enemies, let alone illegal and immoral, then don’t torture people.

When I was a kid one of my teachers taught me that if I felt that I had to cover something up, keep it secret, or lie about it, then it was probably wrong. We don’t keep secret the things we are proud of. We keep secrets for our own advantage. Secrecy is a selfish act of self-empowerment. That is true at personal as well as the institutional level.

That’s not to say that legitimate national security secrets don’t exist. Of course they do. Nobody is suggesting that things like troop movements, strength assessments or infiltration of real terrorist groups should be revealed to the world. Indeed, Snowden and Manning never revealed such information. The power to keep secrets, like any other power, is likely to be abused. That’s the benefit of whistle-blowers to society and to history. It is the daring of whistle-blowers, in the face of astronomical power and the potential for truly dire consequences, that serves as a check against elite power.

As such a check, they must be crushed. For their efforts, there will be no forgiveness and no mercy unless from the humiliated power elite unless we as a public demand it. When Daniel Ellsberg stood trial for the crime of revealing truths that were embarrassed by the elite, the fact that he was already acquitted by a public outraged by the abuse of power he revealed, was certainly a factor in his legal acquittal in the end.

Unfortunately, it appears that we as a public don’t really care about the value and courage of our whistle-blowers either now or in the future. That’s unfortunate. There may be a few more Snowdens out there, but considering the popular ambivalence meeting Manning and Snowden, an ambivalence that puts these two men in danger, it’s likely that future whistle-blowers will think twice about taking such risks.

This is to the benefit of those in power, and to the detriment of the public that deserves to know the truth about the crimes our political and corporate elite are committing in our name.

As it stands, Manning and Snowden are likely to be acquitted only by history.

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