In most western countries, we assume that our governments protect freedom of speech and, even if they don’t welcome it, at least accept that they will be held accountable by the press and public alike. Normally, we hold up such openness as proof of the success of our democratic systems. So why, then, are whistleblowers treated as if they had betrayed their own people?
The recent media storm surrounding those such as Edward Snowden (the former CIA employee who disclosed the existence of Prism to the Guardian) and Bradley Manning (the soldier accused of leaking the Iraq and Afghan War logs to WikiLeaks) has only highlighted this question. With Manning undergoing a second military trial at a US army base and Snowden hiding out in Hong Kong, it is time society privileged government accountability over security.
It is easy to see why security has been winning the tug-of-war recently. In the aftermath of 9/11, protection became the order of the day—just look at the Patriot Act, which gave America’s law-enforcement agencies sweeping new powers, as an example of how far legislators were prepared to go. Scrutiny took the back seat, with members of Congress overseeing intelligence agencies sworn to secrecy. The public simply did not know what was being done in the name of keeping it safe.
But unaccountable governments are dangerous things. This is why whistleblowers have always been so important. In many cases, the public has welcomed the knowledge of their governments’ misdemeanours: would you rather MPs were still swindling taxpayers with their expenses? Should Nixon have been able to bug the Watergate Hotel with impunity? Of course not—and you have whistleblowers to thank for ending those abuses of power. The only difference between these cases and, say, that of Edward Snowden, is that these leaks did not put us in some supposed danger.
But really, the point is exactly the same. Snowden and Manning knew that their government was doing things which people would not support and was deliberately not telling them about it. They acted on their consciences, and they should not be condemned for doing so. They share the common view that the government does not have the right to define its own powers. That is the prerogative of the people, and in order to pass judgement, we need to be informed. As can be seen from the uproar around Prism, people actually value freedom over security a little more than the National Security Agency thought: the intelligence agencies simply drew the line in the wrong place.
Whistleblowing is a sure-fire way of handing power back to the people. It gives them the power to decide, the power to protect their individual liberties in this era of big government. It shines a light in shady corners and shows them for what they are. This is no more an act of betrayal than voting out an unpopular administration; let’s stop acting as if it is.