Whistle-blowers are wrongly viewed as public heroes
By KYLE PHALEN
As the states fervently sought freedom from the British Empire, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Even if one is not familiar with this quote, or some variation thereof on one’s preferred social networking website, its sentiment has echoed far and wide.
This is most clearly seen in reactions to the cases of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Indeed, no figures typify the fight against sacrificing liberty for the sake of freedom as much as these three people. As common as railing against authoritarian practices via blogs or alternative news outlets is now, each of these people has put their safety and well-being at risk to expose what they considered to be unfairly clandestine or voyeuristic practices of the U.S. government.
Facebook is abuzz with pages such as “Save Bradley Manning” and “Edward Snowden is a hero.” Countless headlines from major publications echoed these sentiments.
All three figures gained the support of politicians and commentators as diverse as Ron Paul, Noam Chomskyand Slavoj Žižek.
The cultural consensus seems clear: full transparency is to be valued, and those who bring us closer to this prospect are fully deserving of honor and a heroic status.
However, the simple reality is that actions reap consequences.
I speak not of the consequences they faced for their actions, displacement in the case of Snowden, and imprisonment in the case of Manning, but rather of repercussions far beyond their control.
The altruism and courageousness of these people’s actions are irrelevant to these potential consequences, and branding them as “heroes” is reductionist to the issues at large.
As with any polarizing issue, there are shades of grey, and levelheadedness is a virtue.
It is important to realize the distinction between what was exposed by each person as well. The information revealed by Assange and Manning is largely similar, albeit on different scales.
Assange’s founding of and ongoing activity with Wikileaks exposed of classified documents, ranging from emails from Syrian political figures to assessments of Guantanamo Bay.
The scope of Manning’s leaked documents was much narrower, but most notably included video of U.S. army helicopter shooting at a group of people that included journalists from Reuters, as well as disclosures of civilian deaths in Iraq, which were larger than previously reported.
A 2010 leak by Assange pertaining to Afghan War documents and the reports of civilian deaths and Taliban attacks therein provided the names of Afghan informants, according to the Washington Post.
For obvious reasons, this fostered suspicion that their safeties, or indeed, their lives, were compromised by this information.
Thankfully, by October of the same year, the Pentagon declared there was not a “single case” of any Afghans needing additional safety or protection, but the fact remains that identities were compromised and people were put into potential danger. No deaths are connected to the information released by Manning, but a similar threat was faced.
Over 900 Afghani names were leaked.
According to The Guardian, many of these people were dead by the time documents were leaked and others had their names mistranslated, but the threat remained for a portion of those 900.
Gen. Robert Carr, a witness in the case, attested to the lack of deaths of anyone named in the papers, but still maintained the potential for danger they faced.
By contrast, Snowden leaked information about the existence of the mass surveillance system PRISM and computer system XKeyscore.
Since the nature of what he exposed is so fundamentally different from Manning and much of Wikileaks, it is easy to think the only implications of his actions were a flustered National Security Agency and a newly informed American populace.
However, Snowden’s actions could put lives at risk in a more tangential sense, due to security being undermined, as noted by British Security Minister James Brokenshire.
Furthermore, the absence of an immediate threat to someone’s life does not mean that Snowden’s actions were without potential consequence.
According to BBC News, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff called off a trip to the U.S. over allegations of the NSA spying on her communication, something that could strike a serious blow to U.S.-Brazil relations.
Similarly, U.S. News and World Reports reported that European parliament is “outraged” over Snowden’s revelations, something that could pose very real threats to trade negotiation.
Thankfully, as it stands, it seems that no deaths can be immediately traced to any of the documents leaked , and the potentially negative implications on U.S. foreign relations still remain largely hypothetical.
However, it is important to realize that we are in the infancy of what could be deemed the “Whistle-blower Generation.”
With Wikileaks just being active for six years at this point, and Snowden’s leaks only coming to light several months ago, the notion of leaked documents having more dire consequences in the future is not a major stretch.
As much as we can agree that transparency is to be valued, we should agree that innocent people should not be put into danger simply as a means to an end.