U.S. government continues crackdown on whistleblowers

The Obama Administration’s crackdown on leaks came to another point of contention on Feb. 22, when the continuing siege of Homs by Syrian security forces led to the deaths of two Western journalists who sneaked into Syria illegally. At a press conference on the same day, the White House press secretary Jay Carney praised the fallen journalists, saying they “absolutely honor and praise the bravery of reporters who are placing themselves in extremely dangerous situations in order to bring the story of oppression and brutality to the world.” Jake Tapper, a reporter at the conference, asked Carney whether the government is imposing a double standard in its view of whistleblowers. He alluded to the fact that the Obama Administration has used the Espionage Act six times in its current term, compared with the fact that it’s been used only three times before in its history.“There just seems to be some disconnect here,” Tapper said, according to abcnews.go.com. “You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.”

Tapper was referring to the Obama administration’s prosecutions of whistleblowers who have leaked information that brought criticism toward the government. On Jan. 23, the Justice Department charged former Central Intelligence Agency officer John Kiriakou for violating the Espionage Act. Kiriakou was accused of providing journalists with the names of CIA officers who were involved in an operation that used the suffocating technique waterboarding as a method of interrogating suspected terrorists. Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr. stated that keeping such information confidential is “critical to keeping our intelligence officers safe and protecting our national security.” Kiriakou is facing up to 30 years in prison.

The suspected hypocrisy leads to the question of why our nation seems to be so complacent with the suppression of criticism aimed at our government, while we praise those who in some ways do the same to governments abroad.

“That’s pretty hypocritical,” said sophomore Ana Quiring. That’s where Quiring sees the matter begin. “We as Americans tend to see our own country as uncorruptable. . . We just tend to think America’s doing the right things, and see [the leaks] as a small tarnish on the grand flag,” she said.

Despite being subject to suspicions of hypocrisy and accusations of war crimes, the U.S. government seems to have no intention of softening their efforts to control classified information.

On Feb. 23, just a day after Tapper’s provocative questions, Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning was formally charged for providing secret government information to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks in 2009 and 2010, which comprised the largest leak of classified material in U.S. history. Manning is a former intelligence analyst who had access to the information. The 22 counts charged against Manning include aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act. He is now awaiting trial set in August and is facing life in prison.

Since its enactment in 1917, the Espionage Act’s perimeters have grown to include communication with the media. Also, indications that the government is seeking prosecution of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange is a cause for concern that the act might be extended to journalists as well. This leads to the question underlying the exchanges at the White House press conference: what type of reporting is commendable, and what type is criminal?

Manning’s prosecution is a controversial issue. The U.S. government insists that Manning’s actions of releasing hundreds of thousands of government records constituted endangerment of national security, claiming that Manning wanted to “remove the fog of war.” However, the leaked information included accounts of civilian killings by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Manning’s supporters are calling him a political prisoner who’s been arrested for illuminating government war crimes.

Pitting government transparency against national security, the issue is a controversial one. And for many people, it’s not possible to side with one absolute or the other. “I believe in transparency of government,” freshman Eli Casteel said. “We definitely need to know what the government is doing. But there’s a fine line in showing standards are wrong.”

The National Lawyers Guild called for a dismissal of charges against Manning. NLG President Davis Grespass said, “Manning’s prosecution is calculated to distract us from the real problem, that the U.S. government is once again hiding from the public proof of crimes committed in our name.”

To absolve all whistleblowers of criminal charges is lawlessness, but the government isn’t perfect and incapable of error. This tension between transparency and confidentiality doesn’t just apply to the U.S. government but to any institution, including Whitworth University.

“There’s always an ugly reality behind any big force,” Quiring said. “It would benefit us to examine ourselves more carefully.”

Story by Jonathan Kim Staff Writer

Contact Jonathan Kim at jonathankim15@my.whitworth.edu.