Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a strong statement in defense of national security whistleblowers, who have no safe, effective means of disclosing government misconduct internally:
From a human rights perspective, the punishment of those who leak security information can be problematic because it suppresses information that may be vital for the exercise and protection of human rights. Some of the most significant revelations of human rights violations come from disclosures of once-secret information relating to the misconduct of security agencies.HRW's statement was prompted by the groundbreaking disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden's disclosures reveal ongoing, widespread, domestic surveillance and confirmed what my clients NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe have been saying for years.
The Obama administration has launched a war on information that includes equating journalists to criminal co-conspirators, targeting hacktivists, and prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act. The latest in the crackdown, as McClatchy reported, is the administration's "Insider Threat Program," which multiple agencies are using to silence dissent and chill potential whistleblowers:
“Hammer this fact home . . . leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy.Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian first published Snowden's disclosures, and has since dismantled the government's reassurances that domestic surveillance is subjected to rigorous oversight. Yesterday, The Guardian published the NSA secret procedures for spying on Americans without a warrant:
The broad scope of the court orders, and the nature of the procedures set out in the documents, appear to clash with assurances from President Obama and senior intelligence officials that the NSA could not access Americans' call or email information without warrants.Greenwald's articles reveal a surveillance industrial complex secretly and needlessly infringing on the rights of millions of innocent Americans under the guise of protecting national security, and these most recent documents make clear that the internal "oversight" procedures afford NSA officials far too much unchecked power to listen in on Americans' communications.
Greenwald's articles also crystallize what secrecy experts on both sides of the aisle already know:the government keeps far too much information hidden from the public. In particular, the procedures published yesterday are marked "Secret" and "Top Secret," but they reveal nothing about intelligence sources and methods or any other criterion for proper classification under the law. However, judging from the outcry now that Americans know how much of their information the governemnt collects, the government has a strong motivation to keep NSA's domestic spying operations a secret, and it has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with covering-up unconstitutional conduct.
Regardless, the government is likely to argue, as they have with the rest of the disclosures about NSA surveillance, that revealing these procedures endangered national security. It's the same stale argument the Nixon administration used against Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg ("most dangerous man in America"), and that the Obama administration used against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, even though it turned out the supposedly-classified documents Drake was accused of allegedly retaining were completely benign. There is information the government is entitled to keep secret, but the rampant over-classification and improper use of classification to hide embarrassing or illegal conduct breeds understandable skepticism about the entire classification system.
The government's tendency to use - or abuse - the classification system in order to hide embarrassment or misconduct calls to mind what HRW had to say about Snowden's disclosures:
This utter lack of transparency and accountability to the public could easily pave the way for further serious human rights abuses and an erosion of democratic governance. The public’s interest in knowing the dimensions of this secret practice, conducted without effective public oversight or check, is extremely high.If the government wants whistleblowers to stop exposing its illegal conduct, the government should stop breaking the law. At the very least, the government should protect - not prosecute - whistleblowers. In a surveillance state, whistleblowers are the new enemy, but a surveillance state is where the public most needs to hear from whistleblowers.
. . . the disclosures so far appear to have limited, if any, impact on national security, despite administration claims that they are serious.