In early June, former CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden outed himself as the person who leaked information from the US National Security Agency (NSA) revealing large-scale surveillance programs that reportedly obtained user data from tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple and telcos like Verizon.
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told The Guardian.
The revelations are explosive, but Snowden is not the first whistleblower to leak information to the public about government operations. We interviewed several former intelligence professionals and whistleblowers who discussed reasons for and against going public with sensitive information.
When is revealing secret information justified?
The US has no blanket law governing the secrecy of classified government information concerning national security. Instead, most serving officers are required to take an oath on the Constitution. Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and an outspoken defender of whistleblowers and alternative media sources, argues here that this gives the potential whistleblower a greater role in interpreting whether a leak is justified.
Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who blew the whistle on the NSA's failed Internet data analysis programme Trailblazer, agreed with this sentiment, explaining that he took an oath to protect the American people.
“I did not take an oath to make Americans feel safe again,” he said. “I did take an oath to keep Americans out of harms way.”
But Thomas Fingar, former deputy director of the US National Intelligence for Analysis and chairman of the National Intelligence Council, was at pains to emphasise that officials are obliged to report waste, incompetence, and abuse and that all branches of government have procedures for raising other kinds of concerns. In his opinion, leaking secret information is therefore not justified.
“You are obliged to report abuses… and follow the official procedures,” said Fingar, winner of the 2013 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. “This is required by law. But going to the newspaper because I have a journalist's phone number and don't know how to properly report this – that is wrong.”
What secrets are worth keeping?
Secrecy laws should never intentionally suppress evidence of political or military failures. Todd E. Pierce, a US military defence counsel who is regularly called upon to represent those accused of aiding and abetting terrorists, reminded us that during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers exposed unconstitutional actions taken by US government and military officials concerning US interventions in Vietnam and neighboring countries.
Until revealed by Daniel Ellsberg, congressmen were often unable to access the information. This hindered their ability to make policy judgements.
However, there are instances when it is justified to keep a secret. Protecting the sources of intelligence and operational secrets – including some nuclear and military capabilities and procedures – are important to keep, Drake said. Fingar, Pierce and McGovern included technological needs, spies and sources in this category.
“Many things are perishable, that information can be released quickly,” Fingar noted. “Other information having to do with sources and methods ought to remain secret for quite some time.”
McGovern added: “Some things ought to be secrets. We had some very helpful Soviet Spies that were recruited in my day. God forbid that information would have gotten out. Not only to endanger them, but to endanger our sources.”
Can speaking out be a crime? Experts also commented on the role of whistleblowers within the media context. While it may be difficult to draw a line between aiding terrorists and promoting transparency and accountability around national security practices, the government has responsibilities to preserve a free press.
Does the media effectively inform public debate?
The media has a great responsibility to provide balanced information to enable citizens to make decisions. But Fingar, who in a previous capacity was responsible for intelligence dealing with potential pandemics and forced migrations, warned that the government’s interest in disseminating information as broadly as possible was not always compatible with the media’s interest in selling newspapers.
“The incredible lemming-like repetition without …there is a structural problem. But the mass media fulfill the incredibly important function of getting information to lots of different people,” Fingar said.
And in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pierce contended that embedding journalists with troops had occasionally prevented the media from exercising independent judgement.
McGovern highlighted the role of independent media in providing information otherwise not reported.
“The media has been entirely corrupted in my view,” he said.
Wikileaks as a whistleblower
Online activists increasingly take up the mantle of journalism, including investigative journalism outfits, bloggers, and of course, Wikileaks. The whistleblowing website's creator, Julian Assange, gave a brief speech at the 2013 Sam Adams Award Ceremony, defending his views on intelligence and whistleblowing.
“We're not merely at a war of intelligence agencies,” he asserted in the speech. “But a war of corrupt media and corrupt culture.”
For Drake, Wikileaks is a media outlet. “The power and elite structures don't like to have a mirror held up to them,” he said. “It is very dangerous in today's world to speak truth to power.”
Wikileaks is not the problem in itself, according to Fingar. The problem is the theft of information, and the loss of control over this information that goes with it, he said.
Pierce expressed concerns that Assange had risked chaos by naming countries that the US considered vulnerable to socio-economic or geographic shifts, thereby denying US policymakers the time needed for contingency planning.
Wikileaks could be useful to him as a military defence counsel, but senior government and military officials are officially banned from accessing Wikileaks. Pierce pointed to reports that information contained in Wikileaks could prove his clients innocent, yet not only is he banned from viewing the site but documents on Wikileaks are inadmissible as evidence in military trials.
“Some of the information on Wikileaks shows that some of the detainees [in Guantanamo] are in fact innocent. As a defense attorney in the military I don't to have access to that information,” he said.
Who promotes transparency?
The legitimacy of leaking information heavily depends on the circumstances and channels available. None of these four former intelligence professionals believes that this is a black-and-white topic. Some secrets need to be protected, and some information, if made available, has the power to change history. In a democracy, the media has traditionally provided the public with information that will help them make informed decisions as voters and citizens. As new media and other alternative channels for information emerge, they will play a significant if controversial role in exposing such information and promoting transparency by government actors, particularly when traditional media fail to do so.