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Leakers and leaks

As recently reported by the McClatchy Newspapers, the Obama administration views whistleblowing and leaks as a species of terrorism. According to McClatchy: “President Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of ‘insider threat’ give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct. … Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.”

Glenn Reynolds, talking about the role of leakers and whistleblowers.

This can be a complex issue, for all that I share much of what Reynolds says. Take, say, Switzerland, famous for its bank secrecy laws. What happens if an employee of a bank (this has actually happened in real life) gets all upset about the fact that, due to the laws, he or she cannot divulge the identity of a client even that client might be avoiding or evading taxes? (In the latter case, evasion is not a crime in Switzerland, but tax fraud is. The difference is technical). Now, suppose that person divulges all to Wikileaks, or the local Swiss newspaper, or the New York Times. Is he or she a hero? Well, if you hate Swiss banks and think its 1934 law is an abomination and that everything should be out in the open, maybe. (It might be worth noting that the person is not forced to work in a bank if he or she finds it objectionable.) But clearly, privacy, confidentiality, or call it what you will, is something that a lot of law-abiding people worry about. The same might apply in a case, where, say, a person who works for a pornography video firm starts, after having suddenly developed a “conscience”, to start sending out the names and addresses of the people who have bought videos or downloaded the stuff.

Whistleblowers can and do do a vital job and sometimes their lives are made very uncomfortable about it. There is the recent case of a person who tried to alert the public about the dreadful situation in the Mid-Staffordshire part of the UK National Health Service, for instance.

I guess one broad way to consider the issue is that with governments, unlike private sector companies, the former are paid for by taxes, and the taxpayers are entitled to expect those bodies to be run appropriately. Although watchdogs and politicians in theory are supposed to enable this to happen, in practice, monopolistic organisations with the powers of coercion are vulnerable to abuse. I have already mentioned the NHS. Consider also the less-than-perfect UK police force, which has been mired in various corruption scandals in recent years, or the BBC, the state-privileged UK broadcaster that for years allowed a paedophile by the name of Jimmy Savile to work there (although it is not known if the BBC ever had enough evidence to kick him out). In these sort of cases, a leaker of information can do the public a favour. The risk of leaks is also one of those things that keeps organisations on their toes – well, good. On the other hand, journalists need to use a bit of commonsense so they don’t become the tools of someone else’s agenda. Not all leakers are heroes, or even all that bothered about issues of liberty and justice.

One issue of course is that while it is right for a whistleblower to blab to the press about a systemic problem, it is and can be wrong to leak in cases where a private individual’s privacy and welfare might be put at risk. And for that matter, where a leaker passes on information that might aid an enemy force and endanger lives (this is sometimes argued to be the case with some of the Wikileaks stuff about the Middle East), this also crosses a line.

As far as the Obama, or indeed any other administration, is concerned, fighting against leakers may sometimes be necessary, but by and large, the best way to avoid problems in the first place is to do fewer shameful and stupid things that people want to leak about. And the Obama administration seems to be intent on collecting scandals the same way that some folk collect stamps.

Meanwhile, it appears Mr Snowden cannot find a country that will have him.

9 comments to Leakers and leaks

  • Julie near Chicago

    “[T]he Obama administration seems to be intent on collecting scandals the same way that some folk collect stamps.”

    Nomination for SQOTD!

  • Laird

    The obvious difference between a Swiss banker leaking confidential information about clients and a government employee leaking information about governmental activities is that the former is private information while the latter is not. It may be confidential, but that’s an entirely different matter. As far as I’m concerned, the citizens have an almost absolute right to know everything that their government does, and if there is truly a need to keep some things confidential the burden is entirely on the government to prove the necessity and to de-classify the information as soon as is possible.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Actually, arch-defender of Liberty and Freedom, Vladimir Putin, has said he can stay in Russia if he stops leaking about US secrets in Russia. Hoodafowtit?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Hard to believe, Nick. Hard to believe.

  • Jobrag

    “the best way to avoid problems in the first place is to do fewer shameful and stupid things that people want to leak about”

    Since when has spying on your enemies, or indeed friends, been shameful and stupid? I trust that my government is spying on (insert country name here), and am confident that theu are repaying the compliment.

  • Well, it’s a bit like pro wrestling. Everybody knows spying goes on but you’re not supposed to talk about it.
    But “spying on your eenemies and friends ” is not quite the same as “ssecretly reading all your citizen’s mail “

  • Greg

    This topic often ends up considering competing interests: the interest of the citizen vs the interest of his government; the need for security vs freedom. But even in our wildest dreams of (extremely) small government replacing what we now struggle against, there is an interest in nations retaining certain sovereign rights. Right? Laird has the right guiding principle: “…the citizens have an almost absolute right to know everything that their government does…”. Almost. That’s the rub. Laird wants it “proved” that there is a need to hold information close; keep it “confidential”. But to whom is such to be proven? We have such oversight in the US, but it’s far from perfect. Are we going about it [oversight] the best way?

    Human beings being what they are, there will always be poor folks, avoidable accidents, abuses of power, and spies. So how do we keep an eye on the spies? If we don’t trust our elected representatives, if they have too much power, if they are not open about their activities, forget keeping an eye on the spies. What are you going to do, ask them to keep a blog of their shenanigans? As noted in another posting nearby, we have a “surplus of government”. Reduce that surplus and we can keep a much better eye on elected and appointed officials (and the rest of ‘em too!). And then we can keep an eye on the spies (our reps should do that and ONLY if our reps get security clearances)

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Jobrag, Australia’s spies are too incompetent to spy on our neighbours- or we’d be better able to intercept boats with ‘refugees’ on board! Tell the US to stop spying on us, or we’ll shut down Pine Gap, and any other US bases on Aussie soil! (Since the Cold War is over, I don’t think you need then anyway.)

  • Pardone

    The NSA has been a collection of self-serving bureaucrats corporate door-swivellers for decades. If you seriously believe it’s purpose is “national security”, you are truly naive.

    One only has to look at the revolving doors and fat, bloated pensions of NSA, CIA, and Pentagon staff to know they work for themselves and protect their own interests. Obama, like all his predecessors, is nothing more than a puppet of these gluttonous fat parasites. The CIA/NSA/FBI/Pentagon’s overriding priority is the grabbing of ever-greater buckets of taxpayer money, to siphon off into their own pensions and bank accounts.

    Snowden, unlike so many who work for “government contractors” (essentially parasitic sloths who live off the taxpayer), has a conscience and has called out the NSA’s quest toe steal more taxpayer’s money for it’s own fattening enrichment.