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.