The Fate of the Whistleblower or Why Shoot the Messenger? By Angela Caldin
The Wikileaks Whistleblower
The face of Bradley Manning stares solemnly forward, lips pressed together, etched with vulnerability and fear. Manning is a young US soldier arrested in May 2010 for passing classified material to WikiLeaks. He was charged with 22 offences, including communicating national defence information to an unauthorized source, and aiding the enemy. He is clearly a very troubled person who had a difficult childhood and an even more difficult time in the army.
Based near Baghdad, Manning had access to US databases for transmitting classified information. He was arrested after Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker, told the FBI that Manning had confided in him about downloading material from these databases and passing it to WikiLeaks. The material included videos of the 2007 Baghdad airstrike and the 2009 Granai airstrike in Afghanistan which both resulted in the death of innocent civilians; 250,000 United States diplomatic cables; and 500,000 army reports that came to be known as the Iraq War logs and Afghan War logs. It was the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked and much of it was published by WikiLeaks. The material revealed the hypocrisy and double standards of US foreign policy and of many of the rulers in the Middle East. Many believe it contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings in the region.
Manning’s treatment in custody has caused international concern. He pleaded guilty in February 2013 to 10 of the 22 charges, which could carry a sentence of up to 20 years. A court-martial on the remaining charges, including aiding the enemy, carrying a life sentence, began on June 3 2013.
Other Well-Known Whistleblowers
Dr Stephen Bolsin
Dr Bolsin is the anaesthetist who helped expose the high infant death rates at Bristol Royal Infirmary. A public inquiry proved his concerns were legitimate. He says he attempted to alert management to the problem, but with little response: ‘I was told specifically to keep the train moving, and not to pull the communication cord.’ Dr Bolsin is now working in Australia, claiming he was driven out of the UK after blowing the whistle in Bristol.
While a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, Ponting sent two documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell in July 1984 concerning the sinking of an Argentine warship, General Belgrano, a key incident in the Falklands War of 1982. These revealed that the warship had been sighted a day earlier than officially reported and that when it was sunk, it was steaming away from the Royal Navy taskforce, outside the exclusion zone. Ponting admitted revealing the information and was charged with a criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act of 1911. His defence was that the matter was in the public interest.
Although Ponting expected to be imprisoned, bringing a suitcase to court, the jury acquitted him. The acquittal came despite the judge’s direction to the jury that ‘the public interest is what the government of the day says it is’. The jury, in a splendid validation of the jury system, took an opposite view. Ponting resigned from the civil service soon after. The Conservative government reacted by tightening up UK secrets legislation, removing the public interest defence.
Paul Moore was head of group regulatory risk at HBOS 2002-05. HBOS experienced devastating problems and was rescued by Lloyds TSB. Moore had raised concerns about risks at HBOS, describing bank bosses as being swept along by the ideology of indiscriminate lending and incapable of seeing the dangers. He alleged that he had been repeatedly threatened after claiming internally that the bank was a serious risk to financial stability. When he was sacked, Moore brought a claim against HBOS and recovered substantial damages before the case reached an employment tribunal.
Dr David Kelly was a British scientist and expert on biological warfare, employed by the British Ministry of Defence, and formerly a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. He came to public attention in July 2003 when a discussion he had off the record with BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan about the British government’s dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was cited by Gilligan and led to a major controversy. Kelly’s name became known to the media as Gilligan’s source and he was called to appear on 15 July before the parliamentary foreign affairs select committee investigating the issues Gilligan had reported. Kelly was questioned aggressively about his actions. He was found dead two days later.
Kelly’s experience of weapons inspections led to his being asked to proofread some sections of the dossier on the history of inspections. He was unhappy with the claim that Iraq was capable of firing battlefield biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes of an order to use them. On an inspection trip to Iraq, Kelly had seen alleged mobile weapons laboratories and had concluded that they were not germ warfare laboratories for making biological weapons.
The Common Factor
The common factor for all these whistleblowers is that they exposed the truth. They took a stand for what they believed to be right and went public, even though they ran the risk of being disbelieved, ignored or vilified. Yet each one was persecuted and each one was left alone to face the flak. Colleagues, fearful for their jobs, for their reputations or their futures simply closed ranks and kept quiet. Bradley Manning is quoted as saying: ‘I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are; because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.’ He hoped by releasing the cables he would spark ‘worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms’. But what has happened is that he has been vilified and blamed, while the world goes on with its business. Such, it seems, is the fate of the whistleblower. He or she may expose the truth, but those affected do not listen to it and often try to conceal it. Clive Ponting left his Civil Service job and became a Reader in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Wales. Dr Bolsin felt hounded out of medicine in the UK and now works in Australia, Paul Moore was sacked, and, saddest of all, David Kelly is dead. Now the massive secret surveillance operation PRISM has been exposed. Already those who leaked the information are being pursued, and if they are found we know what kind of fate awaits them. All these people are surely heroes and should be treated as such. A democracy needs knowledge, transparency and accountability, not secrecy, threats and persecution. We need to listen to and assess the message, not demonise the messenger.