Australia is the latest country to declare whistleblowers criminals, urging public servants who witness misconduct to instead report it to their bosses and hope for the best.
The shift in the Australian government’s definition of whistleblower comes in the midst of the U.S. battle over whether whistleblowers are essential to the transparency of government, or traitors whose work compromises the integrity of the nation’s national security operations.
Former National Security Agency contract employee Edward Snowden hoisted the issue into the international limelight when he left the Agency, armed with documents revealing a sweeping U.S. surveillance system. Now on the lam in Russia, the hunt is on for the whistleblower the U.S. government is now labeling a traitor and data thief.
The debate over Snowden’s status isn’t one limited to U.S. soil. While not specifically naming the now-infamous Snowden, Australia’s Public Service Commissioner, Stephen Sedgwick, said any public sector employee who takes their grievances with an agency outside the realm of government reporting processes is not a whistleblower — they’re data thieves, and should be persecuted as such.
So, what is a whistleblower? According to Sedgwick, it’s someone who blows the whistle, not to the public, but to their own boss.
His words come at a time when even the media is unsure what to call those who step outside the realm of bureaucracy to expose corruption.
When the Snowden story hit the headlines, The Guardian and Fox News referred to Snowden as a whistleblower, while other publications, including National Public Radio, referred to him as a “leaker.” The Associated Press, considered the Gospel among publications in terms of style, has repeatedly referred to Snowden as a leaker.
Australia’s take on the game
“Whistleblowing and leaking are not the same,” Sedgwick said to a group of public service executives this week, according to the Canberra Times.
Over the last year in Australia, Sedgwick indicated that 20,000 Australian federal employees had taken note of government misconduct, half of whom filed reports internally.
According to figures provided by Sedgwick’s office, more than half of those who did file were not satisfied with the way the complaints were handled, citing a lack of action.
Still, Sedgwick is defending the internal reporting program, claiming that anyone who uses outside recourse to bring attention to misconduct within the government is a criminal.
“Public servants who leak are, in a very real way, damaging the trust and convention that make government work in a democracy,” he said, adding that those who do take their complaints elsewhere will be categorized and punished as a data thief.
“That they might use a flash drive rather than a crowbar misses the bigger point, which is the legitimacy of a disclosure,” he said.
Sedgwick’s department is being eyed for improvement when it comes to internal investigations, yet Sedgwick has downplayed the need for an overhaul of the system, claiming a few changes and alterations would instill confidence in public employees.
The Public Interest Disclosures Act, which has not yet been passed into law in Australia, is seen by some as a move toward whistleblower protection. The Act, which would be up for automatic review every two years, would instill policies mandating response to complaints made by public officials and response to public interest disclosures.
According to Sedgwick, the Act isn’t necessary.
One new aspect would allow government employees to alert the media of misconduct in case of emergencies, although the scope of what constitutes an emergency is not black and white. According to the Canberra Times, he cited one former case in which a customs official alerted the media of relaxed national security borders.
Snowden’s fate and the take of the U.S.
For those government employees who hand over classified information for the purpose of information dissemination, the terms “whistleblowers” and “data thieves” are out of the equation.
While Obama has referred to Snowden as a hacker, claiming he’s not interested in chasing the American around the world, the president recently canceled meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, allegedly over Snowden’s presence in the country.
While not clear yet what Snowden will be convicted of if he is extradited at some point back to the U.S., it’s likely he’ll follow the same fate of Bradley Manning.
In August, Manning was convicted under the Espionage Act, guilty of 20 counts relating to his passing of classified military documents to WikiLeaks. It marked the second time a government official had been found guilty under the Espionage Act for revealing secret documents, the first of which came in 1985 with the conviction of Samuel Morrison, a former navy intelligence expert.
Manning’s conviction was the first time the Obama administration managed to get an Espionage Act conviction for a “whistleblower.” While his administration has overseen eight of the 10 charges in the nation’s history, Manning’s stuck — and the repercussions of his case are frightening transparency advocates.
Even when there’s a question as to whether former public servants exposed government secrets, should espionage even be considered? The origins of espionage, dating back to 1917, addressed issues relating to spying — whether it be spying for an enemy or selling top-secret information for personal gain.
While prosecutors successfully attempted to portray Manning as one who gave top-secret government documents to Wikileaks for his own personal, sick, twisted gain, others see Manning as one who sought to blow the whistle on government misconduct regarding the war in Iraq.
He was responsible for exposing the “Collateral Damage” video, in which video footage showed a U.S. Army Apache helicopter attacking a group of men seemingly gathering peacefully in Baghdad, Iraq. Twelve people were killed in the operation, two of whom were members of a Reuters news team. The video also showed attacks on those who attempted to go to the fallen’s aid.
Manning supplied that video, along with the Iraq and Afghanistan “war logs” and 700 Guantanamo Bay detainee files to WikiLeaks, an organization known for publishing classified material. This, according to those who defend Manning as a transparency hero, shows that his actions were that of any whistleblower — to expose corruption.
“Prosecuting someone for espionage is one of the most serious charges you can level against an American,” Jesselyn Radack, National Security and Human Rights Director of the Government Accountability Project wrote in the Washington Post. “The term is so incendiary that it alienates a whistleblower’s natural allies among open-government, transparency and civil liberties advocates.”
Radack represented two of the whistleblowers charged by the Obama administration for acts committed under the Bush administration. Former CIA Agent John Kiriakou and former National Security Agency Senior Executive Thomas Drake were those who attempted to call attention to the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance programs.
As Radack points out, her two former clients did not end up facing espionage charges, as they were dropped, yet the threat by the government had already been made — and the two had already served as examples of what can happen if former government employees turn their backs on and expose government activities.