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Whistleblowers provide service, deserve protection - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

Whistleblowers provide service, deserve protection

Maddy+Kameny+%7C+Staff+Illustrator
Maddy Kameny | Staff Illustrator

Maddy Kameny | Staff Illustrator

Maddy Kameny | Staff Illustrator

By Matt Moret / Columnist

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Last week’s Democratic debate contained few moments of total consensus. Of course, the exception was when moderator Anderson Cooper asked if former NSA contractor Edward Snowden should go to jail.

All of the candidates wanted to throw the book at Snowden, mainly arguing that he fled from legal consequences. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reasoned, “He could have been a whistleblower, he could have gotten all the protections of a whistleblower. He chose not to do that.”

Whistleblowers are an important part to any democracy, as they expose wrongdoings to the public and drum up pressure for reform. All of the democratic candidates agree with this sentiment as well.

Yet, there are two problems with Clinton’s argument in particular. The first is that Snowden was, beyond question, a whistleblower. He exposed illegal activities by the National Security Agency, for which he worked. Second, the “protections” Clinton referenced wouldn’t have protected him at all.

Critics of Snowden, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, often accuse whistleblowers of disregarding American security interests. But these interests, and the basis for American democracy, include transparency.

Cornell University’s legal dictionary defines a whistleblower as “an employee who alleges wrongdoing by his or her employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people.” Employees of both corporations and branches of government can engage in whistleblowing, but the protections extended to these people are limited and unclear.

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects government employees  from legal retaliation. “Retaliation” can include lawsuits for breaching internal policy and firing based only on the exposure of information.

This protection does not apply to members of the self-regulating intelligence community or the military branches — seeing as they are technically not employees of the government.

Employees working in these fields can only express concerns about the legality of agency practices through internal reporting, according to the 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. The same is true for military service members, who fall under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act of 1988.

This process doesn’t amount to much help at all.

In order to prevent premature security leaks, employees must report suspected misconduct to their supervisors before reaching out to members of Congress, who are supposed to handle the subsequent investigations. This reporting makes the whistleblower a target more than it protects them, as the government can criminally investigate, arrest and jail whistleblowers on espionage charges once it has identified them as a potential leak.

This is exactly what happened to NSA staffer Thomas Drake in 2007.

Drake worked at the NSA, analyzing the agency’s data collection systems for weaknesses, operating under a $3 billion program known as Trailblazer. When investigating the efficiency of the operation, Drake realized that it was essentially a domestic spying operation, a precursor of PRISM, the NSA program Snowden later revealed.

Drake complained internally to superiors, as is outlined in whistleblower procedures. However, the government redacted 90 percent of the official report based on the information Drake gathered from public viewing, leaving people outside of the NSA in the dark.

Nothing came of his report, so Drake began passing the unclassified NSA documents to the Baltimore Sun.

After the Sun article came out, Drake and the officials who helped take part in the report were targeted in government raids. Ultimately, Drake pled guilty to “exceeding authorized use of a computer” but a federal judge dropped all espionage charges due to insufficient evidence.

Drake followed every stage of the law and the government responded with raids, spying charges and years of intense legal attacks for telling the truth.

Drake’s experience provides context for the most recent case of whistleblowing.

Last week, an anonymous source shared government documents about the Obama administration’s drone program. The Intercept, the investigative news site that broke the Snowden story, has published these documents as “The Drone Papers.” As it turns out, the papers highlight severe negligence in how we conduct drone strikes.

The documents show an underreporting of drone strike casualties, in that, on average, during the 60 day period in which the CIA is supposed to identify and approve targets for killing, only two days are dedicated to actual identification. The rest of the time is reserved to get strike authorization up through the chain of command. Consequently, 70 percent of civilian casualties occur because of insufficient identification measures, according to the revealed papers.

Information such as the kind revealed in “The Drone Papers” might be able to shift the 58 percent approval rate Pew Research Center found for American drone strikes. It could help a Pitt student voting for the first time decide how he or she feels about Hillary Clinton, who helped develop and defend the program, and subsequently, save civilian lives that would otherwise be taken by drone strikes.

Once the source of “The Drone Papers” is revealed, though, the whistleblower will likely be dragged through the mud just like Snowden and Drake, simply because these people often are “breaking the law” by coming forward, as politicians tend to argue.

Government retaliation speaks more to a need for reforming the legal procedures surrounding whistleblowers than to the morality behind whistleblowers’ actions, simply because, these individuals give us the tools to better evaluate government actions and make informed voting decisions.

We as voters can’t truly decide unless we know of all the options.

Matt Moret primarily writes on politics and rhetoric for The Pitt News.

Write to Matt at mdm123@pitt.edu 

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Whistleblowers provide service, deserve protection