Monday, 4 November 2013

Privacy and Whistleblowing

The names Julian Assange, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and Edward Snowden are now well known. They either publicized large numbers of documents which contain evidence of government wrongdoing or made those documents available for publication. Each of them has paid an ongoing price for their actions.

Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 19 June 2012. If he steps outside it, he will be arrested by the British police and extradited to Sweden. He, and I, suspect that the charges in Sweden are being pursued partially to undermine the activities of the WikiLeaks organization that he founded.

One reason to suspect the motives of the Swedish government is the timing of its interest in his case. Two women complained about aspects of consensual sex that they had with Assange in August 2010. On 21 August 2010, the investigating prosecutor downgraded some of the charges against him, dropped one, and cancelled the Swedish arrest warrant. On 18 November 2010, another prosecutor re-issued the arrest warrant and, for the first time, characterized Assange's activities as rape, a much more serious charge. Only three days later, WikiLeaks made the first large release of many secret diplomatic cables. The fuss over the warrant helped to adulterate the public's attention on the contents of the released documents and to diminish public support for Assange. It is hard to believe that the close timing of the arrest warrant and the document release was coincidental. It was too convenient to be coincidental.

Assange, and I, also suspect that he would never stand trial in Sweden anyway, but be whisked away to the United States. Many prominent people in the United States have expressed a desire to try Mr. Assange in that country and a leaked document confirms that a secret indictment exists to arrest Assange.

Because of his belief that the United States will extradite or kidnap him if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange is essentially and indefinitely under house arrest there until such time as the Ecuadorian government can be persuaded to end its sanctuary.

Many of the documents that WikiLeaks published were provided by Private Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning). She released the information to WikiLeaks after trying to release it to The Washington Post and The New York Times, which were not interested. She was arrested on May 27, 2010 and held in conditions that were identified as "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" by a United Nations special rapporteur on torture and as "unconstitutional" by 295 academics (most of them legal scholars). The brig commander was subsequently replaced. After Manning's trial, she was sentenced to 35 years of prison. She will be eligible to apply for parole after eight years although, with the number of powerful enemies she has, I believe that she has little chance of being paroled.

Edward Snowden, like Julian Assange, has escaped Manning's fate by choosing exile. He has been given asylum by Russia as a political refugee.

I think it is fair to say that the United States and its allies have struck back strongly against these three people, using whatever tools for retaliation they have. The governments presume is that is dangerous, illegal, and even immoral to reveal their secret activities to the people, even if those activities turn out to be dangerous, illegal, or even immoral, as some of them have been.

Thanks to Assange and Manning, we now know  the following facts:
  1. There is an official policy to ignore torture in Iraq.
  2. Guantanamo prison has held mostly innocent people and low-level operatives.
  3. There is, contrary to Presidential statements, an official tally of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  4. The State Department successfully backed opposition by American companies (such as Nike) against an increase in the Haitian minimum wage.
  5. Despite its public statements to the contrary, the United States would not support Tunisian President Ben Ali against a popular uprising.
  6. Known Egyptian torturers were trained by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia.
  7. Contrary to the United Nations Convention, the State Department directed American diplomats to steal DNA samples, credit card information, and other information from UN officials, including the Secretary General, and other countries' representatives to the UN.
  8. Both Japanese and American governments were warned in 2008 by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Fukushima nuclear energy plant would not be safe in the event of a large earthquake, but neither took any action. The damage done by the Fukushima reactor is now considered as great as that of the previous record-holding nuclear disaster, Chernobyl.
  9. The United States allowed Yemen's President to cover up a secret American drone bombing campaign.
Not highlighted in that article were other WikiLeaks revelations, such as the "Collateral Murder" video or the hiring of dancing boys (a class of people often abused as sexual slaves) by an American defence contractor.

Edward Snowden's revelations are even more voluminous and serious. (A Wikipedia article tries to give an overview). They show that, despite statements from President Obama and the heads of intelligence agencies, systematic, massive spying on the communications of American citizens, among others, was standard operating procedure. Specific revelations that the United States tapped the telephones of the leaders of friendly countries, including Germany, have affected international relations. In addition, America has had to cease its attempts to shame China for its close control over the Internet within its borders and its attempts to hack information from Western companies and government agencies: In light of American spying on the Internet and telephone communications, the American lectures on morality have been widely perceived as hypocritical.

An advisor to the White House, Dan Pfeiffer, said that Snowden should "return to the U.S. and face justice." This may sound properly respectful of the rule of law, but the reaction to Assange and Snowden and the pre-trial abuse of Manning has very little to do with the rule of law. Assange is an Australian citizen who received leaked documents (as journalists do routinely) and published them in Europe: it is hard to say that he comes under the jurisdiction of American law. Snowden, as an American citizen, does come under American jurisdiction, but his actions may be compared to Daniel Ellsberg's highly-praised leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Some people disagree with that assessment, but Ellsberg himself is not one of them.

The fervour for justice in the cases of Assange, Manning, and Snowden has an interesting counterpoint in the case of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, who has admitted to lying about the spying programs to Congress, the courts, and perhaps to the President. There is little chance that he will ever have to face justice for his perjury. He may even receive a promotion of sorts.

The implacable rage that government officials have shown to the leakers contrasts with the impunity that they have granted Clapper. I'd like to put both of these reactions into a context provided by David Brin's book The Transparent Society.

In that book, Brin argues, first, that the technology for invading privacy has grown in power and pervasiveness over the years and that, second, governments will not give up that technology. Thus, Brin argues, if the general population insists on maintaining its right to privacy then all the spying will be in one direction: the state will spy on the citizens at but the citizens will know little about the government. This is a situation that is ripe for the development of corruption. Clapper is a fine example.

Assange, Bradley, and Snowden have done a vital service to the American people by showing them what their government does behind closed doors. If the data collection on Americans continues, we can hope that it will continue with informed consent of the American people. To date, it has not been.

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