Column, 539 words

Don’t Embarrass Authority

Revealing the wrongdoing of the powerful is a core task in sustaining a functioning democracy.

William A. Collins

Tell us stuff
We need to know,
And soon it’s off
To jail you’ll go.

Don’t get fooled by terms like “classified secrets” or “aiding the enemy.” They just cover up the darker sides of our national security state.

Pointing out that the emperor is naked isn’t dangerous. But it does leave governments (and corporations) vulnerable to embarrassment.

collins-secrecy-Steve Rhodes

Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Consider what happened to former CIA officer John Kiriakou after he revealed that the CIA was torturing people. None of those torturers have been prosecuted, let alone punished, but the U.S. government was sorely embarrassed. Now Kiriakou’s serving a 30-month prison term.

The whistleblower formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning revealed, among other massive federal wrongdoing, that U.S. troops had jovially gunned down a bunch of civilians from their helicopter, videotape and all.

Manning, who recently expressed a preference to be known as Chelsea and regarded as a woman, faces up to 35 years in prison and no opportunity for parole for at least eight more years. Meanwhile, no move has been made against those offending troops, let alone the diplomats whom she disclosed had been engaged in so much international double-dealing.

And now Edward Snowden also faces life in the clink for blurting out what our enemies already knew: that our own government spies on everybody’s communications.

Snowden’s real sin wasn’t what he told the enemy — it was what he told us.

We Americans didn’t realize what our own government was doing to us, and citizens in allied nations didn’t know what we were doing to them. These revelations are supremely embarrassing to Washington. That’s perhaps the main reason why Uncle Sam is intent on pursuing Snowden.

Washington has plenty of other stuff to hide too. The effects of Agent Orange were suppressed for decades, and we’re still not open about the devastation caused by one of our current favorite weapons, depleted uranium. Without whistleblowers, we’d be completely in the dark on both fronts.

The new secrecy front is in farming. Former USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, the man who inadvertently blew the whistle on “pink slime” in an internal memo that surfaced years later, is now being sued for coining the term. Once it became well-known to the public, his “pink slime” note choked off demand for a product Big Ag prefers to call “lean finely textured beef.”

USDA inspectors who might want to raise a stink or write candid emails rightly worry about their futures too.

Some states have even made it illegal to video acts of animal cruelty and unsanitatary conditions on farms or at processing plants.

Whistleblowing isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. The World Bank, the United Nations, and other powerful financial countries are all having trouble keeping their dirty little secrets under wraps. In Greece, one editor was briefly arrested last year for publishing a list of his countrymen with secret Swiss bank accounts.

It wouldn’t hurt if someone did that here.

After all, it’s our right to know what governments and corporate titans are doing behind our backs. Revealing the wrongdoing of the powerful is a core task in sustaining a functioning democracy.

Unfortunately, doing the right thing can land you in jail.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. otherwords.org