Op-Ed, 535 words

WikiLeaks Proves Need for Stronger Whistleblower Protections

Government officials don't want their huge mistakes and unethical actions to come to public view.

Louis Clark

Hysteria and anger over WikiLeaks have led to calls in Congress to widen the scope of espionage law violations. Essentially, this serves as a warning shot to future whistleblowers.

But the experiences of other truth-tellers show why this is a mistake.

Information is power. Therefore, power automatically gravitates to those who control the flow of information. In America today, the prevalent anti-Washington sentiment is healthy if it represents a populist revolt against centralized and corrupt authority, which benefits from secrecy.

But that’s not what critics are saying. To respond to WikiLeaks’ document dumps by making it even easier for large, bureaucratic, and unaccountable institutions to escape scrutiny pleases the numerous officials fanning the flames of outrage–for reasons well beyond the possible identification of sources.

Namely, government officials don’t want their huge mistakes and unethical actions to come to public view. When CIA whistleblower Frank Snepp revealed that the CIA and Pentagon had negligently allowed the files of tens of thousands of Vietnamese collaborators to fall into the hands of the victorious North Vietnamese Army, the only known action taken was to sue Snepp–an obvious warning shot to other potential leakers of presumed “state secrets.”

Collateral damage from WikiLeaks information dumps–if some actually occurred–is unacceptable. No one should ever reveal an undercover source. But if the government ever gets around to proving such unsubstantiated claims, they certainly would pale in comparison to what our government has yet to apologize for in Vietnam, much less demonstrate any kind of collective remorse.

It also makes one wonder why the government allowed two million employees, not to mention an Army private, unfettered access to this information. Ironically, the Pentagon has taken the lead in condemning the damage caused by WikiLeaks. Yet it’s one of the most irresponsible and repressive organs of government when it comes to protecting legitimate whistleblowers and addressing its own wrongdoing.

Consider these recent examples. Marine Corps civilian adviser Franz Gayl blew the whistle on the loss and injury of soldiers because of an incompetent procurement system. He has been subject to one bogus retaliatory investigation after another, including false criminal allegations and the threatened loss of his security clearance. Joe Darby exposed the Abu Ghraib atrocities of prisoner abuse. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, without warning, identified him during a press conference. Darby still can’t return to his hometown because of the threats of violence. Army Pfc. Justin Stoner blew the whistle on a cabal of rogue soldiers murdering and dismembering innocent Afghan citizens, along with other misconduct–only to be brutalized by the wrongdoers themselves.

It compounds our own political disenfranchisement to grant these unaccountable agencies even greater authority. Rather than expanding their power to control information even more rigorously, it is absolutely essential that we enable whistleblowers to safely disclose the serious wrongdoing they witness without fear of retaliation. Because current military protections are notoriously weak, non-existent, or incompetently administered, all too often courageous and concerned whistleblowers must pay an unacceptable price for warning others what their employers and commanders are doing in our names.

Some government and private officials champion attacking WikiLeaks. But for those who believe in greater transparency for their government and tax dollar uses, Congress needs to hear from you.

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Louis Clark is President of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization. www.whistleblower.org