William A. Collins: Don't shoot the messenger
When you picture classified documents, don’t visions of spy lists, nuclear ignition formulas, cross-sections of bomber wings, or diagrams of missile trajectories come to mind?
Well, those documents seldom reach the public eye and are only relevant for so long. Besides, polls have consistently revealed that Americans continue to rank foreign policy among the least important issues facing our nation. Experts say that at most it drove the choices of 5 percent of American voters on Election Day.
Given that low level of interest, it’s probably safe to say that few Americans harbor any interest in the finer details of national security. But here’s something that may truly interest you about our classified secrets: Too often, instead of protecting us from destruction, they protect our leaders from embarrassment.
Don’t believe me? Go ask former CIA chief David Petraeus.
These secrets aren’t only shielding high-ranking officials from the personal embarrassment that comes with taking the term “embedded” too literally. They also hide bad policies.
Is the Food and Drug Administration too cozy with pharmaceutical companies? That’s a secret. Does the Pentagon know that our drones actually kill a lot more civilians than it officially acknowledges? Classified. Did the Obama administration know full well that the Honduran military ousted a democratically elected leader in a coup? Classified.
When a government uses secrecy as a means to hide wrongdoing and waste from its own people, the only way that the people can find out and do something about it is for an insider to disclose that information by blowing the whistle.
One of the highest-profile whistleblower cases involves Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, a U.S. army intelligence analyst accused of delivering hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and other government documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. This cache, which brought too many things to light to list here, helped trigger the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that toppled Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and other repressive governments.
Manning, in theory, could face the death penalty for “aiding the enemy.” But it’s more likely that he’ll just spend the rest of his life behind bars for revealing embarrassing information to “the enemy” and jeopardizing national security.
Clearly, secrets are terribly important to those in power. Whether they’re evil deeds (torture), crooked deeds (sweetheart contracts), embarrassing deeds (high-level affairs or lying to our allies), or simple cover-ups (killing civilians), the guys in charge will go to great lengths to make sure we don’t hear about these things.
Sadly, this Orwellian landscape isn’t improving. For every reinstatement of a job, dismissal of a charge, or payment of damages to a whistleblower, a dozen new proposed censorship rules pop up. America’s courageous whistleblowers take great personal risks and they deserve our support.
Our recently re-elected leader did issue a historic directive in October that laid the groundwork for protecting national security and intelligence whistleblowers from retaliation. But so far, President Barack Obama’s track record is unimpressive.
Federal officials continue to pursue embarrassing disclosures with the same ferocity as either President Bush. And George H.W. Bush headed the CIA before his single-term presidency.
In watchdog circles these days, debate flourishes over whether the Obama administration is the worst ever when it comes to hounding employees who reveal America’s dirty laundry. Six people have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act during Obama’s first term, twice the number in all previous administrations combined.
William A. Collins is an OtherWords columnist who is a former state representative and former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.