It was the summer of 2013 and Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport was all abuzz. Travelers and members of the international press swarmed the transit lounge with their cameras, looking for Edward Snowden. Snowden was trapped in the airport for 39 days after having his U.S. passport suspended. After months of coordination over encrypted email with international journalists, Snowden had leaked highly classified NSA data while in hiding in Hong Kong only days before. Reports drawn from the over 7,000 documents detailed how the NSA conducted mass global surveillance and collected data on millions worldwide. The evidence was damning—it made the U.S. government look like Big Brother.
Snowden’s leaks marked a new era of debate around digital privacy, but they were followed by an international witch hunt by a state that was bent on making him pay. The U.S. government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917, under which trials are never public. Democrats like Hillary Clinton accused Snowden of being an agent for China or Russia. In January 2014, during a speech on the NSA’s programs, Barack Obama painted Snowden as a traitor and stressed the importance of the ability of intelligence agents to keep secrets. He said that if Snowden was truly patriotic and believed to be right, he would have used proper, legal channels to voice his concerns instead of leaking to the press.
In multiple instances, however, we have seen how dishonest such promises of due process are. In the same year that Snowden was charged, Chelsea Manning was convicted by court-martial for violating the Espionage Act, among other offenses. Manning, a soldier, leaked nearly 750,000 documents to Wikileaks that exposed the war crimes by the U.S. military and its allies. Now known as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary, these leaks detailed gross human rights violations and countless civilian deaths that occurred at the hands of the U.S. forces.
During her pre-trial detention, Manning was held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. After the leaks were published, politicians on both sides of the aisle painted the reports as attacks on the U.S. and called for WikiLeaks to be designated as a terrorist organization. When questioned about Manning, then President Obama said he thought Manning broke the law. During her trial, military doctors and psychiatrists were brought in to cast doubts on her mental health. They took turns to paint her as a narcissist with severe mental health issues resulting from her questioning of her gender identity. She was sentenced to an unusually cruel 35 year sentence for an action that, even according to the courts, didn’t endanger anyone. Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence in 2016 after continued public and international pressure was met with much criticism from politicians in DC.
After Snowden’s leaks, Obama defended the work done by U.S. intelligence agencies by comparing the country to “true” surveillance states like China, East Germany, and Russia. He stressed on the freedoms afforded by the U.S., camouflaging a history of free speech that’s riddled with censorship. From Eugene Debs in 1918, to Daniel Ellsberg in 1969, to Snowden and Manning now—writers, journalists, and whistleblowers have often been persecuted when they lifted the veneer of lies off the truth. In reality, the U.S., like other imperialist nations, has a long history of using deceitful and violent tactics to not only maintain global hegemony, but also to keep its own citizenry in line. Beyond the pretense of democractic freedom, there lies the reality of authoritarian control. Whistleblowers have, time and again, shone a bright light on the mass surveillance, manipulation, and violence propagated by the bourgeois state apparatus in the name of national security and interest.
The CIA’s Whistleblower
In recent weeks, there has been a renewed public interest in the figure of the whistleblower. Following a formal complaint by a CIA agent about Trump’s phone conversation with the president of Ukraine, members of both Congress and the Senate moved quickly to act upon it. According to the complaint, Trump asked Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. military aid. House Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry shortly after the news leaked. Pelosi’s announcement comes after months of House Democrats calling for impeachment hearings. This inquiry has come not as a result of Trump’s abysmal record as President—including his Muslim ban, the concentration camps on the Southern border, or his profiteering off his office—but after the direct threat to the frontrunner in the Democratic primaries.
The whistleblower, meanwhile, has been lauded for utilizing “proper” channels to lodge their complaint. This agent has enjoyed unwavering support from Democrats and protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998. In a statement released on September 26, the House Intelligence Committee said that “Congress must do all it can to protect this whistleblower, and all whistleblowers.” Yet, Democratic Party operatives and the broader liberal establishment were up in arms when Wikileaks published documents that showed the party undemocratically conspiring against Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Both the Republican and Democratic parties use whistleblowers and leaked documents for their own purposes when it suits them, while denouncing those who make public their own party’s pernicious deeds.
The hypocrisy of the Democratic Party establishment, while jarring, is singularly geared towards preserving American imperialism. Today, a whistleblower is being celebrated because the future of the Democratic Party and the political system is at stake. There is a concentrated effort to make this complaint accessible to all while protecting the agent’s identity.
Contrast this to Chelsea Manning’s most recent arrest and jail term for refusing to testify in the case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was the subject of an international manhunt and was finally arrested this April in London outside the Ecuadorian Embassy after a seven year stand-off. Snowden, too, was instructed multiple times by his supervisors to drop his complaints before he finally went public. It seems naive to assume that whistleblowers who expose the crimes of bourgeois governments will be met with anything but persecution.
Whistleblowers play a crucial role not only in reporting about bad actors within businesses and governments, but also, and more importantly, in exposing how our systems are designed to function in certain ways. They provide us with facts that help us piece together a singular picture of violence, manipulation, and exploitation designed by those in power to maintain hegemonic control. By exposing some of the worst crimes perpetrated by governments, armies, and wealthy interests, whistleblowers can help ever-greater sectors of society reject the status quo and embrace radical alternatives.
During the Vietnam war, whistleblowers and investigative journalists exposed atrocities like the My Lai massacre carried out against civilians in 1968, helping turn public opinion against U.S. involvement. Similarly, whistleblowers and journalists laid bare the gruesome reality of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq when they documented the horrors committed at the Abu Ghraib prison. Showing the crimes of the world’s great powers is heroic work that deserves our unwavering support.
Indeed, one of the first great whistleblowers of the 20th century was none other than the Bolshevik Party which, shortly after coming to power in the October Revolution of 1917, published the then-secret Sykes-Picot agreement—a treaty between Britain and France dividing up the Middle East. With that great act of whistleblowing, the aims of the great powers were exposed for what there were: further colonialism, power grabs, and deception. Working people today, like in 1917, have an interest in exposing the true policy objectives and crimes of governments everywhere.
While the Democratic Party has put its weight behind the anonymous CIA whistleblower today, we should remember that this is the same party that, with bipartisan support, seeked punitive action against much more important whistleblowers. The Espionage Act was passed in 1917 to suppress mass opposition to U.S. entry into World War One. More than 100 years later, it continues to restrict freedom of information and press. In a true democracy, there are no state secrets, much less the inclination to prosecute those who share information regarding actions done in the name of the people.