Rev. Dr. Neil O’Farrell explores a conflicted subject.
When I was a youngster, the government built a huge bunker into a hillside in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. during the height of the Cold War. It was supposed to be top secret, but everyone in town knew what the construction was all about. The site was supposed to be where the federal government would regroup if Washington was ever hit by a nuclear attack. I always figured if a little boy like me knew, enemy powers also knew.
Much in the news over the past many weeks have been persons who have shared top secret documents broadly over the Internet and to the media. This quickly leads us to the question of whether a good man can be an ethical whistle blower? Or is leaking secret documents tantamount to treason and espionage and prosecutable to the maximum by the U.S. government, as the law would state?
Does a good man always respect a governmental authority that says that huge computers and their unfathomable scope of information should always be absolutely secret—even that they exist—and this situation must stay that way? This view would assert that you have no authority to be a whistle blower, and since it’s against the law, doing so is unethical and illegal.
I look at the recent revelations very much like knowledge of that “secret” bunker in the West Virginia hills. It was secret to no one, except to most American citizens. Our enemies no doubt knew about it. Even as a child, the irony was not lost on me.
I want you to know up front that I come down aggressively on behalf of open knowledge and transparency. My undergrad degree is in journalism, and I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I believe as much information should be public as possible, chips fall where they may.
I was a Washington lobbyist for twenty years, so I know how this issue plays out in the cauldron of politics. I also know how gossipy Washington and the government are, and national secrets are oftentimes generally well known. International bad agents know more American secrets than do the people of Dubuque. I don’t think that’s good.
As a minister I’m in the truth business. I don’t have a clear, blanket ethic on this issue, but I tend toward revelation and transparency. I believe the ethical scale tips toward openness.
I believe that whistle blowers and journalists work balanced on an ethical foundation. I think typically they are performing a public service. When we look back, we find that most of the information deemed top secret in decades past would have done little harm had the information been in the public forum of a time now long gone.
Over the past months, the focus has been on Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and WikiLeaks —an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to get secret information out in the public eye. Moreover, I have watched closely the tragedy of Aaron Swartz, a gentle soul who committed suicide as he was being prosecuted for revealing articles to the public that were essentially free to any student or researcher in America. I have thought his revelation, which he did for well-formulated ethical reasons, and his subsequent suicide, were the result of prosecutorial bludgeoning.
The Patriot Act, passed and reaffirmed since 9/11, and the Espionage Act passed in the era of President Woodrow Wilson, have been the prosecutor’s tools for bringing very serious, even dire, criminal charges against whistle blowers.
However, we have learned there are hundreds of thousands of persons with security clearances, many of them evidently lightly supervised, so the veil of secrecy is very porous. My thoughts return to that secret bunker in West Virginia that everyone knew about. The government has the propensity to mark almost everything as a national security secret, even information that has been openly published or can be uncovered by a cursory Internet search. There is a lot of proof for that.
I do indeed think that the whistle blower operates within an ethical framework, and whistle blowing can be a defensible activity for a good man. Here are my operating principles: more information is better than less; whistle blowing is crucial to help keep the government and institutions honest; it has a respectable history; and telling the truth has always been dangerous, but it is a call that good men and women may answer affirmatively. (After all, many of our most hallowed heroes, including Jesus, paid an ultimate price for telling the truth about government wrongdoing.)
I don’t trust much of the conversation about this topic from various public and private officials. From my years in Washington, I know that some of the people who are the most strident about keeping as much information as secret as possible, are oftentimes the same persons who selectively leak top secret information to journalists for a variety of reasons, not all of them salutary.
In terms of the present National Security Administration scandals, as a citizen, I believe I need and have a right to know how America’s government officials are doing their jobs. I can’t be a good citizen if I’m an ignorant citizen. That puts me supporting the Ellsbergs, Mannings, Snowdens, and Swartzs of the world. This draws me to the conclusion that they are good men doing hard things at great personal and legal risk.
Anyone who believes that we have much privacy anymore is naïve. I am confident that some computer knows pretty much everything about me: my medical history and medications, what I buy with my credit cards, that I buy a lot of theology books from Amazon, and that I’m a gardener and photographer.
Those computers know who my spouse is, how we file our income taxes, and who keeps our investment accounts. I know that someone, somewhere is compiling this information from various different sources into a single file that comprises a complete narrative of my life.
For men like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to reveal documents that state the obvious should not be criminal, but should be seen as a public service. It is ethical, I believe. The American public should know at least as much as some of our adversaries know.
To be a whistle blower takes the kind of courage a good man has. I know my opinion is not universal. I also think that from the president on down through the political system, many persons whom I support on a raft of other issues, are primarily blowing smoke in their public utterances on these issues. Clearly we live in a different world after 9/11, but not as different as we sometimes think. That trauma doesn’t give carte blanche to an endless array of privacy abuses in the name of national security by the government without a public accounting.
Good men tell the truth. I teach my youngsters in the church this principle. I tell them there are risks and consequences to truth telling. We should support truth tellers. On the other hand, we need to be compassionate to those who, for any one of countless legitimate reasons, decide to be quiet.
It is not insignificant that whistle blowing is oftentimes illegal, and abridges employment contracts, may put your family at risk, and society has historically not dealt kindly with whistle blowing at the time, even if the whistle blower was walking with the angels in historical hindsight.
This is a hot potato issue. Smart, informed, ethical people disagree among themselves on this topic. To be a good man is to be on a quest for truth. That is a good summation of where I come down, where truth is a viciously guarded secret, whose revelation will bring sure retribution from powers and principalities. But the revelation will also bring clarity and understanding to the American commonweal.
Image by hughelectronic / flickr