Whistleblowers are at the center of a swirling vortex of apparent contradictions, where Constitutional rights seem to create dangerous loopholes for confidential information to land in the wrong hands and put lives at risk. Are they heroes or traitors, valiant campaigners for truth, misguided freedom fighters, or mere publicity-seekers?
We want limited government. We want freedom of the press. We want protection from unreasonable search and seizure. But we also want security for our nation, and safety for our service members abroad. There is a balance somewhere between, we just have to find it.
In 2010, Julian Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, former Army intelligence analyst, to gain access to DoD computers. That’s the offense he’s currently charged with (plus, Sweden still wants him for sexual assault charges from 2010). But that was only the latest in a long line of offenses. Wikileaks, of which Assange is usually cited as the founder, was launched in 2006 and leaked information about the Iraq war, confidential details about Guantanamo Bay procedures, the contents of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email, and a host of other confidential documents. Assange made a habit of hacking DoD systems and other government computers to air the government’s dirty laundry for the public. Assange’s basic political philosophy, expressed in a series of his own essays dating back to 2006, is opposition to what he considers conspiracy-based, authoritarian governments. He cares less about transparency or protecting people than about dismantling such governments.
Those documents are confidential for a reason—not because the government is a cruel, conspiratorial dictatorship, but because there are other governments and organizations in the world that would love to have access to America’s terror-fighting methods, invasion plans, troop locations, you name it. Depending on who you ask, making that information accessible to our nation’s enemies could be considered espionage, and no matter what you call it, it’s a great way to lay booby traps around the world for America’s fighting forces. American contacts on the ground in the Middle East were put in jeopardy by the Wikileaks release of documents which included their identities; some almost certainly were killed before they could be removed to safe locations. As likely as not, Assange helped get U.S. service members killed, and for what? His own personal anti-government fetish? Some might say those are acceptable losses for the “greater good”—but to me, the wife of a service member, they’re absolutely not. At best, Assange operated on the misguided belief that the American government is cruel and overbearing, possibly even to the level of Soviet Russia, Maoist China, or Nazi Germany. Despite the mess of American politics, one need only take a look around this beautiful country to see that’s simply not the case. But more on that later.
In 2013, Edward Snowden, then a CIA employee, copied and leaked classified information from the NSA. Americans deserved to know their own government was spying on them—it violates the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure, I’ve made that argument many times myself. But Snowden also revealed numerous global surveillance programs that fall into the same category as Assange releasing DoD files: giving our enemies the jump on us. To make matters worse, before he released his first documents, Snowden fled to Moscow via Hong Kong. He has remained in Russia, and undoubtedly shared critical information with the Russian government. He went to one of the few geopolitical rivals America actually has and let them use him against our country. Russia’s interest in Snowden’s information is entirely different than the interest of the American people, and not only did he give them everything he had, he’s become a propaganda tool for Russia. They pay him to live there—that doesn’t sound like a patriotic American. You can believe he was justified in trying to blow the whistle, and still believe he became a traitor.
War of All Against All
Governments have a right to some expectation of privacy of their servers. If they don’t, international law is effectively rendered meaningless because every government would know exactly what every other government was thinking and planning! Besides that, government’s power would be essentially nonexistent. I know what you’re thinking: limited government is a good thing! Yes it is: government exists to protect the rights of the people and provide for national defense, and there its power should stop. Powerless government or no government, however, is anarchy—total chaos—not good. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about the “state of nature,” or the natural tendency of mankind to be in a “war of all against all.” Hobbes recognized that government is essential to organized, civilized society—and outside of society, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Take note: Assange isn’t being charged with leaking classified information. He’s being charged with conspiring to hack into the Pentagon’s system. Oh, and by the way, before we get too deep into Assange’s personal rights… Assange is not an American citizen. He’s Australian, and was also an Ecuadorian citizen for 6 years, until Ecuador suspended his citizenship on April 11 and he was arrested by the British government. On the other hand, Snowden is an American citizen, and his actions were treasonous. The charges leveled against him in 2013 included theft of government property and conveying classified information to an unauthorized party.
Limited Government and Free Press
The rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights are based on our Founders belief that people, regardless of race, creed, or nationality, are endowed by God with a certain set of inalienable rights. Those rights do not come from government. That’s why James Madison initially didn’t want to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution—he feared it would imply that those rights were granted and/or limited by government. He later agreed to the Bill of Rights and ended up composing most of it himself, on condition that the 9th and 10th Amendments be included to ensure that the enumeration of rights was not considered exhaustive.
So: where is the line between government power and the people’s rights—specifically the First Amendment rights to free speech and free press?
The U.S. Government regularly oversteps its bounds; there is good reason to distrust the leadership of our nation’s intelligence agencies, and even to question whether the Constitution is really still the law of the land. But if we believe the Constitution *should* be the law of the land—if we believe in rule OF law and government UNDER law, rather than tyrannical rule BY law—shouldn’t we follow the law and seek to inflict change through Constitutional means, rather than applauding those who would dismantle our Constitutional system piece by piece? I’m no dumb sheep who would argue that we should just blindly follow what the government tells us to do—I’m a bit of a contrarian, and proud of it! We should know our Constitutional rights and their limits and seek to exercise and defend them accordingly. And we should definitely hold the government accountable—that’s why our Constitution is written the way that it is; but whistleblowers who act outside of the law and decide for themselves what is just and true and right are not the solution.
So what does freedom of the press actually mean? The First Amendment protects your right to believe what you want, practice your faith how you want, hold such opinions as you desire, and express them as you will. It doesn’t protect speech or press that expressly causes harm. And it doesn’t protect the release of stolen information. Freedom of speech or press wouldn’t protect your right to steal your neighbor’s identity and publish it online, anonymously or otherwise; neither does it protect a so-called journalist’s right to steal confidential government files and release those. Report information that was obtained by legal means. Speculate all you want, formulate conspiracy theories, express your opinions, crazy as they may be. But don’t steal information, publish it and call it journalism.
Whatever Assange’s intentions, the effect of his actions was diminishing the power of the U.S. government by putting American soldiers’ lives on the line. Oh, and by the way, national security is one of the government’s few real Constitutional duties. Defending Assange requires the belief that the American government is tyrannical enough to justify his actions—and if that’s really the case, why aren’t more people following in his footsteps? If we are really living under a cruel, conspiratorial government with no hope for good at all, why aren’t droves of people revolting and attempting to tear it down? It just doesn’t make sense.
As for Snowden, there are legitimate ways to unmask government corruption and scandal. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects government employees who seek to blow the whistle for a whole host of reasons. Had Snowden taken his information through the proper channels, or at the very least remained in America to face the consequences of his actions, there’s a good chance he would have been pardoned and rightly lauded a hero. Granted, whistleblowers in the Obama Administration rightly lived in fear; when Snowden was preparing to take action, there was still a lot of suspicion around the apparently sudden death of media personality Andrew Breitbart in 2012—did he really die of a heart attack, or was he assassinated? So, I can understand Snowden wanting to lie low, or maybe split to Canada or even the UK, even though the U.S. is objectively the safest country when it comes to freedom of speech. But of all places, he fled to Russia, where journalists regularly disappear or die in suspicious ways; he shared information with their government and let them use him against his own country.
The actions of Snowden and Assange might be great ways to dismantle an oppressive, overly centralized government. I’ll be the first to admit that the American government is corrupt and far more centralized than our Founders intended, but it hasn’t fallen to the level of fascist tyranny we saw in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany—or any level of fascism, for that matter, and last I checked, an individual can’t just decide to nullify part of the Constitution or any law that they don’t like. I believe the U.S. government is not an inherently evil institution, and it is definitely still the best government on earth when it comes to protecting freedom and human rights—this, thanks to the rule of law established in the Constitution. In America, the government is still UNDER the law of the Constitution, even if certain officeholders forget that from time to time. That order of things—where the Constitution is the law of the land, and government is subject thereto—is what makes possible the protection of any and all human rights. And in America, stealing information from the government undermines the rule of law and jeopardizes the very system that protects freedom of the press.