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Whistleblowing and Government Secrets, Chelsea Manning edition

Stephen Hicks
Posted On:
May 11, 2017 at 8:05 AM

In his final days in office, President Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning. While in the employ of the US Army, Manning had downloaded tens of thousands of government documents and passed them on to Wikileaks.

Among the leaked documents were many State Department cables, reports on incidents during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Some documents revealed information that put US diplomacy into disadvantaged negotiating positions and exposed personnel to increased military risk. Some of the more controversial documents were about arbitrary arrests, the use of torture and the training of torturers, and 2007 video footage showing an Apache helicopter killing civilians in Baghdad, Iraq.

So: Is Manning a traitor who illegally exposed sensitive government secrets -- or a whistleblower exposing corrupt and illegal government activities? Or both?

In the business world, ethicists encourage whistleblowers to set aside the ordinary expectation of confidentiality and loyalty to expose illegalities within their organizations. The US Department of Labor has extensive protections in place for whistleblowers. The employers that whistleblowers expose are prohibited by law from taking adverse actions such as firing, threatening, or reducing the whistle-blowing employee's compensation.

Does anything change when the employer is the government itself? And does it matter that very recent public perceptions are of a government with an increasing number of high officials who lie prodigiously, use power arbitrarily, and then use information-classification procedures to cover-up their misdeeds? Our government officials are constitutionally bound, and they are ultimately responsible to us, the citizens.

Executive Order 13526 says:

“In no case shall information be classified … in order to: conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency … or prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.” (Sec. 1.7, Classification Prohibitions and Limitations)

Yet we should also consider the standard procedures whistleblowers should follow.

The first consideration is to whom the problem should be reported. Normally, problems can be reported to a superior officer. But if the superior is the problem, then it can be communicated to the superior's superior. If that is bureaucratically impossible or the illegality is coming from on high, then the whistleblower can appropriately seek an ombudsman or an independent regulatory or judicial office with the authority to investigate.

A second consideration is how much information to release. Whistleblowers should not release information indiscriminately, but rather only information directly relevant to the infraction(s).

So relevant to evaluating Chelsea Manning's actions is whether she respected those two considerations.

Did she discuss her concerns with her superiors? Or if she rightly judged that would be ineffective, did she seek out the Army's or other appropriate watchdog or judicial units, e.g., the FBI? Or did she simply and directly go public to Wikileaks?

And did she review the information she downloaded and release only those documents relevant to her legitimate concerns? Or did she indiscriminately release any documents she was able to acquire?

Illegal activities and cover-ups by high government officials are dangerous to our republic -- but so is the flouting of the rule of law and its specified procedures.