Whistleblowers, Intellectual Freedom, and Librarians
On February 28, 2013, Bradley Manning read a 35-page statement at a courthouse in Fort Meade, in which he detailed how and why he released certain information to the public. The redacted transcript reveals several intellectual freedom issues that have been central to some recent discussions at American Library Association meetings. Among these issues are recurring concerns about the national security vs. the public’s right to know debate and the over-classification of government information, both of which reinforce government secrecy.
When Manning discussed the release of diplomatic cables, he stated “the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other. I thought these cables were a prime example of a need for more open diplomacy.” Even the Obama Administration agrees that a more open government would be beneficial and joined the Open Government Partnership with several other countries devoted to making governments more transparent and accountable. In theUnited States’ Open Government Partnership action plan whistleblower protection and declassification of government records are listed as working goals, among many others. In addition, the action plan supports “accountability, which can improve performance” and refers to the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Yet, Bradley Manning’s court case, along with several other instances of whistleblower persecution, point toward an opposite reality. In fact, the Obama Administration is taking the unprecedented path of charging Manning with “aiding the enemy”, a crime punishable by death and a charge for which Manning has pleaded not guilty.
In Yochai Benkler’s post in New Republic titled “The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case,” he explains that “If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, the introduction of a capital offense into the mix would dramatically elevate the threat to whistleblowers. The consequences for the ability of the press to perform its critical watchdog function in the national security arena will be dire. “Perhaps Manning’s leaks of diplomatic cables along with other information on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been too much “sunlight”, or rather, not the kind of sunlight the Open Government program envisioned. This is where we see a great clash between the Public’s right to know and concerns for national security.
Unfortunately, invoking “national security” has often been used to limit intellectual freedom, including press freedom as outlined under the First Amendment, resulting in fleeting protections for whistleblowers who reveal injustices and abuses within organizations. A prime example is the decision by The New York Times not to publish a story in 2003 on the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program by the C.I.A. after government officials informed the paper it would endanger “national security.” In addition, President Obama’s 2012 directive titled “Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information” does not extend protection to whistleblowers that disclose information outside of institutional channels for example, to the press or the public. Benkler asserts that “freedom of the press is anchored in our constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog,” for even though internal accountability systems are in place, secrecy “can be-and often is-used to cover up failure, avarice, or actions that simply will not survive that best of disinfectants, sunlight.” To ensure effective accountability that eliminates injustices and corruption within our government, we need better transparency and a media devoted to its critical watchdog role.
The International Federation of Library Associations, of which the American Library Association is a member, published the “IFLA Manifesto on Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption” which offers some inspiration for librarians who are concerned with issues of national security, press freedom and the over classification of government information. It states that: “Corruption succeeds most under conditions of secrecy and general ignorance” and that since libraries in essence contribute to “good governance by enlarging the knowledge of citizens and enriching their discussion and debates” they should extend their work to be active in the “struggle against corruption.”
Moreover, several of the core values of our profession, as expressed by the American Library Association directly relate to the importance of whistleblowers. First, the core value in support of democracy: “A democracy presupposes an informed citizenry.” Likewise, the value of social responsibility, which includes “ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem.” Without a doubt, government transparency is a critical problem in our society, and has been a continuous balancing act since the inception of our constitutional republic. As Sunshine Week comes to a close, we are reminded to reflect on these issues and the progress we have yet to make.
As of now, the Obama Administration has denied FOIA requests more than any time in the Administration’s history due to national security and internal deliberations. The Espionage Act, enacted in 1917, has resurfaced in the persecution of whistleblowers who inform the public of government crime. National Security Letters continue to be used as a way to infringe on individual privacies, although a federal judge just recently ruled the letters unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. This varied landscape of political control over information should be explored by information professionals in order to be better informed of the various perspectives and events that have brought it about. As librarians, professionals dedicated to equitable access to information, we should be acutely aware of and decidedly outspoken about the current threat to the vital role that whistleblowers play in times of heightened government secrecy, that of alerting us to troubling, unethical, immoral, and/or criminal acts in our name.