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May 03 2016

“Not all leaks are alike”

Edward Snowden (yes, that one) has an interesting piece up over at The Intercept on the moral and ethical difference between leaking for personal benefit (yes, that is bad and deserving of punishment) and whistleblowing to expose corruption and abuse (yes, that is good and should not be punished).

I think an important consideration besides qui bono is also the power relationship of the discloser (to use a neutral term) to the establishment status quo and whether the disclosure is perceived as advancing the establishment’s objectives or sabotaging them.

Take for example the Greenpeace exposure (also a nice neutral term) of TTIP proposals yesterday. One could argue that Greenpeace is powerful, but not very in relationship to sovereign governments and certainly the individual members are not very powerful at all. Then there is the fact that public knowledge reveals policies that most people would not support. In Germany TTIP polls only 15% favorable and I’d predict that number would fall except that most of that 15% (which is pretty rock bottom but not as bad as United States citizens is about their Congress) have a vested interest (personal benefit) from its passage.

Have no doubts about it, if Germany doesn’t approve TTIP it won’t happen.

Anyway here are some excerpts to think about.

Inside the Assassination Complex
by Edward Snowden, The Intercept
May 3 2016, 6:00 a.m.

Not all leaks are alike, nor are their makers. Gen. David Petraeus, for instance, provided his illicit lover and favorable biographer information so secret it defied classification, including the names of covert operatives and the president’s private thoughts on matters of strategic concern. Petraeus was not charged with a felony, as the Justice Department had initially recommended, but was instead permitted to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. Had an enlisted soldier of modest rank pulled out a stack of highly classified notebooks and handed them to his girlfriend to secure so much as a smile, he’d be looking at many decades in prison, not a pile of character references from a Who’s Who of the Deep State.

There are authorized leaks and also permitted disclosures. It is rare for senior administration officials to explicitly ask a subordinate to leak a CIA officer’s name to retaliate against her husband, as appears to have been the case with Valerie Plame. It is equally rare for a month to go by in which some senior official does not disclose some protected information that is beneficial to the political efforts of the parties but clearly “damaging to national security” under the definitions of our law.

This dynamic can be seen quite clearly in the al Qaeda “conference call of doom” story, in which intelligence officials, likely seeking to inflate the threat of terrorism and deflect criticism of mass surveillance, revealed to a neoconservative website extraordinarily detailed accounts of specific communications they had intercepted, including locations of the participating parties and the precise contents of the discussions. If the officials’ claims were to be believed, they irrevocably burned an extraordinary means of learning the precise plans and intentions of terrorist leadership for the sake of a short-lived political advantage in a news cycle. Not a single person seems to have been so much as disciplined as a result of the story that cost us the ability to listen to the alleged al Qaeda hotline.

If harmfulness and authorization make no difference, what explains the distinction between the permissible and the impermissible disclosure?

The answer is control. A leak is acceptable if it’s not seen as a threat, as a challenge to the prerogatives of the institution. But if all of the disparate components of the institution — not just its head but its hands and feet, every part of its body — must be assumed to have the same power to discuss matters of concern, that is an existential threat to the modern political monopoly of information control, particularly if we’re talking about disclosures of serious wrongdoing, fraudulent activity, unlawful activities. If you can’t guarantee that you alone can exploit the flow of controlled information, then the aggregation of all the world’s unmentionables — including your own — begins to look more like a liability than an asset.

Truly unauthorized disclosures are necessarily an act of resistance — that is, if they’re not done simply for press consumption, to fluff up the public appearance or reputation of an institution. However, that doesn’t mean they all come from the lowest working level. Sometimes the individuals who step forward happen to be near the pinnacle of power. Ellsberg was in the top tier; he was briefing the secretary of defense. You can’t get much higher, unless you are the secretary of defense, and the incentives simply aren’t there for such a high-ranking official to be involved in public interest disclosures because that person already wields the influence to change the policy directly.

At the other end of the spectrum is Manning, a junior enlisted soldier, who was much nearer to the bottom of the hierarchy. I was midway in the professional career path. I sat down at the table with the chief information officer of the CIA, and I was briefing him and his chief technology officer when they were publicly making statements like “We try to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” and everybody still thought that was a cute business slogan. Meanwhile I was designing the systems they would use to do precisely that. I wasn’t briefing the policy side, the secretary of defense, but I was briefing the operations side, the National Security Agency’s director of technology. Official wrongdoing can catalyze all levels of insiders to reveal information, even at great risk to themselves, so long as they can be convinced that it is necessary to do so.

Please do read the rest. It’s more about the application of those principles in the context of National Security and is interesting in its own right.

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