Over the past thirty years, POGO has wrangled with whistleblowers who want to disclose classified information—not 92,000 pieces of information, mind you—but I keep wondering what we would have done if the individuals who shared the classified raw field reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan had come to us.
One thing we would have done differently is that we would have first warned them that disclosing classified information, if it was genuinely worth disclosing, would likely put them in jail, and therefore it would be important to try to find a safe and legal channel for disclosing that information.
We have countless times endeavored to protect the public interest and the whistleblowers in this quandary, and it is much harder than it sounds. National security whistleblowers have essentially no protections at all, and military whistleblower protections amount to no more than a paper tiger. Nonetheless, we would have arranged for the whistleblowers to brief Members of Congress who have demonstrated both an interest in oversight of the war as well as a willingness to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Sometimes this approach has worked to address wrongdoing, but sometimes it hasn’t.
Another approach we have taken, especially post-9/11, is to work with policymakers in the relevant executive branch agencies, who are surprisingly often inclined to address the problem—motivated no doubt because they know if they don’t act, it is possible the wrongdoing will become public.
So then we would be faced with two ultimate questions: Is the information so essential to the public interest that it is worth any potential harm that could come from the release of the information? And if it is, is the whistleblower willing to take the personal risk by going public?
It appears that Wikileaks went straight to that nuclear option with some consideration for the first question, but little consideration for the second. The full answers to these essential questions are not yet known. However, with regards to the question of potential harm caused by the leak, there is no doubt Wikileaks has matured from its original approach that all secrets should be made public into a more nuanced approach which included redacting names and working with news outlets that vetted the information. However, the national security establishment has claimed there is “blood on the hands” of Wikileaks because of the disclosures. This pronouncement could be hyperbole—but what if it isn’t?
Wikileaks claims to be a “public service designed to protect whistleblowers,” but Private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have provided Wikileaks with the now-infamous helicopter video from Iraq and who investigators are now "looking at closely" as they try and determine the source of the case of the Afghan War Diaries, is now detained at Quantico Marine Base. Until whistleblowers are given real protections, it is incumbent on organizations that purport to protect potential whistleblowers, as Wikileaks does, to provide that safe channel and help guide them through the maze of traps that lie ahead for whistleblowers.
There is no doubt this episode also exposes the ridiculous problems created by the overclassification of government information. The Administration cannot have it both ways—they claimed that there was nothing important in the 92,000 documents, then also claimed that this was a terrible breach of national security. There is no doubt that the release produced a better-informed populace about one of our most important public policy issues, the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But at what cost?
One thing I am sure of: If there were safe channels for national security and military whistleblowers, leaks of classified information would be far less likely. Given that, POGO will continue to do everything we can to ensure passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and protections for all whistleblowers. Safe channels for disclosure of wrongdoing and authentic whistleblower protections are strong anti-leak policies. At the end of the day, the latest Wiki-leak is a stark reminder that it’s the real balance between national security and the public’s right to know that are missing in action.