When so-called security agencies operate in secrecy and with impunity, it is predictable that they become flawed and corrupt. Brian Martin argues that the role of whistleblowers is crucial; they need the skills to alert citizens to problems and, if possible, to survive in their jobs.

Sibel Edmonds grew up in Iran and Turkey before moving to the US. After finishing university, she needed a job and applied to the FBI. Nothing happened for years, then suddenly she was recruited. The reason? 9/11. The FBI urgently needed translators for its huge backlog of intercepted communications. Edmonds quickly showed her skills on the job. But then she ran into problems.

Edmonds discovered evidence of nefarious activities in Turkey, including drug-running, money laundering and the nuclear black market. However, her supervisor didn’t want to know. She eventually figured out that corrupt Turkish operators were paying her supervisor for protection.

Edmonds discovered suggestive evidence of prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Her efforts were shut down. Higher-ups didn’t want anyone to know about agency failures.

She found that her work was being sabotaged. She would come to the office and find that her previous translations had been wiped. Meanwhile, security in the office was lax. Rules were not followed, and staff took away unsecured computers.

Edmonds tried reporting the problems, but it seemed no one wanted to listen. It wasn’t just her immediate boss. Those in higher positions in the FBI and the US government also did everything they could to silence her.

The story of her efforts to raise concerns is the story of one failure or blockage after another. She obtained support from the American Civil Liberties Union and took the government to court, eventually reaching the Supreme Court. An obscure law enabled the government to retrospectively classify public information as secret. This even included Edmonds’ date of birth, where she went to university and what languages she spoke. This prohibition is the basis for the title of her book, Classified Woman.

The illusion of security

Edmonds’ story is just one of a great number. She worked inside the national security system and discovered that managers were more interested in protecting themselves than protecting the population.

The most famous whistleblowers about national security matters are Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and, in an earlier generation, Daniel Ellsberg. For every one of them, there are numerous cases like that of Sibel Edmonds, and for every one like hers there are vastly more that are never publicised.

So-called security agencies are supposed to protect us. But what if they are incompetent, corrupt and oppressive? They operate in secrecy and have impunity for crimes, so it is predictable that they are deeply flawed. The way they are set up is a prescription for corruption. 

Furthermore, security agencies cause insecurity by repressing the population, by stoking fears of internal or external enemies, and by enabling attacks on enemies, thereby stimulating the very threat they are supposed to be addressing. The existence of security agencies may give people the impression that they are being protected, leading them to believe they don’t need to become involved and anyway are powerless to help. In other words, security agencies, even the most honest and competent ones, may give a dangerous illusion of security.

The role of whistleblowers

What to do? There are various options. One is administrative oversight and legislative controls. This is widely seen as the way to go, keeping the problems in-house. Another option is to develop independent intelligence agencies relying on citizen inputs and publicly sharing their information. Another option is popular protest against abuses. This can lead to official action. But first the abuses have to become known. This is where whistleblowing comes in.

Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest. Most commonly, they are employees who report corruption, abuse or hazards to the public. Most whistleblowers start by informing their boss or others inside the organisation. When this fails, they go to watchdog agencies. This was the path taken by Sibel Edmonds. Only when all official channels fail to take action — which is quite common — do some of them go public with their concerns. 

In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, British and US leaders implied that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Nearly all informed workers in security agencies remained quiet despite knowing that the claims had little merit. Andrew Wilkie in Australia and Katherine Gunn in Britain were insiders who spoke out. If many more had done the same, a massive disaster might have been avoided. 

Those who try to expose problems become seen as the problem, indeed as the enemy. The draconian penalties imposed on Chelsea Manning and intended for Edward Snowden are exemplary: they are intended to scare others and thereby to limit exposure of problems. In Australia, it has become a criminal offence to be a whistleblower on national security issues or for journalists to report on them, with penalties up to five years in prison.

Although whistleblowers are reporting about serious problems, in most cases attention is focused on the whistleblowers, including their motives, their behaviour, and the reprisals taken against them. The way to avoid this is to leak anonymously.

Leaking enables staying on the job and continuing to leak. Leaking to the media is one option. Another is leaking to activist groups. This can give them insights that can inform campaigning — including campaigning against agency abuses. Maybe this is happening already. If the leakers are sophisticated, we will never know. 

Whistleblowers need protection, to be sure. Just as important, though, they need skills on how to be effective. Those on the outside need to recognise that insiders are potential allies and do what they can to support them.

Emeritus Professor Brian Martin has been involved with issues of dissent and whistleblowing for over 40 years and has extensive experience with social movements. He is vice president of Whistleblowers Australia and edits its newsletter, The Whistle. He has a PhD in theoretical physics and now works as a social scientist at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of 20 books and hundreds of articles in diverse fields including dissent, nonviolent action, scientific controversies, strategies for social movements, democracy and information issues. His personal website is: http://www.bmartin.cc/

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Photo Credit: Simone Ramella via Flickr: “Anything to say? A monument to courage” at Università La Sapienza di Roma. The monument is a life size bronze sculpture by Italian artist Davide Dormino, portraying Edward Snowden, Julien Assange and Chelsea Manning, each one standing on a chair, plus an empty fourth chair for everyone to stand up.