By Thor Fanndal
Whistleblowers are not the first people that come to mind when talking about migration. In fact even after blowing the whistle most do not feel forced to go on the run. This, however, could change due to a growing trend of prosecution of whistleblowers, and the political dismantling of channels previously in place for those that blow the whistle, by the Obama administration.
“Ironically back in the 90’s when David Shayler and I where looking at where to go to for safe haven the USA was one of the two countries that would have provided us with the protection,” says Annie Machon, the former MI5 spy who in the 90’s with her partner David Shayler, blew the whistle on agency wrongdoings, including a plot to assassinate then Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. The plot went horribly wrong with civilians losing their lives.
Machon’s case is unusual because of her and Shayler’s decision to flee the UK, in an attempt to stay free long enough to make their case in the court of public opinion Recently there has been a change among whistleblowers feeling the need to go on the run or seek asylum in other countries. Edward Snowden being the obvious example, as well as Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, who sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. Assange is facing extradition to Sweden for allegations of sexual assault, but has refused to comply unless he is guaranteed that he will not be extradited to the US, where the FBI has an active criminal case against the Wikileaks founder for the disclosures made by the whistleblower website.
Exposed murder and got 35 years
In 2013 Chelsea Manning – formerly known as Bradley Manning – was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking a large cache of army documents, including ‘Collateral murder’ a video showing US helicopter firing at civilians, including two children, in Baghdad. Her sentence serves as a warning to other whistleblowers, sending a clear political message: Blow the whistle and you will face severe consequences.
In 2013 Edward Snowden came to international attention after disclosing thousands of classified documents from the US National Security Agency. Snowden revealed numerous global surveillance programs including NSA’s Prism and GCHQ’s Tempora program. Tempora’s aim is to collect all online and telephone data in the UK.
In Citizenfour, a documentary by Laura Poitras one of the journalists that met the whistleblower in Hong Kong, Snowden claims that GCHQ is the envy of other agencies for it’s limitless data collection abilities.
British journalist and former MI5 (BritishSecurity Service) officer David Shayler at the 2005 Axis for Peace conference. “I can only think of myself and David Shayler years ago and of course of Snowden,” said Machon when asked about spies that blow the whistle and have to abandon their home country, but adds that even if they don’t flee many are still exiles in their own countries. She also notes the political changes that might force future whistleblowers to consider such measures. – Why did you and David decide to go on the run? “First of all we wanted to stay free to argue our case after the story started to come out, just like Snowden, also we did not fancy just sitting around waiting for that knock on the door by police to be shuttled to prison and wait for trial.” She points to the lack of protection for whistleblowers in the UK, where going public with information gathered while working for MI5 is automatically a crime, no matter if the disclosures are in the public interest or pointing to criminal activity.
“Until recently [USA] was a better place to be a whistleblower because there was a certain degree of protection,” Machon explains. “If you wanted to expose the crimes of spies, you had a certain degree protection on the inside. You were also entitled as a citizen to go and give your evidence to a congressional committee hearing about the crimes you wanted to expose. So there were more channels or avenues for you.” Legally those routes still exist but due to political pressure whistleblowers are losing faith. There lies the shift, due to an unprecedented war on whistleblowers under the Obama administration. Under Obama more whistleblowers have been prosecuted than under all other presidents combined. In 2011 the New York Times reported that: “In President Obama’s 26 months in office, civilian and military prosecutors have charged five people in cases involving leaking information, more than all previous presidents combined.” According to the American Civil Liberties Union: “The Obama administration has secured 526 months of prison time for national security leakers, versus only 24 months total jail time for everyone else since the American Revolution.”
Transparency unlike no other
The minute Obama took office in 2009, a statement of transparency unlike no other was published on the White House webpage. “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history…“ wrote Macon Phillips, now former White House Director of New Media.
“They have defined whistleblowers as an insider threat and this started under Bush actually,” says Machon on the merits of the criticism of Obama for lack of transparency. She adds that this mentality has a major effect on how whistleblowers are treated and perceived. “The whistleblower under the American mentality has become the insider threat, rather than the public minded person aiming to do something good for their own country.” She argues that it is in this environment that the current administration is able to prosecute those that blow the whistle under an old law called The Espionage Act. It dates to the year 1917 and is aimed at prosecuting traitors. “That is the only law they can use to go after whistleblowers and it is particularly draconian because of course you can get 35 years plus in prison but these people are not traders they are whistleblowers,” says Machon.
While whistleblowers in the UK have historically not been afforded the protections their counterparts in the US have grown accustomed to, this breakdown of American protection is cause for concern for whistleblowers and their supporters all over the world. The added measures needed for protection are at times used as an argument against giving someone legal status as a “whistleblower”. Snowden’s critics point out that he decided to go abroad and went straight to journalists when there are official channels in place for those that work for security agencies to expose wrongdoings. It is argued that this makes any plea for his status as a whistleblower questionable.
In 1969 Daniel Ellsberg —with the assistance of Anthony Russo — secretly photocopied classified Pentagon documents; these later became known as the Pentagon Papers. They revealed that, early on, the US government had knowledge that the Vietnam war, with the given resources, was unlikely to be won. These documents “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance”.
Lately history has been kind to Ellsberg and not many argue anymore that he did his country a disservice. It is however argued that Snowden does not add up to the comparison since he, unlike Ellsberg, went straight to the media and fled the country. Linda Lewis, web editor for Whistleblowing Today, a non-profit magazine on whistleblowing, takes issue with Snowden not comparing to Ellsberg. In “What Edward Snowden’s critics forget about Daniel Ellsberg” Lewis points out that when Snowden is criticised for not using official channels like Ellsberg did, critics fail to mention that Ellsberg’s measures yielded no result. “Initially, Ellsberg turned to members of Congress such as Senator J. William Fulbright [D-Arkansas], Senator Charles Mathias Jr. [R-Maryland], Senator George McGovern [D-South Dakota] and Congressman Paul (Pete) McCloskey Jr. [R-California], all in the hope that one of them would be willing to enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. Despite his pleas, all four declined.” Lewis points out that Snowden’s failure is in reality learning the lesson from past failings of the official channels for blowing the whistle.
“Unlike Ellsberg, Snowden could determine in advance that contacting Congress would be futile. Other NSA whistleblowers had contacted Congress about NSA abuses, to no avail. Why run the risk of being arrested like Thomas Drake, if there was no likelihood of success? Moreover, newspapers were reporting that two senators were already alarmed by NSA activities but refused to disclose details.”
“The good whistleblower”
Ellsberg has like many others been active in Snowdens defence. “Snowden was the one person in the fucking NSA who did what he absolutely should have done,” Ellsberg said at the Hope X, a hackers conference, in 2014, while speaking to Snowden via Google Hangout. – Asked about the comparison between the two of them, him as a hero but Snowden as a villain, Ellsberg said: “Thanks to Manning [Chelsea Manning] and now to you [Edward Snowden] I am getting more favorable publicity than in 40 years, because suddenly people who were all for putting me in prison for life, now realise that I was a very good guy. I was the good whistleblower. I have totally of course rejected this from the beginning, I did not want to be a foil for showing up badly to people I totally admire and identify with.”
How is this a migration story?
With unprecedented attacks on whistleblowers and a culture of prosecution those that speak out are likely to consider fleeing as a first option. Bypassing official channels and internal processes from the get go. Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng and Venezuelan opposition leader Carlos Ortega are several prominent examples of people looking for asylum in one country because they fear punishment in their own. Whistleblowers are increasingly finding themselves looking for asylum in other countries. Snowden is now under temporary asylum in Russia with little hope of returning. Assange serves his asylum status in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. As official channels for exposing wrong doings become less viable, those possessing information, will have to take more extreme measures. Fleeing the country like Snowden, Annie Machon and David Shayler, is gradually becoming a more viable option.
Building a community
“One of the hardest things to survive after you blow the whistle is the isolation afterwards,” says Machon. She now works with various groups that aim to build a community and support for those that expose secrets. She says, “In most cases you blowing the whistle does not change the world and that is the depressing thing,” but she is adamant that exposing wrongdoing is important. When asked if she regrets her choice to leak MI5 information, and by doing so ruin her career and uproot her life, she says: “No I can’t regret what we tried to do. It makes up my life, so I learned to rebuild a live and I would not be the person I am now if I had not had these experiences. I would not be able to do the work I do now, if I had not had those experiences, however there were various moments where you think, oh fuck, nothing is going to change.” In particular she recollects the shift of media attention in 1997, from the MI5 leaks to princess Diana’s fatal crash in Paris. “The original story broke in the summer of 1997, one week ahead of Princess Diana’s death. At that time the media was all on our side and outraged that they had been gagged with injunction. So they were on our side that Saturday before saying; how dare you do this, let the whistleblowers speak. We need to investigate this exclosure. Then Diana died and we just vanished.” Machon and Shayler’s leaks however kept on hitting the news over the next years.
Launching of Code Red
One of the more ambitious projects to counteract the growing surveillance and prosecution of whistleblowers, exposed particularly by the cases against Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, is Code Red. “Code Red will be a strategic think tank and campaign clearinghouse to provide new resources and tactical advice to human rights groups across the world. It will also seek to establish a protection network for rights defenders who are increasingly exposed to aggressive personal retribution by state authorities.” Code Red aims to draw together different stakeholders of the political movements in protection of privacy. It is steered by influential whistleblowers and figures in civil rights groups all over the world.
Among them Annie Machon, former US Congress member Cynthia McKinney, former Wikimedia General Counsel Mike Godwin, Sunil Abraham, head of CIS India, Open Media’s David Christopher, Access Now’s Raegan McDonald, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s International Rights Director Katitza Rodriguez and the former editor of Index on Censorship Judith Vidal-Hall. “It’s great that there are communities of whistleblowers, there are very aware journalists and there are very aware lawyers and there is a growing interest in the hackers, the hacktivist communities, but there is very little overlap between those vested interest groups. What we are trying to do is a clearing house to enable these groups to work together and also to link what they propose to policy makers. We also want to provide a community of resources and support for whistleblowers so that they do not feel so isolated.”