BLOWING THE WHISTLE: THE INFORMATION TRADE

elena kissel


With the capacity to control entire populations and to destabilise powerful governments, information is our most valuable commodity. As we see in foreign dictatorships (or our own backyard), the control of information is key in maintaining power. An uneducated population is a population that is unable to revolt; therefore, the powerful can remain just that.

Visual censorship thrived in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. During the political purges, Stalin doctored photos to literally erase people from history in a pre-digital kind of Photoshop. Figures like Leon Trotsky (a Lenin ally but Stalin rival) disappeared from photographs of Soviet events after he led an opposition to Stalin and his policies.

With the filtering of information, and without outside sources to dispute, states like North Korea can have its citizens believe that its leader is revered by the world. The population can be fed information, and absurd ‘truths’ (like that the ruling family are so above basic human functions that they need neither urinate nor defecate), and it is believed.

In a country like Australia, it’s common to be a frequent user of social media platforms; with Facebook’s monopoly it’s almost odd not to have it. In China that’s different. Dubbed the ‘Great Firewall of China’, the government blocks websites and platforms like Google, Facebook and YouTube. Internet usage is highly monitored and the country imprisons the greatest number of ‘cyber-dissidents’ in the world.

When we look at North Korea or China, we pity. With the Internet, and ‘free speech’, we don’t see ourselves as controlled. What Edward Snowden taught us is that secrecy and the power of information have become significant in a global context. It’s not just our own government that has an interest in controlling our information; other states are too. September 11 sparked the ‘War on Terror’ and gave governments the excuse of protecting ‘national security’ to keep crucial information from their public, and surveil them at the same time.

The Internet, which was introduced as a platform of getting “instant news and free information”, has now become a highly controlled environment. YouTube introduced a ‘restricted mode’ where videos about LGBTQ+ topics were being censored, as they were deemed “mature content” and “sensitive issues”. Similarly, since reality television star Donald Trump was inaugurated as US President on the 20th of January 2017, massive amounts of information have been taken off governmental websites. The Guardian calls it “deleting climate change”; Trump’s administration has buried and weakened any mentions of climate change and its devastating impact. Of course, politicians that rely on the support of fossil fuel moguls can’t very well have their population educated about climate science!

The powerful are finally made accountable for their actions when information that has been censored is ‘illegally’ released by whistleblowers. Perhaps I was influenced by films like All the Presidents Men and Erin Brockovich, or maybe it was my parents’ emphasised dislike for deceitful politicians like Tony Blair or George W Bush. But however it came about, I have developed a keen interest in the accountability of those in power, specifically in whistleblowers that expose them. These people risk their lives for those who do not have power in the name of transparency and culpability. They help assure that the powerful aren’t above the law, but equal to all people.

 

Daniel Ellsberg released classified US documents in 1971. This ended with newspaper offices surrounded by police, the threat of a 115-year prison sentence, illegal wiretapping and breaking into offices by the government, as well as the eventual demise of a President. Ellsberg, who is now seen as a key figure in the anti-Vietnam war movement, actually volunteered to serve in it in 1965. This made him one of the only people to serve and work at a high level of the US administration during the war.

It’s 1967 and United States Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara orders a secret study of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. This study, later dubbed The Pentagon Papers, reveals the country had been secretly involved since the Truman era, supplying France with 80% of the funds to a war that the US had no connection to. It exposes the lies told to Congress that led to entering the war undeclared, because of a fictitious attack by the North Vietnamese. Manipulated by their government, the public and the military are misled that this war can be won, pushing thousands more to their deaths.

Working at the RAND Corporation in 1969, Ellsberg stole this highly classified study in his briefcase and snuck it across town to a Xerox machine. Together with the more radical Anthony Russo and the occasional help of his own children, Ellsberg photocopied the seven thousand-page study at night, “one page at a time.” Just hours after The New York Times released the first nine excerpts, the Times building was surrounded by police. The documents were passed from newspaper to newspaper, until eventually seventeen publications were involved in their release, each successively receiving injunctions to cease publication.

Ellsberg surrendered himself and was then charged under the Espionage Act, facing a prison sentence of 115 years. The Nixon administration, so desperate for a conviction, wiretapped conversations between Ellsberg and his attorney, and broke into Ellsberg’s psychologist’s office in the Watergate hotel (perhaps practicing for the 1972 election?). Eventually the case was ruled a mistrial. Some historians attribute President Richard Nixon’s eventual demise to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers.

 

A case like Ellsberg’s shows the hypocrisy of our ‘free’ governments. The Vietnam War was the United States’ battle against what they call ‘a communist dictatorship.’ America’s favourite pastime is intervening in other country’s politics, in the name of protecting the people. Yet when governments like the US act at the expense of ‘the little people’, those who expose this are condemned.

Loyalty to one’s country seems to be more important than lives. People who break this contract with country are deemed treasonous: a concept from monarchical times that still carries inflated sentences. Espionage has exposers of murder and corruption facing life in prison, or even death. People like Ellsberg are threatened with 115 years of incarceration. Meanwhile the average sentence for rape in the United States is 9.8 years, and 7 years in Victoria, Australia.

To the powerful, transparency is not important, what matters is maintaining power no matter the consequences.

When people come across concerning information about their government and blow the whistle, the people are often split in their support of either party. Either they side with the government – seeing the person as a treasonous traitor, or they side with the whistleblower – seeing the person as a hero (can you tell I’m the latter?). Or, which is sadly often the case, they ignore it. Then there are altogether different cases, like that of Mordechai Vanunu. Vanunu, a controversial figure in Israel, is generally seen as a traitor to the country for revealing secrets to the world that compromised Israel’s power. 

 

Mordechai Vanunu leaked information to the British press that Israel had been manufacturing nuclear weapons for decades, despite the state’s assurances to the world that they weren’t. While there were theories by intelligence agencies that Israel had secretly manufactured a total of 10-15 atomic bombs, they had in fact been producing 10 per year for over two decades. Vanunu theorises that with the Cold War mentality of the 1980s, Israel was producing these weapons as they were cheap and could be the key step in establishing superior power in the Middle East. He also claims that these secret productions were only possible with the help of the US and Europe.

Mordechai Vanunu, who had worked as a nuclear technician in Israel from 1975 to 1985, travelled to London where he revealed these top-secrets to the Sunday Times. His intelligence along with 60 photographs he had secretly taken showed that Israel had produced around 200 nuclear bombs in the underground factory in the Negev desert. This made Israel the world’s sixth largest nuclear power. He also exposed Israel’s efforts to manufacture thermonuclear weaponry: the Hydrogen bomb, which can be 1,000 times more destructive than the atomic bombs that devastated Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

With an ethical opposition to weapons of mass destruction, Vanunu saw no legitimate justification for this extreme production of atomic weapons. He wanted to “expose to the world, the madness of this nuclear proliferation.” He also saw the possibility for peace in the Middle East. With the resulting image of strength and power the world could demand from Israel to give Palestinians rights, to occupy the land, and to allow the creation of refugee camps.

After the article was published on October 5, 1986, Vanunu was lured to Italy by Mossad agent Cheryl Bentov. In Rome he was kidnapped and transported to Israel, where he was charged with espionage and treason. He served 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement – in complete isolation from any human contact. Since his release in 2004, Vanunu is barred from leaving the country or being in any kind of contact with foreigners. He consistently breaks these conditions in his insistence of free speech, which has been met with a multitude of arrests. Despite his efforts, Mordechai Vanunu’s vision of a peaceful Middle East and a nuclear-free world has not been realised.

 

Access to information continues to be determined by class and gender. Information comes with education, which is only available to those in privileged positions. Access to information therefore becomes a measure of status.

It’s not just the access to prestigious schools or tertiary education that can determine ones prospects, it comes down to basic literacy. In 2015, 781 million adults (above the age of 15) in the world were illiterate, 60% of those were women. That is over 10% of the world population. It is those people that are automatically censored from information about their governments and international politics. Without literacy one is more or less forced to blindly follow the government.

Historically western women have not had the same access to education as men have. With an emphasis on baby making and housekeeping (and other traditionally ‘feminine’ roles), women were never seen as important enough to receive education. Only in the last century has education in women become more valued.

This makes women whistleblowers all the more impressive, as they face many more obstacles than men do, when it comes to access to information.

 

Marlene Garcia-Esperat was a chemist turned journalist who uncovered major a corruption scandal in the Philippines government. Working for the Department of Agriculture, Garcia-Esperat discovered that her department was receiving only 40% of their government funds. She investigated, and what she discovered was a system riddled with corruption. Officials diverted millions of Philippine Pesos into their own pockets. Upon further inquiry, Garcia-Esperat found that this corruption went as high as the President. Officials bought overpriced fertiliser and then diverted the excess 728 million Philippine Pesos to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s 2004 presidential campaign. 12 officials including incoming Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante colluded in this corruption.

Gacia-Esperat filed a corruption complaint to court and testified her findings. Impatient with the slow progress of the case, she took matters into her own hands, further than she already had, and began reporting on her radio show, and column: Madame Witness. Following her exposé she became an anti-graft (working against corruption) columnist, reporting on numerous corruption cases involving high-ranking officials.

After many death threats, two years in witness protection and an attempted kidnapping, Garcia-Esperat was murdered in front of her children in her home on the 24th of March 2005.

With three hierarchy levels involved in the murder (operators, coordinators, and masterminds), it was four operators and coordinators that were charged with murder. Middleman Rowie Barua identified Osmena Montaner and Estrella Sabay as the masterminds, two of the officials who Garcia-Esperat named in the fertiliser scandal. Despite this, these murderers walk free as their case was dismissed by the judge on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Marlene Garcia-Esperat is one of many journalists that have been murdered in the Philippines since 1986.

 
Former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo interacting with world leaders while Marlene Garcia-Esperat was murdered for exposing her corruption.
 

Whistleblowing in militaristic institutions is a whole new ballgame. Such organisations act like their own states, with legal and judicial systems that are separate from that of their wider sovereign. Therefore people who are within this system and speak out are considered an ‘enemy’, often ending in their state sanctioned murder.

Then there are dictatorships that act as militaristic institutions. If people flee the atrocities that they face in such states, they are considered ‘defectors’. In the German Democratic Republic, people who tried to flee were shot on site. Such is the case in North Korea, from which some 30,000 people have fled to South Korea and still live in fear of being kidnapped and brought back. While not strictly ‘whistleblowers’, these people expose the abhorrent conditions that the North Korean population of 25 million face daily.

In the toxic masculine environment of the military, where people are broken down in order to become obedient, it is unthinkable to rebel against the authority. This makes it all the more difficult, and brave to blow the whistle from within the military.

 

Former US soldier Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning), used Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks to distribute over 720,000 diplomatic and military documents. These leaks were amongst WikiLeaks’ most prominent, and are fundamental in the arising information age. In an attempt to spark debate about US military and foreign policy, Manning used her access to confidential materials to download and leak data that exposed the US.

The classified US military Collateral Murder video, perhaps the most famous of the WikiLeaks exposures, was leaked by Manning in 2010. This 39-minute video depicted the 2007 massacre of over 12 civilians in Baghdad, Iraq – including two Reuters journalists. Manning also leaked the Iraqi War Logs and the Afghan War Logs. Both contain thousands of documents about each war and soldiers’ views on how the wars were unfolding. They also contained information on civilian deaths, which were vastly underplayed by the US. With over 109,000 violent deaths identified in the Iraqi War Logs, 66,081 of those were civilian – over 15,000 more than previously disclosed. The logs also showed that US soldiers handed detainees over to the ‘Wolf Brigade’, an Iraqi torture squad, and US interrogators also used this as a threat tactic.

Manning’s fourth key leak was Cablegate, which was incidentally also the largest ever document release at the time. This collection of 251,287 cables comprised communications between US embassies and the US state department since 1966. They contained comments by US diplomats about host countries’ internal and external politics, as well as information on their actions on terror, nuclear disarmament, and US intelligence efforts. Analysts see the cables’ disclosures on corruption in the Libyan and Tunisian governments as key catalysts to the Arab revolutions of 2011.

Betrayed by a friend in whom she confided, Manning was charged with 22 counts under the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as the Espionage Act. The highest charge, “aiding the enemy,” carries the death penalty. Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman, spent six years of her 35-year sentence in an all-male prison – all while transitioning. In his final days in office, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence and she was released in May 2017.

 

We can’t look at these cases as removed from our own experiences. Censorship happens in our own backyard, and it’s not even a secret.

The concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island (you may know them as ‘detention centres’) indefinitely hold refugees who try to come to Australia. Conditions are said to be torturous, but since May 2015 anybody working at the centres is forbidden to talk about them, or they face jail-time. This Australian Border Force Act turns the Department of Immigration into “a secret security organisation with police powers”. The doctors and counsellors who reported on many cases of abuse and sexual assault in the centres have been gagged.

Like mini-dictatorships, there is even censorship inside the centres themselves. Migration officer turned whistleblower Liz Thompson revealed that information regarding any kind of resettlement for the detainees was to be withheld. Told, “You’re never getting out of this camp”, they need to be convinced that there is no process for asylum and that they will be indefinitely detained.

It’s disturbing and dystopian yet the Australian population wilfully ignores these abuses perpetrated by the government.

We live in a world where the Stanford Rapist, Brock Turner serves 3 months of a 6-month sentence for worry longer jail-time would ruin his athletic potential. Meanwhile people who expose corruption and murder by governments are imprisoned for decades or killed.

That doesn’t sound like a ‘free world’ to me.


ELENA KISSEL

Your local whistleblower enthusiast. She loves anyone who exposes those who misuse power.