Whistleblowing and leaking: pushing the limits of accountability

The Guardian newspaper has been publishing reports about the US Government’s vast data surveillance operations based on leaks of classified information from someone with top secret clearances. Mark Worth, Whistleblower Programme Director, discusses the role of the leaker in holding governments to account.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old computer expert, is fast becoming a household name. His release of secret documents showing how the US government pursued a policy of widespread surveillance over its citizens has caused acute embarrassment for the US administration and spurred a much-needed public debate on the limits of privacy invasion in an age of global terror and the role of the leaker.

For Transparency International we have no doubt that transparency is something that should be a cornerstone of government institutions. It makes governments and societies stronger; it allows for public debate, oversight and criticism – hallmarks of democracy.

Issues of national security often force the debate on the limits transparency and on the duties of those who are privy to government secrets when they believe the government’s actions are wrong. Our growing technological sophistication pushes these limits even further, though it does not change the fundamental questions of the people’s right to know.

It is too soon to tell what long-term effect Snowden’s revelations will have, but he has kick-started a crucial debate on government accountability. Transparency and accountability together help to ensure that there is no impunity in cases of wrongdoing by any party – government, companies, civil society, individuals. To ensure transparency and accountability, societies need clear whistleblower protections and policies to let people speak out and ensure their safety when they to call out perceived wrongdoing. Whistleblowers can be beacons of integrity in dark places.

Snowden believes he is exposing government wrong-doing, so should he be entitled to seek protection under the US’s whistle blower laws, or is he a traitor who should be prosecuted?

Whistleblowing is a complex topic that has been on Transparency International’s agenda for many years because of its importance in the fight against corruption. We believe that the right of citizens to report wrongdoing is a natural extension of their right of freedom of expression, and is linked to the principles of transparency and integrity.

All people have the inherent right to protect the well-being of other citizens and society at large, and in some cases they have the duty to report wrongdoing.

A whistleblower should be protected if what he or she discloses is in the public interest, and is being disclosed in a way that can potentially fix what is damaging the public interest by the remaining secret. A whistleblower should in the first instance use the appropriate channels within an organisation to raise his or her concerns.

Emerging criteria for whether the right to information should be restricted on national security grounds include whether the disclosure would pose a real and identifiable risk of significant harm to a legitimate national security interest, and whether the risk of harm outweighs the public interest in disclosure. The Open Society Justice Initiative has developed internationally recognised guidelines that clarify these crucial tests.

The US government has not yet proven that keeping quiet about PRISM, as the surveillance tool is called, meets these criteria.

Edward Snowden clearly believes he has acted in good faith; what we don’t know yet is whether he first used internal channels to air his concerns. He says: “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them… I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

The debate over the coming months should help clarify Snowden’s role in this complex affair. Too often governments hide behind national security to sidestep accountability. At the very least the US administration will now have to defend its actions publicly.  Whistleblower protection laws in the US are some of the best in the world. It remains to be seen whether Snowden would be able to use them in his defence in a court of law should the US government decide to seek his extradition from Hong Kong, where he is hiding, and prosecute him for his actions.

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Mark Worth

About Mark Worth

Mark Worth is Whistleblower Programme Coordinator at Transparency International.

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2 Responses to Whistleblowing and leaking: pushing the limits of accountability

  1. John Lumborg 28 June 2013 at 8:45 am #

    Helo Mr. Worth, I guess as an American you feel somewhat defensive regarding the US governments witch hunt against whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning. However, though the USG is elegant in it’s reasoning about why Snowden should be arrested and returned to the US , they are trying to have their cake and eat it. They have very clearly broken laws in their spying activities on society in general, they have decried the hacking of other countries such as China but are in fact, together with the UK, the principal perpetrators of these type of illegal activities. The means do not justify the ends and the USGs attempts to hide behind a facade of defending democracy against terrorism whilst at the same time commiting, often agregious, illegal acts, leaves one wondering just how democratic and honest their intentions are. Could it be that the USGs desire for vengance is fueled by the fact they have been exposed perpetrating illegal acts and rather than apologising have taken the easier route of shooting the messager?
    Countries trumpeting their democratic ideals to the world, should also be transparent in the execution of democracy. Selective transparency is not democracy rather hypocrisy.

    Unfortunately, though it is difficult to be absolute in judging these events, I presume history will be the final arbiter of what was right or wrong.

    Sincerely, John Lumborg

  2. Angry Grandparent 10 July 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    I do wish TI would focus on a very dark area of British society and that is the almost out of control corruption in child protection, I know organisations get warned off by the gatekeeper NSPCC as “siding with the child abusers” as we see it happen to any MP who might get close to exposing whats going on but there is very real, very dirty corruption going on that is protected by Freemasons, Judiciary, Solicitors on one side and social workers, foster carers and SSD directors who are making a lot of money out this and it is fraud.

    OK, lets get some basic figures in here, the avg minumum weekly amount a foster carer is paid is £400, it can go up to £10000 a week depending on the needs or disability of the child.

    Adoptive parents PER child can receive a stipend of £500 per week and this allowance can be kept going ad infinitum to the point of the child turning 16, there is no means test and it is totally discretionary to the social workers decision.

    The legal aid bill for 2010-2011 families only fighting social services in the family courts, according to the Law Society was £1.2Bn

    OK clear so far?

    Children Service directors and managers, along with key social workers have been seen and have done so in many areas, set up multi child foster homes which usually cater for 10 or more children, they keep themselves off the records, the tax files, usually give false names or use a raft of means of transferring funds to themselves.

    Key social workers will endeavour to ensure that the foster “farm” is fully stocked with long term cases, remember £400 per child minimum here but you can bet there is more than one “special needs” in there somewhere.

    And bearing in mind it is almost impossible to defeat social services in the secret courts, that social services only have to provide an opinion of a possible risk, no fact, no proven evidence is required, they have access to tame experts like Dr Hibbert who will write reports supporting social services each and every time, its another little “corruption” as they will meet up before hand to discuss with social services on what to say about the parent and predispose the case (this is what Dr Hibbert and about 100 other experts are being investigated for)

    If you were to talk to the GMC’s former ethics chairperson Professor Jean Robinson she would tell you a very dark tale on how she and others exposed social workers with health visitors “trawling” council estates for viable soft targets to meet adoption quotas, the secret adoption quotas were essential to every council as they were given huge cash bonuses if they did so.

    Another little “corruption” is a pure fraud, councils employ their legal staff on a salary yet they bill the government per set fee at normal rates a solicitor would expect, not legal aid rates but normal hourly rates, a council solicitor will get £50,000 a year, the council will bill the government for £150,000 plus for the work that solicitor has done, this goes on in a lot of councils.

    Thousands of children are forced into adoption every year, from loving families who have committed no crime, have committed no abuse, their only crime is falling into the forced adoption racket and it is a racket that is going to cost the taxpayer this coming financial year an estimated £15 BILLION pounds! Councils have been bilking their returns to the taxpayer knowing there is no oversight, there is no scrutiny, children have become to councils immense revenue earners if they can get them off their parents, a Shaftesbury foster couple who have a minimum of eight children had at the councils expense the whole kitchen equipped with top of the range furnishings, a £6000 fitted kitchen and it has been suggested that council money was used to help the purchase of one of the most expensive houses in the town.

    The government is blind to this, your local MP is blind to this, your councillor if he tries to investigate he will be called in by the director of legal services and told to back off or else, this is pure 100% fraud, theft and corruption and I am still amazed that TI have totally ignored what thousands of parents have been screaming about for over a decade.

    Please, talk to John Hemming MP, ask him about it, talk to Tom Watson MP about the threats he got when he started asking questions, there are others out there, so scared to ask these questions because gatekeeper organisations accuse them of being paedophile supporters.