Whistleblowers, can we trust them?

by proudlithuanian on February 10, 2015 - 1:48pm

Politicians and civil servants are often in contact with sensitive information that is, in many cases, classified. In the US alone, 4.9 million people have access to classified documents (Knefel, par. 4). If classified information does not respect someone's ethical values, should (s)he tell it to the public? Should all type of information be published in the name of public good? These are all important questions to determine if whistleblowers help society or weaken it. This article will concentrate on whistleblowers that tell government’s secrets. Whistleblowers face a difficult choice. Should someone release classified information when (s)he believes a situation is unethical? The moral dilemma faced by whistleblowers is a choice between loyalty towards the employer or public good.

A famous whistleblower is Chelsea Manning. She leaked many documents and videos that were published on Wikileaks such as the Afghan and Iraq log war (Sedge, par. 9) and a video of two American soldiers that killed civilians in Baghdad in 2007 (Bumiller, par.4). She received a sentence of 35 years of prison for revealing these documents.

On the one hand, people consider whistleblowers like Manning to be traitors. For example, Chelsea Manning was accused under the Espionage Act and was punished in the same way as a non-American spy (Tate, par. 3).  Many people believed that her revelation weakened the American's military defense (The week, par. 25) and made the citizens lose faith in the American army. Others believed that the national interest required that information not be revealed to the public to protect the country.

Elsewhere, Manning supporters considered that Chelsea Manning did the right thing because the population deserves to know what actions are undertaken in their name and for their protection. Chelsea Manning's actions were courageous and  she risked her job and her freedom to defend her ethical point of view. She mentioned “In an ideal world, governments, corporations, and other large institutions would be transparent by default (Amnesty international, par. 4)". For her, the American army was not transparent and she wanted to help them to improve this situation. She also said that she finds it overwhelming how civilian lives were treated by the army and she wanted people to see what really happened during war time (Amnesty international, par.5).

In this context, loyalty has a great role to play. For the government, whistleblowers are traitors because they don't respect the contract of confidentiality they signed. However, whistleblowers usually see loyalty in another way. It is a second level loyalty because whistleblowers truly believe in the system of democracy and they think it is their duty to make the system better by fixing abuses (O’Neil, par. 6).

This issue can be considered under a teleological perspective since the consequences of each case are unique (Merrill, p. 11). Whistleblowers exist in so many different contexts and there are so many different justifications to their acts that it is very hard to judge them as a whole. A detailed evaluation of each case seems more appropriate to understand if their actions are ethical or not. The consequence of revealing information is really the thing that matters for the whistleblowers because they want to see changes. It's not the denunciation that really matters, but how people attempt to change the situation. Therefore, the teleological perspective is the best one suited for this issue.

To conclude, I do not believe that Chelsea Manning deserved 35 years of prison. Her intentions were good and she helped provide a more realistic picture of America's military program. If we follow Utilitarianism, Manning created good by letting the Americans know what the army really does in America's name. She might have done harm in the short term, but I believe that in the long term there will be, in general, more positive effects as a result of her revelations. However, it is truly difficult to really understand all the consequences of Manning's actions and therefore evaluate if they brought more positive or negative effect to the greatest number of people (Merrill, p. 21).

A solution would be to create an independent organization in the government that would handle potential leaks and manage the process (Rowat, par. 5). The organization and the whistleblower would come to an agreement about whether to tell the story in the media or not based on specific criteria. As a last note, it is a paradox that the people, denounced by Manning, that tortured others, didn't get any sentences, but Manning did (Tate, par. 6).


Bradley Manning: 'overzealous' prosecution backfired on US.  World New. The Week. 22 August 2013. Web. 10 February 2015. http://www.theweek.co.uk/us/bradley-manning/54373/chelsea-manning-breaks-her-silence-reject-pacifist-label

Chelsea Manning: ‘Why speaking out is worth the risk’. News. Amnesty International. 16 December 2014. Web. 10 February 2015. http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/chelsea-manning-why-speaking-out-worth-risk-2014-12-16


Bumiller, Elisabeth. Army Leak Suspect Is Turned In, by Ex-Hacker. World. The New York Times. 7 June 2010. Web. 10 February 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/world/08leaks.html

Knefel, John. 'War on Whistleblowers' Film Highlights Dangers of Crackdown. Rollingstone. 17 April  2013. Web. 10 February 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/war-on-whistleblowers-film-hig...

Merrill, C. John. "Overview: Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethic," in Gordon, A. David, Kittross, John M, Merril, John C, Babcock, William and Dorsehr, Michael (eds.), Controversies in Media Ethics, 3nd Edition. (New York: Routledge, 2011)

O’Neil, Ben. The Ethics of Whistleblowing. Mises Daily. Mises institute. 8 July 2013. Web. 10 Febuary 2015. http://mises.org/library/ethics-whistleblowing

Rowat, Donald C. Canada needs a law and an independent commissioner to protect whistleblowers. Policy Opinions. October 2014. Web. 10 February 2015. http://policyoptions.irpp.org/issues/the-us-election/canada-needs-a-law-...


Sledge, Matt. Bradley Manning Uncovered U.S. Torture, Abuse, Soldiers Laughing As They Killed Innocent Civilians. The Huffington Post. 21 August 2013. Web. 10 February 2015.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/21/bradley-manning-leaks_n_3788126.html


Tate, Julie. Bradley Manning sentenced to 35 years in WikiLeaks case. National Security. The Washington Post. 21 August 2013. Web. 10 February 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/judge-to-sentence-bradley-manning-today/2013/08/20/85bee184-09d0-11e3-b87c-476db8ac34cd_story.html



I really enjoyed reading your article, since I am very concerned about the state and future of civil liberties. I really hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the United States is a definite oligarchy. At this point in time, the government does not directly infringe on our day to day lives, but as countries become more and more hostile to whistleblowers and organizations such as the ACLU, it is a risk that some of a liberties will be loss. There is evidence that data collected by the Five Eyes has been used to affect political leaders and to prevent protests. This might be a world closely related to what was seen in 1984. In my opinion, the harsh treatment of Chelsea Manning is an example put forward by the US government to prevent further events. Essentially, they want to secure confidential information and hide it from the public to avoid backlash. With that said, it's also quite funny how one of Obama's election promise was to safeguard whistleblowers. Soon after the NSA scandal came out, the website hosting the promise of protecting whistleblowers was taken off the internet. It feels like a grim future we're headed for unless something changes.

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