Both have practised civil disobedience in the national interest: but that is in the highest traditions of their national culture
What do the National Health Service in England and the National Security Agency in America have in common? Well, consider first the following story, taken almost at random from the hundreds of media reports about what was a growing scandal; this one is from the BBC:
“Many nurses face bullying and being belittled when they try to whistle-blow, a survey suggests. Of the 5,277 in the Royal College of Nursing poll who reported having raised an alarm, 24% said they had been discouraged or warned off.
“The union said the findings showed there was an NHS ‘culture of fear’. Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said NHS staff who speak out in the interests of patient safety must be protected and listened to. Ministers have previously called for greater ‘openness and transparency’. Whistle-blowing has emerged as one of the key themes in the fallout from the public inquiry into the Stafford Hospital scandal.”
Whistleblowing in this country has now become a government-protected activity, thank heaven (things had got to the point where the government had little choice): but that “culture of fear” has been in the West generally (despite all our self-satisfaction about our democratic liberties) a feature of our wider political culture, and not merely of what has been going on in this country in the NHS. Political whistleblowing still gets punished: in the US very heavily indeed. Bradley Manning’s revelations via Wikileaks, it was claimed in his trial, were actually treasonable: his prosecutors claimed that his revelations helped “the enemy” by publicly posting information that the US government said could jeopardise national security and intelligence operations. Army prosecutors claimed that US security was damaged when WikiLeaks published combat videos of an attack by an American Apache helicopter gunship, diplomatic cables and secret details on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
Manning admitted to sending more than 470,000 Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports, 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables and other material including several battlefield video clips to WikiLeaks: he claimed that this was to expose war crimes and deceitful diplomacy, that the information was not harmful to the US, and that the vast majority of the material he released was not classified, and was more embarrassing than damaging for the government. All these claims were and remain, surely, not merely arguable but, quite simply, very obviously true.
And the fact is that the trial judge came to the conclusion that none of what Manning did was treasonable: she refused to convict him of “aiding the enemy,” the harshest charge he faced. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers in 1971, said that precedent would have curbed virtually all sources of investigative reporting. “American democracy just dodged a bullet,” he said.
But Bradley Manning, who many think was a hero (and has been officially declared not to be a traitor), nevertheless faces a grotesquely long prison sentence. I do not usually find myself in step with the American Left: but I find it hard to disagree with the Daily Beast’s verdict that “the dramatic trial of Bradley Manning culminated … with a brutal verdict that could silence potential whistleblowers willing to expose the clandestine practices of the US government. In pronouncing Manning guilty on 20 counts, military judge Denise Lind rubber-stamped the Obama administration’s obsession with seeking to imprison those who leak government secrets”.
Or take the case of Edward Snowden, who is being surprisingly defended not only within the American political establishment, but even within the Republican party. I know that Senator Rand Paul is something of a maverick: but he is a genuine Republican, situated on the libertarian right of his party (as I suspect I would be if I were an American). And the trouble with these libertarians is that they do tend to be in favour of liberty.
“I think”, said Senator Paul, “what’s most important is that what he’s talking about, which is the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure,” Senator Paul asserted. “That does rise to a very high level for me.”
Senator Paul criticised, not for the first time, the NSA’s eavesdropping policies, having earlier written in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that they are a manifestation of a virtual police state and accusing the agency of an “extraordinary invasion of privacy” by sifting through more than one billion phone calls placed on Verizon lines each day.
“He’s practising civil disobedience,” he said of Edward Snowden. “But many times in our history we’ve honoured people who have done that. I’m reserving judgment on that.” Senator Paul went on to that he doesn’t believe the type of information Snowden leaked rises to the level of classified information that “might get people killed in the field” (a belief which is also true of Bradley Manning’s disclosures).
“I think he released information to say, ‘look the Bill of Rights is being ignored’ and I think that in many ways it’s a noble gesture because he’s having to give up a great deal…”
Senator Paul added that the Obama administration is “horrified” that the American public learned of the NSA programmes, which he said may be broader than initially thought. “I think,” he said, “that every phone call and every cell phone in America is getting the same order.” This has subsequently been admitted by the NSA.
The British government now officially accepts the necessity of whistleblowing in the NHS. In the words of the Health Secretary, this national organisation should “recognise and celebrate” staff who have had “the courage and professional integrity to raise concerns over care”. This political shift is bound to lead to a step change in our entire political culture: whistleblowing in the national interest can never again, surely, be controlled by a “climate of fear” in any aspect of our national life.
And so, surely, it ought to be now in the US, a great nation with a noble history, whose international reputation is not being enhanced by its paranoid and brutal suppression of its own whistleblowers. Bradley Manning is not a traitor: his trial judge has officially established that he is not. Neither is Edward Snowden. Both, surely, are patriotic Americans, whose actions have been entirely unselfish, and who should now be celebrated by their countrymen for their courage and integrity.