Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Civil Disobedience and Whistleblowing

I caught the end of an NPR interview in the car yesterday in which an historian on government leakers (I apologize I didn’t catch his name) came on the following conclusion on Edward Snowden and leakers in general:

To paraphrase (badly) the conclusion was: Leaks and leakers are good for society because they spur public discourse, but leakers (and all civil disobedient actors in general) have to be ready to embrace the consequences of their actions. If you engage leak information and are not willing to serve out a punishment for what you believe is right, then your unwillingness to stand up to penalty strongly undercuts the moral high ground of leaking.  The practical conclusion from this path of logic is that Snowden in particular could face up to a lifetime sentence in jail, and if he’s not willing to accept that penalty, then he shouldn’t have leaked in the first place.

I disagree. And, it’s the same reason why I am sympathetic with the purpose of Wikileaks.  It feels wrong to me that the consequence of surfacing an abuse of power should result in feeling the full wrath of that abusive power.  

I do believe that some secrets are good. I’m glad that the Washington Post used self-editing to hold back some damaging documents they received from Snowden and only published that which they felt was responsible journalism to publish.  In that regard, I think Wikileaks is silly.  It’s a free-for-all with insufficient editing standards.

But, if the only scenario in which society will receive beneficial leaks of information is a scenario in which the leaker must behave as a martyr, then I worry A) leakers will ultimately lose credibility because they’ll generally be irrationally mission-driven and unstable individuals and B) much information that would otherwise have been leaked to the benefit of everyone will go unleaked.

Despite my disagreement, it was an interesting interview. If anyone has more details, I’d love to go listen to the whole thing.  A quick Google search proved fruitless.