Once lionised, whistleblowers now the enemies of a security-obsessed state

Deep Throat would meet journalist Bob Woodward in an underground car park at 2am, their meetings arranged through the signal of a red flag in an old flower pot or codes circled in the newspaper.

Deep Throat would meet journalist Bob Woodward in an underground car park at 2am, their meetings arranged through the signal of a red flag in an old flower pot or codes circled in the newspaper. Four decades later, Bradley Manning lip-synched to Lady Gaga while downloading hundreds of thousands of classified documents from military servers.

The diminutive, low-ranking army private, now on trial for "aiding the enemy", is in many ways the antithesis of the well-connected Watergate whistleblower, chain-smoking while spilling state secrets. Manning doesn't even look old enough to smoke.

The appearance of 30-year-old Edward Snowden - lean, bespectacled and pale, with a fuzz of facial hair - is similarly disarming. The fugitive former intelligence contractor was a high school dropout whose first job at America's National Security Agency was as a security guard, before moving up the ranks. As online magazine Slate noted recently, the man accused of being a traitor for leaking details of pervasive snooping by the US isn't a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He's the IT guy.

The Obama administration has accused him of threatening the national security of the US. But its grip on control seems to be slipping, particularly in relation to data in the digital age. The spread of new technology has enabled many individuals to raise their concerns with a mass audience in quick time. Today, potential leakers don't need a dark car park so much as a good grasp of digital technology.

Former FBI deputy director Mark Felt was lionised by many Democrats in 2005 when he outed himself as Deep Throat. Former Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris said Felt should have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for helping Washington Post reporters uncover the Watergate scandal that brought down president Nixon.

In 2008, presidential nominee Barack Obama was lip-synching from the same song book, hailing the "courage and patriotism" of whistleblowers. Yet since taking office, Obama has presided over an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and leakers. Five years after saying whistleblowing "should be encouraged rather than stifled", the Obama administration has the dubious record of having prosecuted more leakers under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all other administrations combined.

Sections of the US media have been lately complicit in this crackdown. In 2002, Time Magazine applauded three whistleblowers as its "people of the year". Just over a decade later, self-described whistleblower Snowden is instead gutless, a coward and traitor, according to Fox News. No surprises there, perhaps.

More telling is the capitulation of The Washington Post, which scored a major scoop based on Snowden's documents. In June, the paper that led perhaps the most significant leak-based investigation in US political history, declared in an editorial "the first US priority should be to prevent Mr Snowden from leaking information".

It was the equivalent of the newspaper in 1972 insisting the Nixon administration's first priority should be to prevent Deep Throat from leaking more information, as online publication Salon pointed out.

Snowden, who has been stripped of his passport, reportedly remains stranded inside the transit zone of a Russian airport. His likely final destination is the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, which is "the world's murder capital". Snowden never expected to be met by US authorities with open arms. But his case is an insight into the way whistleblowers have gone from patriots to pariahs under Obama. The fugitive former security contractor has been charged with espionage for leaking details of America's extensive surveillance network, which extends to four facilities in Australia.

Former senior NSA executive Thomas Drake was charged similarly under the Espionage Act in 2010 for leaking information about financial waste and bureaucratic dysfunction within the NSA. His charges were later downgraded to a single misdemeanour for "exceeding the authorised use of a computer".

"I actually had hopes for Obama," Drake told the New Yorker in 2011. "But power is incredibly destructive. It's a weird, pathological thing. I think the intelligence community co-opted Obama because he's rather naive about national security. He's accepted the fear and secrecy."

Drake's first full day at work happened to be on 9/11 - the legacy of which remains strong today. The fear and secrecy that spilled from the US terrorist attacks has seen the emergence of a vast new security bureaucracy. The extent of such snooping is extraordinary. Snowden's documents include revelations the US bugged the European Union headquarters. Brazil's government, meanwhile, has said it might contact Snowden over allegations the US monitored phone calls and emails there.

"You can't have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama told a Californian crowd last month. And this for a country where high school students still study Thoreau's Civil Disobedience: "If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."

The United States is not short on sheer audacity. It successfully pressured its allies to ground a private plane carrying the Bolivian president, in case he was spiriting Snowden away (he wasn't).

The growing ease of whistleblowing, in part, has prompted this punitive response from authorities, desperate to stay in control.

Within the whistleblowing community such crackdowns are called "mobbings": the whistleblower is surrounded like a foreign virus in the body and attacked and isolated until expelled.

The "intensity and extremity" of this punitive pursuit reflects the times we live in, says Professor A.J. Brown, an expert on whistleblowers at Griffith University. "It's almost as if it reveals the desperation of institutionalised national security interests to try to keep control over information in an era where that is inherently becoming more and more difficult."

Drake has recently described the attacks on Snowden as a government cover, a distraction from a greater concern. "The government is desperate to not deal with the actual exposures, the content of the disclosures. Because they do reveal a vast, systemic, institutionalised, industrial-scale Leviathan surveillance that has clearly gone far beyond the original mandate to deal with terrorism - far beyond."

Robert Greenwald's new documentary, War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State, catalogues the casualties of this pursuit of perceived enemies from within. Marine Corps senior science adviser Franz Gayl lost his security clearance and work prospects after exposing the Pentagon's delays in getting armoured vehicles to US troops in Iraq. Michael De Kort lost his job at Lockheed Martin for exposing flaws in the ships the contractor was building for the US Coast Guard. In both cases, the nature of what they revealed offered no respite from prosecution. Gayl's actions saved the lives of many US soldiers. De Kort exposed the sheer absurdity of fitting Coast Guard boats with non-waterproof radios.

Mainstream media can be bypassed in this process. De Kort posted a video on YouTube revealing his concerns. Snowden, meanwhile, is being assisted in his flight by WikiLeaks.

Melbourne University's Dr Suelette Dreyfus, the author of Underground, a book about a group of hackers including a young Julian Assange, says technology has changed the game for every player.

While digital tools - such as encryption programs - have made whistleblowing easier, authorities are turning the same technology inward to spy on employees and to plug leaks. Some investigative journalists complain fewer whistleblowers are coming forward for fear of being tracked down.

Snowden, ever the idealist, reckons "draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers". "Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrongdoings simply because they'll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it."

But inadequate whistleblower laws across the globe are a disincentive. "One whistleblower I interviewed said: 'Sometimes I see these guys and it's like all they have left in their lives are the boxes of documents they have taken with them. They end up living in a caravan, isolated, left without spouse or house, and hiding from people wanting to harm them. All they have left are these boxes."'

What might we call Snowden? A whistleblower is someone who reveals inside information or the internal workings about serious wrongdoing within an organisation.

Manning faces a possible life sentence for allegedly "aiding the enemy", by providing secret material to WikiLeaks. Yet that material included video of a US air strike in Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians - a brutal case of serious wrongdoing.

Snowden, meanwhile, has revealed details of a secret surveillance system operating in the US and abroad without any of the apparent checks and balances essential in a democracy. A new poll in the US has found more Americans believe he is a whistleblower than a traitor - and the public mood might win the day.

The term whistleblower originally meant to stop foul play, like a referee in a boxing bout. In the 1930s in the US the term took a negative turn - becoming the equivalent of a "snitch" - before growing in public esteem over subsequent decades.

Here, whistleblowers have rarely found favour with the public or authorities. Federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie quit his job with the Office of National Assessments in 2003 to publicly question the government's justifications for the Iraq War.

Whistleblowers in Australia are and have always been treated appallingly, he says. "Maybe whistleblowers are seen to be dobbing on their mates or letting the team down.

"I think there is also an element that Australia is a fairly conservative society with a remarkable respect for authority and many people don't like other people who cause trouble, who criticise authority, which is quite at odds when you consider our heritage coming from rebellious stock. Maybe we have remained subservient to the lash."

An online survey in 2012, commissioned by Griffith and Melbourne Universities, found 81 per cent of those surveyed consider it more important to support whistleblowers for revealing serious wrongdoing in organisations than to punish them. Yet only 53 per cent of respondents saw it as "generally acceptable" for people to speak up about serious wrongdoing if it means revealing inside information.

The dogged pursuit of Allan Kessing reflects such a culture, in part. The former Australian Customs officer was convicted under the Crimes Act in 2007 for leaking two damning reports on lax security at Sydney Airport.

Kessing, who maintains he did not leak the reports to The Australian, was given a nine-month suspended sentence. The fact that his revelations prompted an inquiry and a $200 million upgrade in airport security has not convinced the Labor government to pardon him, despite speaking in his favour while in opposition.

"We have always got to remember how the government treated Allan Kessing. It wasn't as if they even denied what he was saying but they still pursued Kessing for his conviction. I think that speaks volumes about the culture towards whistleblowing in Australia," says Gabrielle Appleby, senior law lecturer at the University of Adelaide.

It is hoped that the passage of new whistleblower protection laws by the Federal Parliament in June will offer greater security to future whistleblowers. But the exclusion of intelligence agencies and some politicians from the ambit of the legislation means the fate awaiting many whistleblowers here remains up in the air.

Meanwhile, Edward Snowden sits somewhere in an airport transit corridor, wondering when his flight will end.

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