Whistleblowing in the Age of Trump

by Tasmin Lockwood

11 February 2017

Yusuf1020/Wikimedia Commons

Just weeks into settling in the Whitehouse, Trump has coined the unintentionally ironic ‘alternative facts’, labelled critical media as fake news, and refused to comply with a 40 year old tradition by releasing his tax returns – setting the stage for what may be one of the least transparent administrations in history.

As Wikileaks appeals for anyone inside the Whitehouse who may have an inch of integrity left to leak the documents, US political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes argues that people simply don’t care. But despite Hughes’ claims that “there is no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts”, a Washington Post and ABC poll found that 74% of Americans do, in fact, want to see Trump’s tax returns.

Those who follow journalism have long been concerned about changes in the industry: commercialisation, concentration of ownership, and the decline of print. But in the current climate the greatest threat to journalism may not come from industry pressure, but from the state.

A crackdown on whistleblowers.

‘War on whistleblowing’ became a well known phrase under Obama. Since Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, the US Government has used the Espionage Act to prosecute ten government employees whom have gone to the press. Seven of these under the Obama Administration.

During his administration, Obama may have granted more commutations than the past 13 presidents combined, but he also used the Espionage act against more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined. Chelsea Manning’s relationship with the two statistics is troubling. Under pressure Obama may have commuted her sentence, but his failure to grant a full pardon, or to extend similar treatment to Edward Snowden, set a dangerous precedent for the next president; a president whose administration, filled with human rights and climate change deniers, is likely to answer to no one.

Obama’s token efforts to backtrack on his crackdown were too little to late: Trump’s advocacy against press freedoms grew, in the fertile ground of Obama’s assaults, into declaration of a ‘running war’ with the media. Thus whistleblowing – vital to regulating the Trump government – enters the period hobbled.

A crackdown on sources.

One does not simply wage a war on whistle blowers alone; the special relationship between journalists and their sources means the prosecution of whistle blowers represents a broader a threat to both democracy and press freedoms. James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who refused to name his source for leaked CIA secrets, fought a seven year legal battle against the Justice Department who were trying to prosecute him under the Espionage Act.

The case began under the Bush administration, but Obama continued legal action – despite his promises of transparency, advocacy of press freedoms, and rhetorical praise for whistle blowers. Marking the path for Trump, Obama destroyed the notion of reporter’s privilege by taking a subpoena for Risen to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled that he must comply with the order. Although the subpoena was eventually dropped, the ruling eroded journalists’ ability to protect their sources. In spite of Risen’s resilience, his source, Jeffery Sterling, was convicted and is now serving 42 months in prison.

Media and state hand in hand.

Later, condemning police officers for arresting journalists during the Ferguson unrest, attorney general Eric Holder claimed: “no reporter doing his job is going to jail”. This, of course, was not the case a mere year earlier, when mainstream media and politicians rallied for the arrest of journalist Glenn Greenwald for his work with Snowden in publishing the NSA files.

Already, under Trump, threats have materialised and six journalists have been arrested, facing prison time, for coverage of the inauguration. What is most startling is not the arrests themselves, but the mainstream press remaining placid as journalistic integrity hangs in the balance, echoing their earlier complicity in the calls for Greenwald’s arrest.

Great British censorship.

The United States is not waging a war again journalism alone. Fearful of GCHQ revelations, the British government thrw themselves behind scaremongering campaign against Snowden too. This lead to Greenwald’s partner being detained at Heathrow Airport under counter terrorism laws and government pressure to stop the Guardian’s coverage of stories stemming from Snowden’s data.

A messenger sent directly from the then Prime Minister David Cameron told the Guardian, “A lot of people in government think you should be closed down”. Defying stereotypes, it’s not the first time the British Government’s stiff upper lip has begun to tremble. In the 1970’s, the journalist who discovered and reported the existence of the GCHQ was prosecuted for his work.

Unlike the US, whose apparent freedom of the press is a first amendment right, the UK has no fundamental legal guarantee of press freedom. In fact, The Investigatory Powers Bill which came into force at the end of 2016 – dubbed the Snooper’s Charter – actively curtails these freedoms. Under counter terrorism laws, the British state now have the ability to hack, record, and intervene in anyone’s daily communications, without a warrant. To call this type of mass surveillance Owellian is perhaps too easy; privacy and confidentiality are no more.

What’s more, using counter terrorism acts to justify state surveillance is often counterproductive. Despite islamophobic scaremongering campaigns in both the UK and US, there are claims that 9/11 could have been prevented if surveillance agencies focused more on targeted suspects than gathering metadata of the general public. According to Thomas Drake, the NSA whistle blower who inspired Snowden, the security agency gathered and failed to notice details concerning known Al Qaeda networks already within the US because they were buried among extensive mass surveillance data. The introduction of the Snooper’s Charter only adds more hay to the stack.

The mass surveillance programme, far extending Snowdon’s revelations, not only infringes personal privacy but strikes at the heart of journalism. It is unquestionable that whistle blowers will be more fearful than ever to speak out, and for those who do, journalists can offer little protection for their sources.

Described as the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy, British participation in Five Eyes also ensures data gathered will be shared with New Zealand, Australia, Canada and of course, Trump’s United States. Of course, there is cryptography and end to end encryption on mainstream messaging platforms, but with the ubiquity of back doors and other security flaws it is undisputable that online privacy – for both citizens and journalists – is fast becoming a memory.


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