Heroes and villains – a modern definition

Whistleblowers are vilified or intimidated while the wrongs and the wrongdoers that they expose go uninvestigated

Share
Related Topics

It takes a lot to overshadow the news that the biggest leaker of military secrets in American history has just been jailed for 35 years – a sentence some regard as outrageous and others as so lenient it constitutes a tacit rebuke to the US government for prosecuting Private Bradley Manning, the soldier responsible for the leaks, instead of lauding the whistleblower for exposing human rights abuses by the American military.

But the world went to bed on Thursday calling the defendant Bradley, and on Friday morning learned that Manning gender dysphoria and from now on wanted to be considered a woman named Chelsea. (The Independent on Sunday uses Manning's preferred feminine pronouns.)

Manning's struggle over gender identity was reduced to jokes about what was correct form: "Manning is now a woman: All power to him." Or pedantic legal disputes about when a transgendered individual's name should change. Or earnest discussions on the mutability/ immutability of gender. Or coarse abuse about how Manning could "look forward to all the dick she wants in jail", a reference to the sad truth that a transgender person is 13 times more likely to be assaulted than other inmates in US prisons.

The self-righteousness and self-delusion about much of the comment was an apt metaphor for a more profound muddle. How, in all the current preoccupation with secrets and leaks, does society achieve a proper balance between the rights of the individual and the obligation of the government to ensure national security?

Hero or zero computations do not work in these cases. Much of what Manning did was a global public service, drawing attention to morally questionable US behaviour in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Thanks to her, we have evidence of American troops killing women and children, and then calling in an airstrike to destroy the evidence. We know the US military failed to investigate reports of torture and murder by Iraqi police – and of the "black unit" which carried out 373 extrajudicial assassinations of Taliban sympathisers in Afghanistan. We know the US pressured Spain to scale back its investigations into torture at Guantanamo Bay. And we know that British officials let the US take cluster bombs through the UK and hid this from Parliament.

But she also passed to WikiLeaks a mind-boggling 760,000 classified documents that included the names of US informants in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we know al-Qa'ida then scrutinised. That was why US prosecutors sought to have Manning convicted of "aiding the enemy" – which carries the death penalty. Such was the vindictiveness in the treatment of Manning, who was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, that the judge reduced her sentence. But even if the US authorities got the balance wrong, there was certainly a judgement to make.

The same is true of Edward Snowden, the IT contractor with the US National Security Agency who leaked thousands of US secrets to The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden blew the whistle on the fact that US secret agents have for years logged the details of nearly every American telephone call and email – and that the NSA's British equivalent, GCHQ, intercepts those emails that American spooks are forbidden by US law from inspecting.

That has instituted a highly desirable debate about the penetration of the modern surveillance state in ordinary lives. But there is a downside to Snowden – and not just because the leaks have alerted less sophisticated terrorists to be more careful in their plotting. Snowden fled first to China, where he revealed that US intelligence had hacked into Beijing's computers, and then to Russia, where he has sought political asylum, and bizarrely called the Putin regime a defender of human rights. The man who started out claiming he was trying to protect US citizens now appears to be intent on the opposite.

Miranda the Mule is loaded with the same ambiguity. David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, was stopped at Heathrow, held under the Terrorism Act 2000, and interrogated for nine hours about the encrypted electronic data he was carrying to Brazil, where Greenwald lives. Had Greenwald, a US citizen, made the run, he risked extradition and a charge under the US Espionage Act.

Miranda claimed not to know what he was carrying – a declaration that would have prevented his boarding any tourist flight. It seems clear that the police held him under the wrong legislation. But again, to detain and question someone the police suspect to be carrying data that could compromise British national security is not unreasonable. Greenwald's retaliatory threat that he will publish more documents on England's spies to make them "sorry for what they did" reinforces, rather than diminishes, the police case.

Opinion polls consistently show that the British public is prepared to sacrifice some freedoms to feel safe. A YouGov poll in the past few days showed that 44 per cent of people thought the police had got it wrong over Miranda. But it also showed that the public still backs, by three to one, the relevant provision of the 2000 Terrorism Act.

Manning was a soldier who did her military duty until she felt the call of a higher moral duty to protest against abuses by the army of which she was a part.

Snowden's motives look altogether murkier, and journalists exploiting them have a duty to take additional care in handling the material he is leaking.

As to the US authorities, they need to ask why a whistleblower was given 35 years when the offenders whose wrongs she disclosed are still unprosecuted, and even feted as hero war veterans.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics and media at the University of Chester

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering