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From patriot to pariah

Peter Munro (via SMH) | July 15, 2013
In an era where technology has made it easier to smuggle data, governments are determined to demonise whistleblowers.

A "funny little character": Whistleblower Bradley Manning.
A "funny little character": Whistleblower Bradley Manning.Photo: AP

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-synced 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. Hell, Manning doesn't even look old enough to smoke.

Classmates recalled the intelligence analyst as a "funny little character", often teased for being a geek. He joined the army in 2007 after drifting through low-paid jobs, yet three years later casually carried out what he called "possibly the largest data spillage in American history", all while singing along to Telephone.

Dispelliing the whistleblower image: Edward Snowden.
Dispelling the whistleblower image: Edward Snowden.Photo: Reuters

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, the man accused of being a traitor for leaking details of pervasive snooping by the US is not a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He's the IT guy.

The Obama administration has accused him of threatening US national security. But its grip on control seems to be slipping, particularly in relation to data in the digital age.

Whistleblowing is faster and easier than ever. Today, potential leakers do not 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 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-syncing 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 as 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.


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