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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.

More telling is the capitulation of The Washington Post, which ironically 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 that "the first US priority should be to prevent Mr Snowden from leaking information".

As online publication Salon wrote, 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.

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 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 September 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 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.

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 Griffiths University's Professor A.J. Brown, an expert on whistleblowers. "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.''

 

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