In a time of nondisclosure agreements and public officials refusing to talk to media outlets, it might take the action of a whistleblower to expose the misbehavior of governments and corporations.
Whistleblowing is risky business, though. With WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the U.S. underway and Chelsea Manning still behind bars, we’re reminded of the consequences faced by anyone who decides to blow the whistle.
And yet it’s worth the risk for those who find ethical force in uncovering the truth.
Cian Westmoreland, a former U.S. Air Force drone technician and current human rights activist, is on a five-city tour to talk about the growing opposition to the use of military drone strikes, as well as what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Westmoreland has spoken out about drone warfare in Afghanistan, its strategic flaws and possible risks for civilian casualties. After reading a report on the number of civilian deaths caused by the drone program, he decided not to re-enlist in the U.S. Air Force, he told Democracy Now! in 2015.
Along with three other airmen, Westmoreland wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in 2015, demanding an end to the drone program.
The letter’s authors say the drone program fuels groups like ISIS as well as causing post-traumatic stress disorder in drone program operators. They say that keeping silent on the program would violate their duty to support and defend the Constitution.
The letter ends on a sour note, saying the authors’ effort was probably in vain considering U.S. prosecution of whistleblowers such as Assange, Manning and Edward Snowden, who in 2013 leaked classified documents from the National Security Agency.
Although Westmoreland was out of the country and unavailable to talk with Eugene Weekly, Norman Solomon says Westmoreland is “inspiring” for being a whistleblower on drone strikes.
Solomon has written numerous books on media, war and how politicians spin the truth to start wars. He’s also the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA), a nonprofit that coordinates the work of progressive scholars and analysts with mainstream media outlets.
IPA launched ExposeFacts in 2014, of which Solomon is an editorial board member. ExposeFacts is a place where whistleblowers can disclose information.
“Officials don’t like when news media tells the public what they’d rather keep hidden. That’s just a truism whether it’s Eugene or Washington, D.C.,” he says. “The First Amendment doesn’t have footnotes.”
And it’s not a good time for whistleblowers.
After years of being granted asylum in an Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange’s asylum was withdrawn, leading to his arrest.
Assange faces charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, which led to the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
One of those leaks, titled “Collateral Murder,” showed video footage of U.S. soldiers in an Apache helicopter killing a Reuters journalist and two other Iraqis. Manning, who was released from prison and then re-arrested for whistleblowing, leaked the video — among other documents and data — to Assange.
Even though this information was marked confidential, the public has a right to know what its government is up to, especially if it’s killing people overseas, Solomon says.
Ever since that massive leak seven years ago, news media outlets have distanced themselves from Assange, which many consider a form of betrayal. Solomon adds that outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post profited from Assange’s and Manning’s leaks by putting the information on the front page. And now these outlets have turned their backs on Assange.
“Press freedom isn’t only for journalists we like,” he says. “We could go to a movie starring Meryl Streep about the Post and Tom Hanks and say what a wonderful movie. But if we turn around and say Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning got what they deserved? It’s ridiculous.”
What makes someone decide to risk his or her career and freedom by blowing the whistle?
“There’s a wide range of personalities involved,” he says. “There’s always a strong moral component. Whether one sees it as ethical, moral or spiritual, there’s a compelling force that causes people to take the risk.”
Cian Westmoreland speaks 8 pm Wednesday, April 24, at Tsunami Books, located at 2585 Willamette Street; 1 pm Thursday, April 25, at the International Center in the Erb Memorial Union at the UO; 7 pm Thursday, April 25, at the Westminster House, located at 101 NW 23rd Street, Corvallis; and 1 pm Friday, April 26, in Rm. 209, Eaton Hall, Willamette University, located at 900 Street, Salem.