In the Atlantic, Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler contends that reforming the National Security Agency requires immunity for public-accountability leakers like Edward Snowden. Benkler, who testified to WikiLeaks’ journalistic value at whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s trial, recently published his proposal for a legal defence that such whistleblowers could use in court, arguing that they should be able to show that their disclosures are in the public interest and necessary for democratic progress.
In his new piece, Benkler observes how the Pentagon Papers, COINTELPRO and Watergate leaks of the 1970s “helped cement the role of unauthorized public disclosure as a systemic check on the predictable cycles of error in the national-security system.” While those erstwhile leakers are now championed for exposing wrongdoing, whistleblowers of the the new millennium have been subject to prosecutions, retaliations and prison sentences.
America’s post-9/11 security state ballooned and ensured its worst policies were kept secret, precluding any accountability, save for conscientious disclosures to the press. “Without the men and women of conscience who have come out over the past 12 years and disclosed aspects of the abuses, the system would have kept on grinding,” Benkler writes.
Echoing his preface to his public-accountability defence proposal, Benkler explains,
All large systems suffer from these kinds of failures as they age, as new conditions challenge old practices, and as the rationale for processes once cherished is lost in the humdrum of bureaucratic routine… Whistleblowing is a central pillar of the way American law deals with these dynamics of error, incompetence, and malfeasance in large organizations.
However, in the national security realm, whistleblowing is not acknowledged and applauded but rather pathologised, condemned, and criminalised. Benkler says, “Only piercing the echo chamber can lead to meaningful reform in such cases, so it’s here, where the risks of error and distortion are greatest, that unauthorized disclosure is most important. We saw it with the Pentagon Papers in 1970, and we saw it again with Snowden.”
In conclusion, Benkler explains how immunity for Snowden would pave the way toward a culture of accountability that welcomes whistleblowing as necessary, inevitable, and vital.
Retroactive immunity would build constitutional culture rather than a permanent legal solution. Our (fuzzy) memories of the 1970s teach us, collectively, that unauthorized national-security leakers who expose substantial wrongdoing were heroes, and that respect, not a prison term, was their due. That is the lesson that immunity for Snowden would reinforce. It will not make leaking a low-risk activity, nor will it erase the dread of repercussions like Manning’s 35-year prison sentence. But immunity will be a strong statement to insiders that if the system has gone badly enough off track, and if public disclosure can lead to genuine benefits, then a conscientious individual can do the right thing. Even if the leak is illegal, the public will support bona fide whistleblowers who expose significant abuses, and the whistleblowers will not be forced to spend their lives in prison or exile while those whose misdeeds they exposed profit on the speaking circuit.
Read Benkler’s full article here.