In early October Terry Albury, a former FBI agent, was sentenced to four years in prison for leaking classified government documents. It is the second longest sentence for a media leak imposed by a federal court, and the latest in a trend of increased scrutiny and harsher consequences for whistleblowers, starting with the Obama administration and continuing into Trump’s presidency. These repercussions are part of a push to strengthen national security by preventing harmful secrets from being revealed. But the alternative to whistleblowing - internal disclosure - is also a high-risk, low-reward path.
If knowledge is power, how much should the government be allowed to withhold? “The people have the right to know” is not the nosy cry of an entitled public. It is push for accountability in a government made for the people, by the people. Cases like the Pentagon papers demonstrate the value of whistleblowing in democracy, a value acknowledged by protections afforded in the Whistleblowers Protection Act.
However, despite how noble this democratic call for public knowledge is, it can pose a threat to the safety of the population that is ensured by clandestine action. Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents in 2013, revealing their surveillance of personal communications, was hailed as a heroic move. But it also paved the way for Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Our safety, whether we like it or not, rests in policies that many of us would rather not think about. The call for transparency is a double-edged sword.
There’s an eternal conflict between the right to know and the need for safety. An excess of accessible knowledge impedes the discrete nature of government actions that makes them so effective. But the secrecy that shrouds government action can pave the way for corrupt behavior that threatens unsuspecting targets when it goes unchecked by public knowledge.
One compromise would seem to be to provide potential whistleblowers, that is, government employees who observe unjust behavior, with avenues of internal disclosure to ensure that change is brought about without endangering government operations that rely on employee discretion. On paper, it seems like a simple solution that would benefit the government, the people, and the whistleblower. So why don’t more whistleblowers use internal disclosure?
Whistleblowing is not a course of action for the faint of heart. Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison and served seven, several in solitary confinement, when she leaked documents regarding military and diplomatic relations. Edward Snowden had to seek asylum in Russia after his leak. Whistleblowers face unemployment, monetary repercussions, jail time, and isolation from family and friends as a result of their deeds. For many, this is a route taken only when the weight of their conscious becomes too cumbersome to ignore. So it begs the question - why does leaking to the press seem to be the only answer to a guilty conscience?
Taking a closer look at these routes of internal disclosure reveals a much more complicated picture. Most disclosures happen through the Inspector General (IG), an independent office present within most federal agencies. But a prominent concern is that internal disclosure produces no results. Surveys show that 500,000 government employees annually witness misconduct but choose not report due to their belief that no change will come of it. The IG’s authority, or rather, lack of it, can undermine their effectiveness. It determines the cases they investigate. During the past six years, the CIA has had an acting IG, not one presidentially appointed and senate confirmed. This perceived lack of authority encourages them to choose noncontroversial cases, such as low level fraud. It also affects results. While the IG can conduct investigations and make reports, they cannot force an agency to take action. Agencies can, and often do, ignore such reports. Repercussions also pose a concern. While in theory, the IG is supposed to maintain confidentiality, in practice it cannot be guaranteed. Once an investigation starts, the subject of said investigation begins to target the informant. Once found, that employee can face termination and other consequences without seeing change brought about.
Internal disclosure can, to many employees, offer many consequences without the benefit of change that comes from whistleblowing. In order to strengthen national security, government agencies need to prioritize internal routes of disclosure, creating a stronger incentive than whistleblowing can offer. This protects secrets from getting out while still keeping government agencies accountable. The government’s hoard of secrets will always provide them with a certain level of power over the people, but strengthening internal disclosure routes can assure us that this power is not being abused nor disturbed.