Thursday, July 4, 2013

Telling Americans About Their Government Isn't Treason

With Wikileaks source Bradley Manning on trial and David Snowden in hiding, and the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence upon us, it's a good time to talk about what it means when the government tries to keep citizens in the dark about its activities.

Before we can talk about the morality of public education regarding government activities, it's essential first to take a few moments to discuss what this topic does not include.  This isn't about workplace obedience.  Both these men have lost their jobs.  Neither will ever work anyplace an American security clearance is required, ever.  

Bush has gone on record that he was willing to institute the spying program outed by Snowden only because Americans' "civil liberties were guaranteed."  But Snowden's report was that NSA analysts had unfettered access to information about Americans and their communications – that there were, in fact, no guarantees of the liberty interests of citizens.  If true, this means that the safeguards that were the sine qua non of the program are a sham.  If true, it's critical that Americans understand it, and that the bureaucracy paid to perform it not be given unlimited discretion whether to self-report that its conduct is, in fact, completely different than was promised to the President when the intelligence operation was green-lighted.  Maybe an investigation will clear the government of what Snowden alleges … but from what I've read so far, the government's response in defending the program suggests that what he says is probably true and that its perpetrators simply believe the "cost" in lost liberty is worth whatever benefit (their salaries and prestige, mostly) might be demonstrated from the program.

And the Manning trial.  Let's get one thing straight first. The Manning trial isn't about copying files without access, or even publishing them to the Internet.  Manning already plead guilty to a host of offenses involving his misuse of data access.  None of that is in dispute. 

The Manning trial is about whether what he did was also treason.  The prosecution is trying to prove Manning intended to aid America's enemies when he delivered for publication information that informed Americans about the government's relationship with Americans' supposed allies in the Middle East and informed Americans about wartime details Manning felt the public was missing.  Was it a misuse of his security clearance? Absolutely.  Was it good judgment? Only time will tell.  Was it treason?

That's today's question.  Is it a crime to tell Americans what their government is doing with their money, and in their name?

What This Is About
Does a democratic government really have a legitimate interest in preventing the electorate from learning what their officials are doing with the money taken from them by force in accordance with laws passed by their representatives?  (If you think taxes are voluntary, ask Wesley Snipes how that turned out.)  Another way of looking at it is to ask: how can voters make an informed vote when government conceals what it's doing with the resources entrusted to government?

Informing voters what government is doing (locally, with voters' supposedly-private communications, or internationally, when the disclosed sound bites vary greatly from actual on-the-ground policy) is a very traditional American past-time.  The reason libel law has been neutered in the United States is precisely to make it easier to publish potentially salacious things about government bodies and government officials.  This conduct is materially different from telling enemies where tired troops will gather for resupply when they are low on ammunition.  To hear government officials discuss Snowden and Manning, one would think they'd done the latter.

If so, show me.

Until then:

Especially when it ends their careers and places their liberty in danger from the government about which they inform the public, it's crucial to keep in mind who the villains are in the efforts to prosecute Americans who help keep their fellows informed what their government is doing.  Nothing is more American than warning Americans what their government is doing.  Especially on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it's crucial to distinguish between criticism of government and injury to the people convinced to elect it.  The principal author of the Declaration of Independence had this to say on the subject:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
-- Thomas Jefferson 
 And that sums it up.