Freedom of speech is one of the most important civil liberties granted to the people of the United States. The First Amendment allows citizens to openly and safely critique our government and our country in order to make it a better, more righteous place for everyone.
It is the actions of whistleblowers, however, that truly uphold the values enshrined in the United States’ founding documents. Without Smedley Butler, we would not have known of the “business plot” by rich businessmen to lead a coup d’etat during Roosevelt’s presidency. Without Daniel Ellsberg, we would not have known of the blatant lying and wrongdoing by the US government regarding the public’s knowledge on the Vietnam War. And without Edward Snowden, we would not have known of the mass national surveillance program, PRISM, which collects data from internet companies and then details and records our every digital move.
Edward Snowden evaded charges of theft of government property and of violating the Espionage Act after blowing the whistle on PRISM and the National Security Agency (NSA) back in 2013 by seeking asylum in Russia. He now delivers paid talks about his findings to various groups. Snowden recently published a memoir titled “Permanent Record,” which details his life, his motivations for releasing the NSA information and what exactly those revelations were. Nothing he published was outside of the public’s knowledge, yet the Department of Justice is suing Snowden for breaching his “secrecy agreements and non-disclosure obligations” by not filing the memoir through the department before publishing it, according to the suit.
The United States has a terrible record in dealing with whistleblowers, and this case is no different. Snowden has resided in Russia since 2013 and over the past six years, he has successfully evaded the US government. To file a suit against a man who no longer works for the NSA seems fruitless and redundant, but after years of cover-ups, this is pretty much just business as usual for the Department of Justice.
Whistleblowers like Snowden blatantly and intentionally violate laws for public interest. Often times, these laws are restrictive to free speech in nature, and do nothing to promote free thought. The Espionage Act of 1917 is one particular thorn in history’s side, which was first instituted when propaganda machines like the Committee on Public Intelligence reigned throughout World War I. Eugene V. Debs comes to mind as one of the first victims of this paranoia influenced law. While not a whistleblower, Debs wrote and delivered an anti-war speech and was subsequently sentenced to prison, violating the act with his “un-American actions.” Snowden, Ellsberg and Debs — three important, impactful1 and certainly controversial figures in American history — were all charged under this law. Ellsberg was acquitted, Debs was convicted and Snowden is still considered a fugitive wanted under the act.
Even when we do not consider the Espionage Act, we can still note the many times in history where whistleblowers were punished for simply revealing ugly truths in our various institutions, both private and public. Ronald J. Goldstein was fired by EBASCO, a contracting company, for reporting a lack of workplace safety in 1985. Jesselyn Radnack, a lawyer for the DOJ, was fired and had her license revoked after she told “Newsweek” about the destruction and lies surrounding documents in a case of a US citizen turned Taliban sympathizer in 2005. Reality Winner is currently serving five years in prison for leaking NSA documents regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election to a news outlet.
In 2019, we can look back on our nation’s 243 year history and know that not all laws created are just. The powerful institutions that enact and enforce those laws, in their blind following of the law, grow corrupt in nature and need to be checked. Whistleblowers fight to check the power of these institutions and work to ensure that what is actually happening is revealed, regardless of whatever version of the facts the public receives. It is because of the brave people like them that we are able to make informed decisions on our political, social and economic lives, and in a world where “fake news” prevails, we find gritty, ugly and necessary truth.