Doctor’s Warning: Whistleblowing is Bad for Your Health

Why Snowden didn’t stick around to face the music

There are a wide variety of leakers, some of them from the corporate world, government workers, public servants, military personnel or security contractors. Different avenues are taken regarding the vetting process, the platform chosen to express indignation and the logistics behind the leak itself. Most stay behind to act within the judicial framework. Some, like Edward Snowden, leave the ship in a bid for self preservation. One common theme we can all agree on is the gravity of the consequences faced by whistleblowers.

In contrast with both Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Snowden relieved with temporary asylum in Russia, Chelsea Manning has just been sentenced to 35 years in prison. They are not alone in feeling the wrath of the state for their actions. Bringing light to systemized behavior which is legitimately deemed unethical (e.g., breach of the constitution, war crimes…) results in a bevy of reaction from the establishment.

Take, for example, John Kirikaou, former CIA analyst and case officer who is now serving 30 months in prison for denouncing the use of torture; i.e., water-boarding. Kirikaou has personally warned Edward Snowden: “DO NOT, under any circumstances, cooperate with the FBI.” This warning captures the current political landscape whistleblowers are now facing. The message is clear to future potential truth tellers. The reality is undeniable when considering that Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers then all administration before combined. Recent events have set a precedent and the national security state’s narrative is reinforced.

The current trend amongst politicians and pundits alike has been a constant rebuttal in regards to the Snowden leaks. And so I quote Obama to demonstrate the party line which has been parroted by mainstream media’s “expert panelists”: “If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case.”

For those denigrating Snowden’s right to seek asylum abroad and his leaving the state, those who say he should have stayed home and taken the “traditional route”, or in other words, faced the full force of the law; there are a few key facts to take into consideration. Oddly enough, Snowden is in the same legal predicament as Manning. Both have been prevented from presenting a whistleblowing defense. In Manning’s case, Judge Lind simply ruled that “issues of motive were not relevant to his trial.”

As for Snowden, it is legally debatable that he exposed illegal conduct since FISA signed off on the spying/data-mining operations taking place at the NSA, thus making it “legal”. This negates his whistleblowing protection. Snowden also faces a second hurdle. The federal whistleblower protection act protects the public disclosure of violations only if the disclosure is not specifically prohibited by law. Basically, Snowden could claim this protection only if he took his concerns to the NSA’s inspector general or to a member of the congressional intelligence committee.

Essentially, the only avenue for leakers is the “traditional route” (i.e., sounding the alarm internally), with its obvious limitations due to the irony of self-regulation/oversight, often time with neglected protections against repercussions: loss of revenue, loss of job, the inherent plight of trying to secure further employment, as well as the obvious health and quality of life ramifications.

Regarding Chelsea Manning, considering the military context, her persecution is beyond compare. Some would say she is being made an example of. PFC Manning was imprisoned for a thousand plus days, without trial or sentencing, putting to question the notion of due process. I don’t mention the verdict because like in all show trials it had already been determined long ago. At Quantico, from July 29th 2010 to April 20th, 2011, Manning was kept in an 8 by 6 foot cell for 23 hours a day. Kept in POI (prevention of injury order), although deemed ”not posing a threat to himself” from August onward by an in-house psychiatrist. Why then was she singled out and persecuted? Stuck in solitary confinement, having all possessions withheld, light left on overnight, stripped of all her clothes and watched over incessantly. That’s not even mentioning the vilifying from prison guards. The justifications put forth by Daniel Choike (then commander of the Quantico marine base) for Manning’s ’special treatment’ seemed unfounded in that he blamed her erratic behavior (dancing, playing peek-a-boo…), her poor judgment in the past and poor family relationships. I’ll let the readers judge the validity of commander Choike’s rationalizations.

Lastly, if you need more convincing that whistleblowing under all its guises faces grave consequences, an Australian study from the early nineties demonstrated that out of 25 men and 10 women from various occupational backgrounds who had exposed corruption or danger to the public, all of them had suffered dire consequences. For 29 of them, victimization had started immediately after their first, internal complaint. Victimization at work was quite extensive: dismissal for 8 subjects, demotion in 10 cases and resignation or early retirement because of poor health related to victimization in 10 instances.

Long term relationships broke up in seven cases, and 60 of the 77 children of 30 subjects were adversely affected. Twenty nine subjects had a mean of 5.3 stress related symptoms initially, with a mean of 3.6 still present. Fifteen were prescribed long term treatment with drugs which they had not been prescribed before. Seventeen had considered suicide. Income had been reduced by three quarters or more for 14 subjects. Total financial loss was estimated in hundreds of thousands of Australian dollars in 17. Whistleblowers received little or no help from statutory authorities and only a modest amount from workmates. In most cases the corruption and malpractice continued unchanged. CONCLUSION–Although whistleblowing is important in protecting society, the typical organisational response causes severe and longlasting health, financial, and personal problems for whistleblowers and their families.

I’ll go one step above in my conclusion on the current state of affairs. If we continue on this track, admonishing whistleblowers, there will be no one left to fill the role. It seems those who put the common good first, defending our collective welfare, are already representing a minute percentage of the populace. The recent repressions by the state will surely intimidate potential leakers into subservience, which will stifle any chance we have for real transparency within the existing framework. If the repression keeps increasing, with the bleakest of outcomes for those concerned, then even in those with the greatest ethical courage, willingness will surely be thwarted. Like Peter Kropotkin states in his book, Ethics – Origin and Development,: “We need moral progress, but without moral courage no moral progress is possible”. The impending danger is clear.  If we continue ostracizing the Ellsbergs, the Kirikaous, the Sowdens and the Mannings of this world, the notion of civic duty will potentially be relegated to the back burner of society. Leaving us in a reality where looking away when we see an injustice is but the normality.

Claude Coulomb is an independent journalist from Montreal, Quebec. He is also the interim administrator for the Quebec chapter of the International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS). He can be reached at . Read other articles by Claude, or visit Claude's website.