Silencing whistleblowers is not the American way

Rather than bullying the international community into turning over Snowden, the US should reflect on its treatment of whistleblowers and the entire surveillance state, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, Stephen Kohn, told RT.

RT:What impact will the situations of Snowden, Assange, and Manning have on whistleblowers at large

Stephen Kohn: Let’s hope it calls public attention to the failure of our government to provide any legal avenues for intelligence employees to blow the whistle. They want to hold these employees hostage, threaten them with criminal conduct, and then keep them quiet about the scandals they witness. That’s untenable, that’s unconstitutional, and it needs to get fixed. Let’s hope [Snowden’s] case pushes our Congress to fix the problem. 

RT:Are you saying whistleblowers are above the law? Are they exempt from any justice

SK: Not at all. Whistleblowers are entitled to due process and First Amendment protections. They don’t have it today under the US laws that govern intelligence agencies. 

RT:We’re seeing Snowden turn to human rights activists in Moscow. Why should this be a human rights issue

SK: The right to blow the whistle is the right of the citizens to know what their government is doing, to learn about misconduct at the highest levels, and to protect their fundamental freedoms. If whistleblowers are quashed, if people on the inside can’t report illegal activities – which Snowden did – then democracy itself is threatened at its very core. 

RT:But some whistleblowers could be blowing the whistle on highly sensitive information. For example, we hear US authorities and officials from other governments saying this could compromise national and personal security. Where do you draw the line between freedom of speech and safety

SK: Well, we warned about this last year when our Congress stripped intelligence employees like Snowden of the right to blow the whistle to the inspector general and to Congress. There was a law that let them do that and they took it away. And we said, “Be forewarned, if you don’t have a legal channel you’re going to have people use self-help tactics.” Don’t blame the whistleblower. 

RT:It’s not looking good for the likes of Assange, Snowden, and Manning, is it? What does this mean for their situation? Because despite what you say, they face a very uneasy and uncertain future.

SK: I want to tell you I’ve been representing whistleblowers for over 30 years, many in intelligence agencies with security clearances. They’re some of the bravest, most dedicated people I’ve had the honor to meet. Yes, some will be scared and silenced. But others will not be. The situation as it stands today is untenable. You can’t have hundreds of thousands of people working in the most sensitive areas, learning about illegal conduct – be it the lies that sent us to the war in Iraq, be it violations of the Constitution, be it perjury in Congress – and demand those people to remain silent. That’s not the American way. It’s inconsistent and in violation of the First Amendment of our Constitution, and it has to end. Let’s hope this Snowden matter catalyzes public support to change an untenable status quo. It is absolutely unfair to put this burden on people like Mr. Snowden. The government, Congress, and the people have to do their job to ensure that there are safe and lawful channels to blow the whistle so the American people can be protected from the crimes of their government. 

RT:What about the diplomatic result of all this, between Washington and Russia and indeed between Washington, China, Europe, and the Latin American countries? This is an explosive thing that’s happened, and it’s caused huge tension amongst countries

SK: I’ve seen it before - the targets of the whistleblowing sometimes act like petulant children. What the United States is doing is ridiculous. They are embarrassing our entire country. The statements they are making are embarrassing to our Constitution. They are acting like petulant children. They should grow up. They have to realize that whistleblowing is a fact of life. It’s protected under the Constitution, it’s needed for democracy, and they have to create those channels. I’ve seen this before when companies or powerful people are accused by whistleblowers and they try to destroy the whistleblower. They often lose, and the people see they were wrong. But when it’s the US government with all its power trying to destroy a 30-year-old individual, that is just ludicrous. They need to act in a mature manner and deal with this situation like whistleblower cases are dealt with every day by companies and government agencies that are not in the middle of a temper tantrum.