When I was a little boy, I quickly learned to stay abreast of the list of dos and don’ts that my parents maintained: as in Socrates’ conception of virtue, the rules might evolve from one day to the next, but the requirement to observe them did not.
One of the subtler crimes on the list was that of “tattling”, or pointing out a sibling’s infractions to a parent who might have preferred to remain ignorant. Very frequently the act of tattling would be punished more severely than the crime being reported.
In the adult world, the list of dos and don’ts is longer and more complicated than the one we were expected to live by as children, but one thing still seems to hold true: people in authority are as likely to punish an individual who brings a crime to their attention, as to punish the crime itself.
In 1996 a senior policy analyst for the EPA, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, reported serious violations of US environmental regulations at an American-owned vanadium mine in South Africa. Her supervisors ignored her concerns, and she eventually reported the violations to other agencies. The EPA retaliated, refusing to promote Coleman-Adebayo and reneging on a health-related telecommuting agreement with her. Coleman-Adebayo sued the EPA and won, but not as a whistleblower: the EPA was found guilty only of violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Meanwhile, the company that owned the vanadium mine, Vametco — a subsidiary of U.S. Strategic Minerals Corporation, which was itself spun off from Union Carbide, of Bhopal Disaster fame — went on conducting business as usual. The EPA’s entire focus in the case was never with the poisoned miners, but on punishing the person who discovered the problem and refused to sweep it under the rug.(1)(2)
In 2002 former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was sent to Niger by the White House to investigate the possibility that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq had been buying materials there with which to build the infamous “weapons of mass destruction”. Wilson found that the allegations were without substance, and reported that fact to his superiors, who nonetheless repeated the claim in public statements. When Wilson protested in the press, his wife, a field operative for the CIA, was “outed”, her identity revealed to a journalist by the White House Chief of Staff, derailing her career with the spy agency and placing her entire family at risk. The players on the White House staff who had originally concocted the story about the Niger purchases were never prosecuted or punished.(3)
And of course, tattletales can pop up in the best of families: In January and February of this year, an archbishop at the Vatican, frustrated that evidence of widespread corruption in purchasing and construction contracts was being ignored by Vatican officials, leaked word of the problem to the Italian media, hoping to goad his superiors into taking action. The Vatican’s response was, in fact, swift and efficient: the archbishop was transferred out of the country and a commission was established to investigate, not the corruption allegations, but the leaks to the press. As for the crimes Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano was attempting to expose, those are being almost entirely ignored.(4)
In the 1990’s democracy broke out all over, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the old superpower realpolitik, but transparency has still been hard to achieve.
Chuck Colson, Richard Nixon’s “dirty-tricks man”, died on April 21 of this year, my fifty-fourth birthday.
In 1974 Colson spent seven months incarcerated on Maxwell Air Force Base (where I was born, it just so happens) for his involvement in an effort to defame a RAND Corporation military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg.
In 1967 RAND had been commissioned by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, to put together a report on the US involvement in Vietnam, a project that came to be known as “the Pentagon Papers”. Ellsberg leaked portions of the document to Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, who entered 4,100 pages of the report into the record of his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, effectively releasing it to the public. The Nixon administration immediately went after Ellsberg.
At no time did anyone in the White House seem to care about what the reports were actually telling them about the war itself. Only the secrecy mattered, not the secret.
Countries like Canada, Australia, Ireland, and India have so far been unable to put in place legislation to protect those who blow the whistle on corruption. Others, such as Uganda and South Korea have such laws, but sometimes enforce them very selectively. In the United States, protection for whistleblowers varies depending on the specifics, or on the organizations involved. Laws such as the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act protect — and even encourage — those who report corporate crime, but the 2009 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which would have included improved protections for Federal employees, was systematically gutted by the Obama administration, and then killed outright by an “anonymous hold” action in the Senate.
Rogue players such as Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and US Army Private Bradley Manning present a difficult case: their wholesale release of sensitive information can place in danger the very people such transparency might be expected to benefit. At the same time, governments who insist on conducting the business of governance under cover of secrecy eventually find themselves crippled by the inability to view their own activities objectively. One only has to look at China or North Korea to see what can happen when the truth becomes a tool of political power.
I’ve personally been very disappointed that the current administration here in the US seems determined to perpetuate the policies of secrecy and misinformation that prevailed during his predecessor’s time in office. Uncomfortable truths are always difficult for those in power, at least in a democracy, but the alternative is a government of shadows, unable to operate under the cold light of day. Lies breed lies, as the late Richard Nixon could have told us, and secrets quickly take on a life of their own, sometimes wildly out of proportion to the facts they were intended to conceal.
Maybe nobody likes a tattletale, but bad things can happen when Mom’s out of the room, and sometimes the truth just needs to get out.
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