The plight of whistle-blowers

Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” – Chelsea Manning.

In December last year, artist Anohni released the video for her song Obama, along with an open letter to then US President Barack Obama asking him to release Chelsea Manning.

The 29-year-old US Army private, formerly known as Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in jail for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2010.

The song saw Anohni documenting her fluctuating relationship with Obama throughout his terms as president, but ultimately emerging feeling deeply betrayed. She throws the spying, the executions without trial and the punishing of whistle-blowers in the president’s face.

As Anohni repeats Obama’s name in a repetitive drone, it sounds as if each invocation is dripping with disgust. And understandably so, as it was Obama who said in 2008: “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out.

“Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled,” he had said.

“We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.”

Anohni called on Obama to recognise Chelsea Manning’s “tremendous sacrifice” and “vulnerability”. Manning has been incarcerated during her transition and is being held in an all-male military jail. She has attempted suicide twice and went on a hunger strike in a bid for gender reassignment surgery.

“With Trump incoming, if you leave Chelsea there she will never see the light of day, or worse,” wrote Anohni. “If you leave her in prison, you send the final message to our nation that the Obama administration brutally punished moral courage in these unforgiving United States.”

Other artists like Cass McCombs and Thurston Moore have also expressed support for Manning with recent songs.

Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello has publicly stated that he sees whistle-blowers like Manning and Edward Snowden as “righteous heroes”, people who were “unwilling to turn a blind eye on the crimes of our government”.

Snowden has pointed out that at the end of the day the Obama administration is not afraid of the whistle-blowers like Manning and himself, but is actually afraid of an “informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised”.

On 18 January Obama announced that he had commuted Manning’s sentence, as one of his last acts as president. She will be freed from the Fort Leavenworth military prison in May this year – 29 years ahead of her scheduled release in 2045.

Manning, who dictates tweets from jail over the phone to a close friend, thanked Obama on Twitter for “giving me a chance”.

The decision by Obama has raised the ire of the Republicans and President Donald Trump is said to be “troubled” by the decision. An hour after Trump was sworn in as president, TechCrunch reported that the White House website’s page on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights had been taken down.

Four days before Obama announced the commuting of Manning’s sentence, a news story on News24 pointed out inconsistencies between the reported number of communication intercepts conducted by South African intelligence agencies and the reported number of warrants that were granted.

In South Africa, communication intercepts are handled by the National Communications Centre (NCC), a high-tech facility set up in Gauteng during the 1990s. The NCC can intercept and analyse large volumes of voice and internet traffic. This can be done randomly using keywords and by focusing in on an individual. The body operates outside the parameters of Rica, which would require a judge to approve an interception. 

In the past, the NCC has been used to target South African citizens. One example of this is the 2005/06 “hoax email saga”, in which 13 South Africans’ communications were intercepted. It was described by the then inspector-general of intelligence as a “gross abuse”.

For a better understanding of the potential for abuse, the 2008 Matthews Commission report, which can be accessed on the Right2Know campaign’s website, is an interesting read. The constitutional concerns raised in the report have been largely ignored, with the argument being made that then intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils did not properly present it to Cabinet and therefore it was never presented to Parliament.

With SA’s intelligence bodies involved in unregulated spying, how soon will it be before we have our own Chelsea Manning- or Edward Snowden-type whistle-blower? How will our government respond? How will we respond as a nation, if details were to emerge of how our government is spying on us?

This article originally appeared in the 9 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here