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Whistleblowers

Written By: - Date published: 3:02 pm, June 17th, 2010 - 37 comments
Categories: accountability, Ethics, suppression orders - Tags: , , ,

At time of writing the front page of Newsroom has a post:

Hunt Nearly Over – The search for the sources of leaked sensitive Government plans to open up protected conservation land to mining and merge parts of the state sector is close to an end.

We the people have much to thank whistleblowers for. From the famous ones internationally, to the local ones like the Hollow Men leakers or those involved in the mining leak. But authority certainly doesn’t like whistleblowers, and language such as this “hunt” is indicative of their attitudes.

Spare a thought just now for the man who brought whistleblowing into the web age, Julian Assange, a prime mover in wikileaks.org, currently being “hunted” by The Pentagon. The Guardian reports:

Pentagon hunts WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in bid to gag website

Soldier Bradley Manning said to have leaked diplomatic cables to whistleblower, plus video of US troops killing Iraqis

American officials are searching for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks in an attempt to pressure him not to publish thousands of confidential and potentially hugely embarrassing diplomatic cables that offer unfiltered assessments of Middle East governments and leaders.

The Daily Beast, a US news reporting and opinion website, reported that Pentagon investigators are trying to track down Julian Assange an Australian citizen who moves frequently between countries after the arrest of a US soldier last week who is alleged to have given the whistleblower website a classified video of American troops killing civilians in Baghdad.

The soldier, Bradley Manning, also claimed to have given WikiLeaks 260,000 pages of confidential diplomatic cables and intelligence assessments. The US authorities fear their release could “do serious damage to national security”, said the Daily Beast, which is published by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and New Yorker magazines.

More details here, here, here and see Manning’s site here.

Like most other activities in the complicated real world, whistleblowing can be a grey area. Some thugs, like Paula Bennet with her attacks on individual beneficiaries, or Cameron Slater with his violation of name suppression, might think of themselves as whistleblowers, but they are not. To my mind the crucial distinctions are (1) whether information being released relates to an individual (probably wrong) or to an organisation like a company or the state (probably right), and (2) the level of genuine public interest in socially significant issues. When a whistleblower takes on a big organisation over a matter of genuine public significance they are taking a risk, in some cases a huge risk (see the discussions of legal protection, and the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative). I for one salute such whistleblowers, and hope that there will always be people who are brave enough to make sure that we the people know the truth.

37 comments on “Whistleblowers”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    Whistleblowers need to be protected in law. We need to know what large organisations, especially government, are doing so that we can stop them before they do too much damage.

    • Croc 1.1

      Pretty sure they already are protected under NZ law

    • r0b 1.2

      See:

      In January 2001, the Protected Disclosures Act 2000 came into force. This is commonly known as the “whistle-blower’ legislation. Under this Act, Ombudsmen are responsible for providing advice and guidance to any employee who has made, or is considering making, a disclosure about serious wrong-doing in their work place (either public or private sector). The Ombudsmen are also one of the “appropriate authorities’ listed in the Act to whom a protected disclosure may be made.

      • Rex Widerstrom 1.2.1

        And does this work in practice in a country as small as NZ, I wonder?

        You blow the whistle on one organisation, and they all think “Hold on, we’ve got a bit of dirty linen out back. S/he can’t be relied on to do what’s best for the organisation”. Welcome to the world of long term unemployment or forced emigration 🙁

        To a degree that’s true of anywhere of course. But in a small pond like NZ, anyone who makes a splash attracts the attention of all the other inhabitants.

    • Ari 1.3

      Whistleblowers should have the presumption of protection. If they genuinely endanger someone’s life, then I can see a case for prosecution.

  2. David 2

    I agree entirely. The whistleblower who released the “Climategate” emails exposing the workings of the cabal of climate scientists and their manipulation of the peer review process is a hero.

    Ha, spam word was “irritate”

    • r0b 2.1

      Well yeah, I guess if s/he had uncovered anything interesting that would have counted as another example of whistleblowing. But they didn’t, so it was just muckraking. Not exactly a high risk example either, it’s not like pissing off scientists involves any risk.

      • Ulf 2.1.1

        And written evidence submitted to the committee by the Institute of Physics in London claimed the hacked emails had revealed “prima facie evidence of determined and coordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions” through “manipulation of the publication and peer-review system” and “intolerance to challenge”.
        http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18599-climategate-scientist-questioned-in-parliament.html

        The main reason why people were not investigated with the intent to prosecute for actions (apparent violation of the FOI act) uncovered through Climategate was the 6-month statute of limitations. So even if that had been all, I think it counts as successful whistleblowing.

        The scientific debate has changed radically since Climategate, and many point to serious deficiencies in the peer-review process (how many knew that it was common practice not to ask for corroborating evidence, such as data series, when reviewing a scientific paper? Or that leading scientists would actively resist and subvert attempts to try to replicate – and maybe falsify – their work?) You may not like the politics of those supporting the Climategate events, but even those involved have admitted to writing some pretty terrible things in emails. There was most definitely bullying and attempts to keep contrary findings out of the peer-reviewed literature.

        I am on no particular side in the climate debate, other than being a firm (bordering on fanatic) believer in the scientific process. Any PhD student should know that as soon as you start trying to win the argument, rather than searching for the truth, you are no longer practicing science.

        • lprent 2.1.1.1

          Sure there will be changes in how the science is done. But I don’t suspect there will be a lot.

          Peer review means exactly that – examination of your findings and conclusions by people who are capable of understanding what you’re writing about. That doesn’t mean some self-appointed scientifically illiterate vigilantes who are incapable of either being able to read or interpret the data, and unable to reproduce the experiments. Most of the reason for the climate scientists to be so defensive is because of the decades of sustained abuse that they have had on the topic of climate change. The FOI requests are just another level of abuse from the same luddites. They suck up precious time and resources.

          The key thing to remember is that the more you have a understanding of earth sciences, the more likely you are to think that anthropogenic climate change is happening. That is opinion formed purely on the basis of the physical processes involved. In the case of climate scientists it is way over 95% and provided the closest thing to a total agreement that I’ve ever seen in a field of science.

          The reason that no-one was prosecuted over Climategate was because there was nothing to prosecute for. Quite simply to do so would have required that most people working in science would have had to have been prosecuted. It is difficult to explain a specialized area of science to people that don’t have the basics and don’t want to listen to the conclusions. That is the politicians job, not that of scientists.

          • Ulf 2.1.1.1.1

            Let’s stick to the facts that have been uncovered. In the hearings, it was clearly stated that there was “prima facie evidence” that the FOI act had been violated. There was no criminal investigation (which would have been required to state, as you did, that there was nothing to prosecute for), because of the statute of limitations. One finding, then, was that the statute of limitations was so short (6 months) as to render the FOI act almost useless.

            Even in the quite unimpressive investigations “clearing” the scientists, it was remarked that it was inappropriate that they had not involved professional statisticians more, given that so much of their research was of statistical nature.

            “It is regrettable that so few professional statisticians have been involved in this
            work because it is fundamentally statistical. Under such circumstances there must be an obligation on researchers to document the judgemental decisions they have made so that the work can in principle be replicated by others.”
            http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/CRUstatements/SAP (Oxburgh panel para 6)

            In para 3, they write “…inappropriate statistical tools with the potential for producing
            misleading results have been used by some other groups, presumably by accident rather than design, …”.

            See e.g. http://eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=345&filename=1059664704.txt
            for an example of how “trusted colleagues” (who, presumably, were worthy of replicating their work), were given the data, and still required quite a lot of assistance to understand how it could be replicated “in theory” (since Mann couldn’t find all the data even then).

            I have not argued that AGW is not happening – that’s outside my realm. I am just saying that much inappropriate behaviour was revealed in Climategate, and at the end of the day, after the fudging of data to fit preconceived ideas, failing to archive data that doesn’t fit the conclusions, actively blocking the publication of papers (even admitting in the process that they hadn’t even read the papers before declaring they were crap), we actually know much less than we thought we did.

            I don’t think anyone has ever doubted the conviction of these scientists, but at least I thought that the standard for a “leading scientist” was much higher than this. The great scientists I know are not great because they bully people into submission. They are great because they share, inspire, listen, and carefully annotate their work. Maybe my sample of leading scientists has been too small to be significant?

            I sincerely hope that people take the opportunity to improve the process (not least guarding against scientists becoming victims of political or ideological blackmail – even the scientists I know and admire spent as much time chasing funding as they do research), rather than just circling the wagons and yelling “the science is settled!”

            • r0b 2.1.1.1.1.1

              Let’s stick to the facts that have been uncovered.

              OK

              Even in the quite unimpressive investigations “clearing’ the scientists

              Facts are that the investigations (two separate ones at least) did clear the scientists, no need for “scare quotes”.

              it was remarked that it was inappropriate that they had not involved professional statisticians more, given that so much of their research was of statistical nature.

              Te horrors! That’s the best they got?

              Meanwhile, the ice is still melting and the temperatures are still rising. So I guess despite their occasional imperfections the CRU scientists got it right.

              • Ulf

                Sigh… the quoting was because the panel itself didn’t say that they cleared the scientists. Others have made bold claims that they proved that the science was right. The report itself said “The Panel was not concerned with the question of whether the conclusions of the published research were correct.” All in all the panel spent about three working days each reading some “representative publications” (sic – but they basically asked CRU what they should read, so it was apparently the people under investigation who got to pick papers that demonstrated their own integrity) and talking to the people at the CRU. Are we to trust that they got it right just because they said what was expected of them?

                Why do I get the feeling that many of those who most adamantly decry the leaking of CRU emails and applaud the subsequent investigations haven’t even bothered to read the emails, any in-depth analyses of them, or indeed even the panel reports that claimed that there was nothing there?

                I will stop following this thread now and revert back to my previous mode of never engaging in discussion threads on climate issues. I will simply try to follow the science, to the best of my ability, and try to understand what we actually know.

                On the article itself, agreed. Whistleblowing is tricky and generally thankless. In Scandinavia, we have worked on the principle that all information generated by tax-funded agencies is public, unless it needs to be exempt for good reason. Public officials not only have the right, but in fact the duty to reveal actions that are in violation with the law or the agency’s mission, and by law, they cannot be fired for doing so (and agencies are not allowed to investigate the source of the leak of information that the public is legally entitled to). This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know who did it, and that that person will not get in trouble (they often do).

                One of the things we’ve seen in recent years is that, as agencies increasingly use the web, and automatically make public information available on the web, there is no need for whistleblowers indside the organization – it ought to be enough with good journalists, but quite often it is bloggers who direct attention to examples of misconduct. It can be tremendously educational to browse municipal meeting notes on child care, court transcripts from IPR trials etc. – but shocking too! In many cases, it seems as if the people involved have not yet understood that people will actually read the drivel they produce, and take them to task on it…

                The way to get rid of whistleblowers is not to hunt them down, but to eliminate the need for them in the first place.

    • lprent 2.2

      And the people who selectively picked amongst the decade of e-mails deliberately misinterpreting what they saw were completely despicable arseholes who should go down in history as the scientific morons that they have proven themselves to be.

      I’m sure you’ll agree…. Otherwise you’re just another one of them.

      • Macro 2.2.1

        And the weren’t really “whistleblowers” in the commonly accepted use of the term ie. working within the organisation and alerting others outside the organisation to a systematic or deliberate malpractice or ill-intent. The so-called breakers of the “climate e-mails were hackers from outside who STOLE. Nor was there any systematic malpractice or ill-intent discovered although the inquiry did find that in certain instances there were things that might have been better handled – not the earth shattering deliberate deception that the hackers and David want to claim.

        • insder 2.2.1.1

          the Wikileaks guy said on Radio NZ that it was someone with legitimate access to the material, not a hack. The impression was it was someone at the university handling the OIA, and was inspired by concern over failure to release the data.

    • singularian 2.3

      Well said David, and quite true.

      edit – my spam word – backs

    • Draco T Bastard 2.4

      Well, they could have been heroes if they’d actually leaked anything that showed duplicitous dealings which they didn’t. What they did do was release specific, purposefully misinterpreted and out of context lines to try and back the oil companies lies and misdirections. So, what they actually are are liars and scum.

      • singularian 2.4.1

        No they actually released the entire emails not lines, there was nothing purposefully misinterpreted because there was no interpretation at all by the person/s who released them. Most of the emails were the entire string of the conversation and if you look through the documents accompanying the emails you will see that the big bad oil companies were bankrolling the HC and the CRU.

        Have a look for yourself – emails

        I’m sure you can find a copy of the documents if you really try. When you do check out uea-tyndall-shell-memo-doc theres a couple more in there to, from BP and ESSO from memory.

        So who are the lairs again?

        • lprent 2.4.1.1

          Yes, but rather than releasing all of the e-mails, they just released the ones with particular people involved and about particular topics. In other words whoever released the emails was cherry picking.

          I strongly suspect that there was a reason for that omission, and that it wouldn’t have helped the leakers viewpoint.

          Subsequently most of the CCDs have then quoted passages from the e-mails, and done so usually completely out of context – which is quote apparent when you read the actual e-mail sequences (and have some idea of what they’re talking about).

          • singularian 2.4.1.1.1

            Funny then that UEA has made no attempt to release the rest of the emails to put them into context. I strongly suspect that is because there is no deeper story here, just arrogance, hubris and a total lack of ethics.

            The story to watch unfold in the next few months is GISS repeatedly saying ‘warmist year ever, warmist decade ever etc etc’. When you look at their data 95% of the increased warming is in the Arctic. When you look at the stations they are taking the data from there are only 24 covering the entire Arctic above 75 degrees north. 12 of the 24 are in Greenland. The most northerly is in Barrow, Alaska at approx 80 degrees north. From these they are extrapolating the entire Arctic circle as an area of extreme warming ie 5 degrees plus, which means, if true, the temp has dropped from an average of minus 20 to minus 15. Its like taking data from a Kermadec weather station and using it to give the temperature in Stewart Island. Doesn’t stack up.

            • lprent 2.4.1.1.1.1

              There is a wee thing called privacy laws. Of course this didn’t bother the thief.

              Of course climate changes will be most extreme in the near polar areas. What else did you expect? There are the same dearth of stations in Antarticia as well. If you look in the mid pacific you find the same limited numbers of stations. In fact you can find it thoughout the globe.

              It would be nice to have more – perhaps you should start advocating for more funding. But really your argument is somewhat pathetic

              • singularian

                But really your argument is somewhat pathetic

                Speaking of pathetic – privacy laws? – ha ha – weak, man.

                So you’re saying that all the emails that were released, that made a group of about 20 people look like unethical activist/scientists, producing suspect/bad work, knowing they were producing bad work and then actively conspiring to cover it up, and now those 20 odd people don’t want to release any emails that would show that they weren’t doing any of the above?

                Doesn’t quite seem right to me.

                There are many more stations that GISS don’t use. For oceans we have Argos with 8 years worth of data, and you’re right we do need more because we’re not getting the true picture with the ones currently being used, especially on land or over sea ice. Extrapolating from 80 degrees north to come up with temps up to the pole is wrong in every way, better to leave it blank and say ‘we haven’t worked out how to measure temp up there yet’.

                In other words the data isn’t reliable and comprehensive enough to come to any firm conclusions which is what most of us CCDs’ have been saying all along.

                • lprent

                  The problem that the CCDs have is that the basic science of how you get physical climate change from increased greenhouse gases is straight forward. The observations show that it is happening. The only surprising thing is how slowly it is happening – and that is because of the degree of buffering going on in the biosphere and oceans.

                  Of course since 1979 there is an overall observation from various earth watching satellites using a number of methods to estimate temperatures at various levels in the air column that cover the bulk of territory. Initially they were pretty bad, but have been getting a lot better over time. The ground stations are there primarily to validate and calibrate the satellite data – in particular the many other factors that distort their readings. For instance simple variation in the orbital positions, water vapor, etc etc.

                  That means that there need to be sufficient stations at ground or sealevel to do that calibration. There probably are. But I’d like to see more, if only because the ground stations themselves have vagaries due to geographical position from height above sealevel to wind factors.

                  But basically your position is bollocks because there is enough information on a global scale to show the regional changes. It broadly fits with the expected changes in the climate of more energy being in the system. There is a lot of work to do to get accurate forecasting models simply because there is so much buffering in the water, biological systems, and heat transfer systems going on. Of course buffering isn’t permanent. Eventually that CO2 and heat will get released back into the system and each increment getting buffered is likely to diminish to some degree the ability to have further buffering.

                  IMHO – you just prefer not to look at it in case it disturbs you. A common problem amongst CCDs. That is why you always micro-pick on observational techniques because you’re just too cowardly or self-interested to look at the overall picture. CCDs seem to be gutless wonders generally.

  3. toad 3

    Well said, Lynn. It’s not often you use such strong language, but in this case, totally appropriate.

    But I think that in the case of the “Climategate” emails, the leaker was most likely in league with at least some of the despicable arseholes from the start. The whole intent of the leak (theft, actually, if a server was hacked, as I understand it was) was to provide a huge quantity of information from which fellow travelers could cherry-pick and misinterpret selective items, while drowning those attempting to refute the malicious claims of impropriety under the sheer volume of the information disclosed.

    • Ari 3.1

      Hacking a server is not theft. Theft involves physical property loss.

      • Armchair Critic 3.1.1

        Hacking can be theft. Property is not just physical objects.

      • felix 3.1.2

        What if someone hacks a server and copies your credit card number and bank account details?

    • really 3.2

      Toad, you sycophant, that was the most obvious brown nosing I’ve witnessed for quite some time. You’ll do well in a govt. department young man.

      Lets assume CRU was generally right about climate change, the fact remains CRU got busted playing silly buggers.

  4. Great post, I am sure Erin Leigh would agree.

    • IrishBill 4.1

      You’re an idiot.’

      • Bob Stanforth 4.1.1

        Im sure she would agree IrishBill – isnt this post about protecting whistleblowers of all political (or apolitical) leaning if what they do is expose behaviour that is either illegal or outside of agreed convention? You cant pick and chose your moral stance just because someone votes differently.

        Or can you, and thereby effectively call into question all the things you hold morally to be true?

  5. Quoth the Raven 5

    I linked to a good piece earlier in the week about Obama’s refusal to prosecute anyone for the crimes of the Bush adminstration whilst he is increasingly going after whistleblowers with a vengeance:

    All of that would be bad enough if his generous immunity were being applied across the board. But it isn’t. Numerous incidents now demonstrate that as high-level Bush lawbreakers are vested with presidential immunity, low-level whistle blowers who exposed serious wrongdoing and allowed citizens some minimal glimpse into what our government does are being persecuted by the Obama administration with a vengeance. Yesterday it was revealed by Wired that the Army intelligence officer analyst who reportedly leaked the Apache helicopter attack video to Wikileaks — and thus enabled Americans to see what we are really doing in Iraq and other countries which we occupy and attack — has been arrested (Wikileaks denies the part of that report claiming that the whistle blower also leaked to it “hundreds of thousands of classified State Department records’). This latest episode led Der Spiegel today to decry Obama’s “war on whistle blowers’ as more severe than the one waged by the Bush administration (English translation here).

  6. Bill 6

    “To my mind the crucial distinctions are (1) whether information being released relates to an individual (probably wrong) or to an organisation like a company or the state (probably right), and (2) the level of genuine public interest in socially significant issues.”

    Or more simply ( if tortuously put)……Whistle-blowing is when light is shed on acts proposed or unfolding, that are perpetrated by agencies occupying a position or vantage of power; that seek security in a culture of unaccountability and whose actions would have effects reaching beyond the principle actors.

  7. freedom 7

    As the mainstream media has joined the hunt for Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks
    i thought i would post this little ‘govt. how-to’ for those that missed it back in March.

    Click to access us-intel-wikileaks.pdf

  8. vto 8

    This post does highlight a very real risk and threat to anyone who goes against large organisations or even large people! It is an inescapeable reality.

    For our own part, an entirely legitimate way of ‘attacking’ the pro-irrigation lobby in Canterbury has been partly begun. However it stalls at each very minor step because if successful we would be some of the most hated people in Canterbury (well, by the farmers and the likes of David Carter and his ilk anyway). And that is a very big call – to do that with one’s life. And often not just your own life but those of your family etc too, caught up in the tailwind.

    Yea, so big ups to those heroes who stand up to the Goliaths. It aint for all of us….

  9. Gazza 9

    Whistle-Blowers Have their place in some circumstance but we have to careful of the Forth Estate (Media), as any information will be adjusted to suit their spin on things.
    Most so called civilised country’s have a hierarchy Starting from the top.
    The Forth Estate (Media)
    Government
    Local Bodies
    Blue collar Idiots
    Then the ordinary people who only have the whistle_blowers to try and keep things in perspective.

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