Newcastle University played host to four experts on whistleblowing for a talk on how it intersects with the media and human rights. Since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on global surveillance in 2013, it’s a highly contentious issue.
First to speak on Wednesday 15 May was John Kiriakou, who spent 15 years in the CIA before becoming a whistleblower over their use of torture. He first heard the term ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in May 2002, and later, as executive assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA, found that the rules around the techniques were being broken. To shove someone up against a wall, for example, a rolled up towel needs to be around the subject’s neck and the wall needs to be made of plywood. From classified documents, however, Kiriakou learnt that someone who he had helped capture in a raid against Al Qaeda was being thrown against a concrete wall with no towel. The same technique was applied to someone else enough times that they received brain damage.
The person Kiriakou had helped capture was used as “a guinea pig by the CIA”: besides being thrown against a wall, he was also locked in a coffin full of cockroaches for two weeks, and in a separate incident was put in a ‘cold cell’. The cell was below freezing, and he was placed naked in chains attached to the ceiling, preventing him from sitting or lying down, while being kept company by a CIA officer who would enter the cell to throw a bucket of ice water over him. It’s a technique that “murdered two people”, Kiriakou claims, and wasn’t approved by the US Department of Justice. In 2004, he resigned from the CIA, and in 2007 went on national television to say the CIA was torturing prisoners as part of official US policy – not the schemes of some rogue officer, as then-President Bush had claimed – and that this had been personally approved by Bush. What followed was an FBI investigation and an arrest in 2012, which in turn resulted in a thirty month jail spell. He is unflinching in his description of the impact the ordeal had on him: “I lost my job, I lost my security clearance, I lost my pension: I had $770 000 saved in my pension, twenty years of proud service, they just took it. I lost my house, I lost my wife, literally everything”.
The next speaker was Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan turned whistleblower, like Kiriakou over the use of torture. Murray explains that, amongst the people he knew from two decades at the Foreign Office, most were involved in torture, didn’t like it but weren’t “prepared to lose their career over it”, creating a distinct silence on the issue. As ambassador to Uzbekistan, he was told to “support the regime, and to support the Americans”. The ‘dictatorship’, to use his word, “used the very worst kind of torture”, including genital mutilation and rape.
In one case, the British embassy received a photo of a corpse which Murray “had never seen anything like”; analysis later revealed the body had been boiled to death, by immersion in as opposed to being splashed with water, as shown by the ‘tideline’ around the body’s upper limbs and torso. Murray subsequently began collecting evidence on torture in the region, and sent a ‘formal diplomatic communication’ back to London arguing that what they were doing in receiving intelligence acquired through torture was illegal. The next year, he was encouraged to leave Uzbekistan and take more money working in Denmark. When he proved reluctant, he was told that eighteen allegations had emerged against him from his time in Uzbekistan, such as alcoholism and issuing Visas for sex. “Every single one of them was untrue”, he explains: he was also accused of driving an office vehicle down a flight of stairs, despite being unable to drive. This was all before he had even turned to whistleblowing: all his communications about torture were classified top secret, and none had been leaked.
When he finally did go public, he explains he could find no work in or outside of the foreign office, despite a long, successful career in diplomacy and international development, perhaps due to the fact that the 3rd sector charities where he was now seeking employment are largely state funded, which Murray suggests gave the government a voice in whether he’d be hired or not. He described being discredited by senior media figures, and how his marriage collapsed. Whistleblowing, he explains, is a “martyr’s crown”.
Third to speak was Robert Tibbo, lawyer to Edward Snowden. After whistleblowing, Snowden moved to Hong Kong, where he was classified as a refugee and put “in plain sight”: he lived in old buildings – which have a helpful lack of CCTV cameras – taken in by three refugee families as “the entire world” began their search for him. Tibbo relates what he sees as an erosion in investigative journalism as advertisers flock to Facebook and Youtube, away from traditional newspapers, making accountability harder to conduct. It’s not surprising, then, that the young people Tibbo’s spoken to feel hopeless, and that they can’t do anything to stop abuses of state and corporate power. Tibbo notices the low attendance of the event (below a hundred) and explains it’s a “betrayal to society” to not take an interest in or take a stand against illegality across the world. He points to torture sites in Thailand, the American practice of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents who illegally cross the US-Mexico border and the extrajudicial killings of Filipinos “under the guise of a drug war”. He’s clearly a man of conscience, and spent his time calmly recalling the multitude of reasons one has to act on that conscience, now more than ever.
Finally, there was Andrew Fowler, a journalist who used to work as chief of staff at a prominent Australian publication “before I ran screaming from the building”. His main area of the concern is “criminalising journalism”, which he argues has been an aim of government since 9/11. He points to the Vault 7 documents, which WikiLeaks started publishing in 2017 and detailed how the CIA could turn a mobile phone into a transmitter and a TV into a listening device. Some documents hinted at the possibility of interfering with a car’s electrics and allowing it to crash: “the perfect near-untraceable assassination weapon”, Fowler argues. A more intrusive state must be held to a greater level of account, he goes on to explain, yet a state with both power and secrets has both ability and incentive to make this harder.
Indeed, the mainstream media have proven less willing to aid whistleblowers now than in the past. Where the New York Times once published the Pentagon Papers – instrumental in exposing government lies about the Vietnam War – its reputation amongst whistleblowers is now such that Snowden didn’t trust them with the intelligence he planned to leak. Chelsea Manning – a US military whistleblower – was rebuffed by the New York Times and Washington Post, another respected US newspaper. Fowler claims that, not only does the expansion of state power in the name of national security endanger independent journalism, it is also extremely ineffective. In 29 of 37 cases of post-9/11 terrorist attacks, Fowler discovered that security services knew of at least some of the terrorists involved, but refused to act. Similar studies have found that, in the past, just 1.2% of the leads acquired by the NSA made significant contributions, and that they made a minimal contribution to the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts.
Between them, the four speakers made a bleak but formidable argument for whistleblowing, and where it should stand in relation to both the media and public accountability.