Whistling in the Dark

Whistle-blowers can be so annoying. They have an aggravating tendency to rat out companies and government agencies engaged in waste, corruption or plain, old-fashioned stupidity.

Whistle-blowers often put their careers at great risk when their conscience gets the better of them and the need to spill their guts overpowers their survival instincts. That’s why there are laws on the books to protect them. Whistle-blowers are good. If it weren’t for whistle-blowers, the American people never would have known about the lies they were told about the Vietnam War (remember the Pentagon Papers?).

Recall the stories a few years back about how the government used unsuspecting citizens in ghastly experiments involving biological warfare agents and radiation? Iran-contra? Safety violations at nuclear power plants? Or those $500 hammers and $10,000 toilet seats?

All these came to light because of whistle-blowers. So if you are a high-level government bureaucrat with a lot to lose if an unsuspecting public ever found out how wasteful or corrupt or just plain stupid you are, you would be tempted to find some way to stop the leaks.

You might, for instance, be tempted to look at how other countries – places lacking America’s vigorous guarantees of free speech and a free press – manage to hide all their dirty laundry.

Quickly, you would discover how some nations have adopted what have become known, formally or informally, as Official Secrets Acts. These laws make it a crime – often with severe penalties – to leak information to the public or press that has been designated as “classified.”

Then, to cover your derriere, you would set about to make “classified” anything that might prove embarrassing and, thus, intimidate the whistle-blowers into silence.

Throughout all of our history, during hot wars and the Cold War, America never has resorted to this sort of contravention of the First Amendment. We haven’t had to. There are already laws on the books that make it a crime to disclose sensitive information that would endanger national security.

But that’s not enough for some people. A piece of legislation making its way through Congress would create an American version of the Official Secrets Act. It is an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will have this amendment before it as early as this week.

Ironically (or befitting the nature of all this, depending upon your point of view), the hearing will be held in secret, behind closed doors.

Some points the senators may wish to consider: America has never had an Official Secrets Act. We’ve survived as a nation for more than two centuries without one.

There is no compelling national-security justification for such a draconian change in course. Our nation was founded on the idea that freedom requires checks and balances of power. Power corrupts, and all that. That’s why we have offsetting branches of government. And that’s why we have the First Amendment: to ensure that when all else fails, the people, themselves, have recourse against abuses of power.

Laws designed to silence those who would blow the whistle on corruption run contrary to the interest of a free society.

This law isn’t just unnecessary, it is downright un-American.