An evening with whistleblowers at the Oxford Union

In our quest to explore transparency initiatives across Europe, whistleblowers – who expose wrongdoings within an organisation in the hope of stopping it – are an important focus for us. Such individuals are increasingly recognised as hugely important in preventing and detecting corruption and other malpractices. It is well-known that the founding of WikiLeaks by Julian Assange in 2006 was a major breakthrough for whistleblowers and the public alike: for the first time, an online platform promised greater protection for sources by allowing whistleblowers to leak secret information, classified reports and malpractices across the world.

Such reporting, however, comes at a high price, as whistleblowers often take great personal risks to inform the public. Though WikiLeaks introduced an innovative electronic dropbox, which provides a largely secure channel for sources to anonymously upload classified reports, the consequences for whistleblowers like Bradley Manning prominently highlight its limitations.

Hence we wondered: what happens to whistleblowers after they’ve blown the whistle?

Last week we were very lucky to get the chance to hear the stories of some of these whistleblowers at the Sam Awards Ceremony at the Oxford Union. The event brought together several distinguished whistleblowers, many of whom have risked their careers and personal safety to alert the public of malpractice in government institutions. The ceremony was organised by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII), a movement of former CIA associates thats gets together each year to confer an award to a member of the intelligence profession or whistleblower who ‘exemplifies the courage, persistence and devotion to truth – no matter the consequences.’ Several prominent individuals were invited to speak at this year’s event, including the 2010 recipient of the Sam Adams Award Julius Assange, who joined us via videolink from the Ecuadorian Embassy. For more background on the award, click here.

The oxford unionThe event was held in the Debating Chamber of the Union.

Arriving at the Oxford Union, I was slightly overwhelmed by the sight: around fifty angry students were blocking the entrance to the gate. Protesting against the Union’s invitation to Assange, their poster-boards called for “Integrity, Justice & Truth” and to “Stop Rape Culture.” During my forty-five minute wait in the queue, the other guests and I had no choice but to listen to their continuous chants: “Oxford Union, shame on you, now you’re a rape apologist too!”

Once inside the Union, the actual event began. The main purpose was to present Professor Thomas Fingar with the Sam Adams Award, which takes the form of a wooden candlestick. As former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), Prof. Fingar had overseen the 2007 landmark NIC Estimate on Iran in which all sixteen US intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon work in 2004. Though several high-level political figures had been pressing for an attack on Iran, Prof. Fingar ensured that the intelligence agencies remained objective and neutral, hence helping prevent the Bush/Cheney administration from going to war in 2008. The recipient of this year’s award was therefore not a whistleblower in the usual sense, but rather a strong individual displaying ‘integrity and professionalism’ by not allowing political influence to infiltrate his organisation.

A very impressive list of speeches followed, held by both former Sam Adams awardees and other whistleblowers. There was Coleen Rowley, who had retired from the FBI after twenty-four years, having exposed the mishandling of information relating to 9/11. Then there was Annie Machon, a former officer at the UK Security Service M15, who was forced to go into hiding in Europe for several years in the late 1990s after blowing the whistle on criminal activities in M15. She gave a very inspirational speech about what it was like to blow the whistle and run, as well as the abuses that still exist in the intelligence services today. Another vocal and eloquent speaker was Ann Wright, one of the only three US State Department officials to resign over the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In another very passionate speech, she emphasized the importance of not accepting so-called truths at face value and called on citizens to ‘do their bit’ to hold their own leaders and organisations to account. Other equally impressive speakers and guests included Katharine GunThomas DrakeRay McGovernBrady Kiesling, David McMichael, Elizabeth Murray and Todd Pierce.

Julian Assange was then introduced by his friend Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and human rights campaigner. Speaking from the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange congratulated Prof. Fingar on his work and then continued on to describe WikiLeaks as “the most important mechanism for expressing the truth since the printing press.” He also strongly criticised the planned Hollywood film about WikiLeaks (entitled “The Fifth Estate”), describing the film as a ‘massive propaganda attack’ that ‘fann[ed] the flames of war’ against Iran by suggesting the country was working on an atomic weapon. Click here to read about Assange’s view of the film.

Julian Assange speaking via videolink at the Oxford Union.

What was perhaps a shame was that the Q&A session was largely directed at Assange and his own future at the Ecuadorian Embassy – rather than the larger subject of whistleblowing and transparency. This was despite the fact that the Union had emphasized that Assange’s presence was not to ‘overshadow the ceremony or the award itself’, as the real focus was on ‘exposing institutional corruption and expousing freedom of speech’.

Hence the majority of questions circled around Assange’s personal life: why did he refuse to face charges of sexual assault in Sweden? What did he have to say to the anti-Assange protests outside the Union? How much longer was he planning to stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy? Assange in turn persistently avoided answering questions about his own legal situation, referring the students to freeasssange.org.

One good question was posed towards the end of the event, which was directed at all invited whistleblowers. It related to the question of transparency and how much of it we need, and how much we want. Craig Murray had said that WikiLeaks was absolutely necessary because governments cannot be trusted. And there seems no doubt that initiatives forcing greater transparency are good for our society. But where do we draw the line? Is it really the case that ‘the more open information, the better?’ Though this subject has been much debated with respect to WikiLeaks, we hope to look at this question from more angles – not just from the perspective of whistleblowers, but also with respect to its impact on political processes and society. More on that in a later blog…

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