Free Speech Debate

Thirteen languages. Ten principles. One conversation.

Log in | Register | Mailing list

1We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.»
2We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.»
3We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.»
4We speak openly and with civility about all kinds of human difference.»
5We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.»
6We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.»
7We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.»
8We are all entitled to a private life but should accept such scrutiny as is in the public interest.»
9We should be able to counter slurs on our reputations without stifling legitimate debate.»
10We must be free to challenge all limits to freedom of expression and information justified on such grounds as national security, public order, morality and the protection of intellectual property.»

What’s missing?

Is there a vital area we have not addressed? A principle 11? An illuminating case study? Read other people's suggestions and add your own here. Or start the debate in your own language.

Home | Team blog | Nothing to hide

Nothing to hide

Four former intelligence professionals, including winners of the Sam Adams Awards for Integrity in Intelligence, reveal their views on whistle-blowing and the legitimate secrecy in democratic societies. By Judith Bruhn and Josh Black.

Photos of Snowden, a contractor at the NSA, and U.S. President Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong in this illustration photo
Snowden, who leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance programs, dropped out of sight in Hong Kong on Monday 10 June 2013 ahead of a likely push by the U.S. government to have him sent back to the United States to face charges. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

Technological advances have led to new kinds of data allowing often more invasive insights into our lives and work, and becoming susceptible to leaks. Greater quantities of data are being held in fewer locations, In early June 2013 Edward Snowden leaked information regarding the scale of surveillance conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA), including data apparently obtained directly from internet giants like Google, Facebook and Apple and telephone networks like Verizon.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I have done nothing wrong”, Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA, said. We spoke to several former intelligence professionals and whistle-blowers, exploring some of the reasons for and against whistle-blowing.

In what circumstances is it right to reveal secret information?

Unlike the United Kingdom, America has no Official Secrets Act.  Instead, most serving officers are required to take an oath to the Constitution, giving the potential whistle-blower a greater role in interpreting whether a leak is justified.

Thomas Drake went so far as to call whistle-blowers the ‘canary in the constitutional coal mine,’ although Thomas Fingar was at pains to emphasise the fact that officials are obliged to report waste, incompetence and abuse and that all branches of government have procedures for raising other kinds of concerns.

What secrets are worth keeping?

Secrecy laws should never serve to suppress evidence of political or military failures. During the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers exposed for the first time mistakes made by the federal government. Until revealed by Daniel Ellsberg, congressmen were often unable to access the information, hindering their ability to make policy judgements.  As Thomas Drake reminded us, quoting Benjamin Franklin, “those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

There are, however, instances when it is justified to keep a secret. Protecting the sources of intelligence and operational secrets – including some nuclear and military capabilities and procedures – are important to keep. The website Wikileaks was criticised for revealing information that endangered the sources of American intelligence and opposition movements as it refused to censor documents before they were put online.

Can speech be a crime?

Todd Pierce discusses the ‘crime’ of speech under the law of war. In an on-going case, the journalist Christopher Hedges is alleging that section 1021 of the National Defence Authorization Act grants the Obama administration powers that could be used to arrest critics of the government or journalists who interview terrorists on the grounds that they may be providing ‘material support’ to terrorists. Drawing the line between aiding terrorists and merely representing their views can be a difficult one, but the government has responsibilities to preserve a free press.

With this in mind, we asked whether the media is effectively informing public debate.

The media has a great responsibility to provide balanced information to enable citizens to make decisions. Thomas Fingar, who in a previous capacity was responsible for intelligence dealing with potential pandemics and forced migrations, warned that the government’s interest in disseminating information as broadly as possible was not always compatible with the media’s interest in selling newspapers. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan Major Pierce contended that embedding journalists with troops had occasionally prevented the media from exercising independent judgement. Ray McGovern highlighted the role of independent media in providing information otherwise not reported. Online activists increasingly take up the mantle of journalism, including investigative journalism outfits, bloggers, and of course, Wikileaks.

Senior government and military officials are officially banned from accessing Wikileaks. Major Pierce pointed to reports that information contained in Wikileaks could prove his clients innocent, yet not only is he banned from viewing the site but Wikileaks is inadmissible as evidence in military trials. Concerns were expressed that Julian Assange had created a risk of chaos by naming countries that the US considered vulnerable to socio-economic or geographic shifts, thereby denying US policy makers the time needed for contingency planning.

Julian Assange gave a brief speech at the 2013 Sam Adams Award Ceremony, defending his views on intelligence and whistle-blowing:



Thomas Fingar, winner of the 2013 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, was hailed for his leadership of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research and co-authored the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.  

Thomas Drake, the 2011 winner of the award, blew the whistle on the US government’s Trailblazer programme, arguing that its wastefulness and invasions of privacy obligated him to exercise his constitutional rights.  

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, has been an outspoken defender of whistle-blowers and alternative media sources.  

Todd E. Pierce, a US Military Defence Counsel, is regularly called upon to represent those accused of aiding and abetting terrorists.

12 June 2013

A version of this piece was re-published on Global Voices Advocacy.

Print Save
Published on: June 12, 2013 | 2 Comments

Comments (2)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Alexander Ye says:

    I think how to evaluate this matter need consider the concrete circumstance, public interests, privacy and the profits of the nation are all included.

    If we assume the public interests are more important than the nation, we will stand in the side of Locke, that means that we admire the society is built before the political structure.

    So, we should think about this affair deeply. Is Snowden commit a huge error or just do the right thing to inform the society of the facts which they should have known?

    • Judith Bruhn says:

      Hi Alexander

      I absolutely agree with you. This is not a simple topic that needs to be thought through carefully. I personally believe that Snowden did the only right thing – not from a law point of view, because according to US law NSA did nothing illegal, and he did in passing on the information. But on an ethical and social level – I do not want to live in a world in which my personal data, conversations etc can be recorded and used by the government without serious suspicion of me being involved in illegal activities.

      When the information is out there, who can guarantee that it will not be abused?

      If I have to sacrifice national security for this, I am happy to do so. What are your thoughts on this?

Leave a comment in any language

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.