In order for a representative democracy to properly function, a simple pre-condition must be met: citizens must be allowed to see how elected officials, entrusted to govern according to our nation’s laws and ideals, are actually governing.

If elected officials abuse their powers in secret, concealing illegal actions or the violation of citizens’ rights – representative democracy breaks down.

It’s that simple.

This is why the First Amendment and press freedoms are essential to a functioning democracy, and why it is considered in the United States, in its ideal form, as the ‘Fourth Estate.’ The right to report upon those things politicians wish to hide has always been a constitutionally-sanctioned check against government abuse.

Put another way: the press has always been a constitutionally-sanctioned whistle-blowing institution.

Which is why our government’s current war against whistle-blowers is nothing short of a war against representative democracy itself – a fact that makes what has happened to Bradley Manning, and what is happening to Edward Snowden – larger than any ‘national security’ or ‘Fourth Amendment’ argument we could possibly have.

In The New York Times this morning, Ben Wizner of the ACLU explains that the Obama administration did not have to put Manning on trial. After all, the American soldier had offered guilty pleas that would have put him behind bars for decades for leaking U.S. war crimes and illegal actions – abuses Manning felt needed to be in the public domain for Americans to properly evaluate the ‘War on Terror.’

However, as Wizner writes, the U.S. government insisted on a trial, hoping to charge Manning with ‘aiding the enemy’ – hoping to cast, just as it has done in its persecution of the NYT’s James Risen, whistle-blowing to the press as worse than espionage.

The government’s reasoning, as Wizner writes:

… couldn’t be clearer or more dangerous: it’s preferable for the American people to remain in the dark if that’s what’s necessary to keep the enemy in the dark. But sometimes information that might be useful to an enemy – such as evidence that the United States tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere – is also indispensable to the public to ensure democratic accountability and adherence to our nation’s ideals.

Equating whistle-blowers with traitors is not only crude, but also fundamentally antidemocratic. And until our laws fairly distinguish between leaks in the public interest and treason against the nation, we shouldn’t be surprised when our whistle-blowers seek asylum elsewhere.

The adversarial approach the United States has taken to whistle-blowers is an extension of the adversarial approach it has taken to press freedoms themselves, both of which are extensions of First and Fourth Amendments setbacks which are weakening our democracy.

We’ve seen it in the military-style crackdown on protesting. We’ve seen it in the Obama administration’s prosecuting of more whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. And now, we see it in FBI and NSA surveillance of journalists’ private phone and email records – abuses that accompany the government’s violation of millions of Americans’ privacy rights.

As we learn more each day about the secret scope of NSA surveillance, the public – and Congress – are growing more indignant.

Calls for accountability are growing.

As they should, for this is how democracy functions. This is how democracy is supposed to function. And such calls for accountability would not be happening had Snowden not stepped forward and released into the public domain information that is wholly in the public interest.

To do so, Snowden had to flee this country, for he knew he would be treated, in our current environment, as an ‘enemy of the state.’

This ‘enemy’ status is due to the government’s war against whistle-blowing, which itself is a war against the democracy we all hold so dear.

Follow David Harris-Gershon on Twitter @David_EHG


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