Imagine what we would know and what we would not know without whistle blowers and journalists who have spread knowledge of actions by those within the federal government who wanted to keep secret improper and illegal things they were doing.
Ben Wizner suggested doing that Monday during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Eckstein Hall. His partial list of things that might not have come to light included CIA secret prisons around the world, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and the abuse of prisoners by American military personnel in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
And then there’s Edward Snowden, the National Security Administration contractor who released a large volume of records about secret surveillance of huge numbers of people, both in the United States and around the world. Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, is one of the main attorneys on Snowden’s defense team. Snowden has been living in asylum in Russia.
Ideally, federal agencies and congressional oversight committees would act in the public interest in letting Americans know about matters such as the ones Wizner cited. But, he said, they generally don’t, choosing to protect themselves and such secrets. What’s the alternative? “Enterprising journalists and brave whistle blowers” who create channels to make such secrets public and act as “a safety valve” against government excess, Wizner said.
Wizner said, “It should not be criminal for someone in government to reveal conduct that’s illegal, and I can say that categorically.” The federal law being used against whistle blowers dates from the World War I era and should not be used against people who give information to journalists in the public interest, he said.
As for Snowden, his famous client, Wizner said, “Sometimes it takes a dramatic act like this, of going outside the law, in order to re-invigorate the public debate and, actually, ironically to reinvigorate the traditional public oversight mechanisms.” He said he did not feel the secrets Snowden passed on to journalists had hurt national security and, on some fronts, had led to improvements in security and in the law and oversight related to government surveillance.
Wizner was joined for the discussion before a capacity audience in the Appellate Courtroom by Christa Westerberg, a Madison attorney who is vice-president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, and Dan Bice, a widely-read columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who specializes in uncovering questionable or improper things done by public officials.
Westerberg said Wisconsin’s laws on open records and open meetings emphasize the importance of the public’s right to information about government actions. The public should have “the greatest access to information possible,” she said. Wisconsin’s law is “very expansive” compared to many other places, but officials at local and state levels are still prone to try to keep some things out of view. Determination is needed to protect access to information.
Bice said he gets more tips about secrets involving public officials than he can handle. Many of the dilemmas and difficult issues that attach to reporting of major national security issues occur often in smaller ways in his work, including deciding what to report and how to handle the identification of sources of information. “These Edward Snowden moments don’t just happen on a big scale every 10 years. They happen for me every day,” Bice said.
The session as co-sponsored by Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Film Festival in conjunction with the showing of the movie “1971” at the film festival. The movie focuses on a break-in and theft of records in (you guessed it) 1971 at an FBI office in Pennsylvania by activists who then provided information anonymously to journalists about FBI activities, including surveillance of citizens.Video of the hour-long discussion may be viewed by clicking here.