Shooting the messenger

When it comes to punishing those who reveal state secrets, democratic governments are stretching the definition of 'national security' to mean whatever they want it to mean, reports BELINDA CRANSTON.

What is the ultimate price a whistle-blower might pay for publicly disclosing a government's secrets?

The contentious issue, rekindled by recent disclosures by US Army soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and former CIA employee Edward Snowden, has seen whistle-blowers abducted, arrested, interrogated, placed in solitary confinement, charged with treason and jailed for their actions.

These punishments have all been in the name of 'national security'.

But too often, what the term actually means is itself a state secret.In leaking thousands of classified documents to journalists, former systems administrator Snowden has been the subject of numerous death threats, and is avoiding criminal charges by seeking asylum in Russia.

He has been labelled a 'traitor' by many of the US's allies, accused by his own government of helping terrorists and blacklisted by other Western democracies like Germany.

Responses by democratic states to the unauthorised public disclosure of national security information have been both swift and brutal, says Professor Peter Grabosky, from the Regulatory Institutions Network in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

As part of a larger project examining transparency, Grabosky has examined five historical examples in the democracies of France, Britain, Switzerland, Israel and the US, weighing up whether disclosures in each country really did threaten national security.

"While hardly anyone would suggest that national security should be managed in an environment of complete transparency, there are many who suggest that citizens of a democracy are entitled to know about acts of questionable propriety that have been committed by their government on their behalf," Grabosky says.

After divulging his knowledge of Israeli nuclear activities to a British newspaper in the 1980s, Mordechai Vanunu was hunted down by Israeli intelligence agents.