Kafka Down Under: the Threat to Whistleblowers and Press Freedom in Australia

It was the head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre who finally admitted before an Australian Parliament committee that she had unilaterally directed and pressured CyberCon to drop myself and an academic research professor (an Australian citizen) from the University of Melbourne as speakers.

I viewed the extraordinary pressure exerted by the Australian Cyber Security Centre to block me as an already-accepted speaker — a week before the start of a high visibility public interest conference on cybersecurity — as a most alarming and Orwellian development and a distinct form of brazen censorship for the express purpose of outright silencing me.

The head of the ACSC misled the committee when she said the reason she wanted my talk canned was because of a proposal for me to participate on a panel with Edward Snowden that never went forward.

It appears she dissembled and used the apparent floating of the idea of a proposed Edward Snowden panel (for which I had NO prior knowledge whatsoever) as a convenient foil and cover to justify and excuse the barring of me as a speaker from CyberCon with the very heavy hand of her “higher authority” as the head of the ACSC over the conference organizers (Australian Information Security Association).

In addition, the reason she gave before the committee is not the reason given to me when I formally followed up with the AISA organizers.

On 29 September (4 days before I departed the United States), I received an e-mail message to contact the Board Director for AISA “as a matter of urgency.”

In a subsequent phone call from the same AISA Board Director, I was told that I was no longer a speaker on the conference agenda, but I could still attend the conference as a delegate and that they (AISA) would honor the flight and accommodations arranged for me many months early.

I followed up formally and asked for the specific reason I was dropped as a speaker from CyberCon. I was informed on 7 October, in an e-mail from the Board Director of AISA, that “AISA works with a conference partner in respect of CyberCon. Our conference partner has determined your presentation is incongruent with the conference.”

Furthermore, this egregious canning of me as a speaker fed right into the current debate in Australia about press freedom and whistleblowing laws because their public interest disclosure process (their legal way for public servants to blow the whistle) has been described as “impenetrable” by their Federal Court.

The current debate in Australia regarding press freedom and whistleblowing laws strikes at the heart of any country claiming it is a democracy.

The recent raids by the Australian government against major media outlets and whistleblowers have broken open the tension — between openness and transparency versus secrecy and closed-door government too often hiding itself (and its actions) away from accountability and the public interest.

Something has to give. The debate centers on the public interest knowing what the government is doing behind closed doors and often in secret in the name of — and under the veil and banner of — national security.

The dramatic 21 October Right to Know campaign — with the redacted front pages on all major newspapers in Australia as I woke up in Melbourne before returning to the United States that very day — demonstrates beyond the shadows of secrecy, censorship and press suppression that sunshine is the best antidote for a healthy and robust democracy increasingly held hostage by the national security state.

Efforts from on high seek to justify the actions of that national security state under the color of public safety for more and more autocratic powers — while stoking fear and hyping the danger to society — yet going after whistleblowers who disclose actions that clearly rise to the level of wrongdoing, violations of law, coverup and endangering public safety, health and the general welfare.

What is happening in Australia is most concerning to me as fundamental democratic values and principles are increasingly under direct attack around the world from the rise of increasing autocratic tendencies and raw executive authorities bypassing, ignoring and even undermining the rule of law under the exception of national security and government fiat.

Australian public interest disclosure laws are also a mixed bag — a conflicted patchwork with huge carve-outs for national security and immigration. Nor do they adequately protect a whistleblower from reprisal, retaliation or retribution.

It is quite clear that not all disclosures (even when done in the public interest) are protected by law in Australia, and the whistleblower is in danger of exposure as a result.

At the federal level, whistleblowers face career suicide for public interest disclosures. And if deemed by the government to be unauthorized disclosures, those disclosures are even considered criminal.

As it happened, my removal as a speaker from CyberCon is the first time I was ever censored anywhere.

The trend lines of increased secrecy around the world by governments does not bode well for societies at large. History is not kind.

What I do see improving is public-interest concern regarding just how far government can or should go. People are discussing what society sacrifices in the name of secrecy and national security when too often the mantra is the ends justifies the means — and government says to just trust us, while secret power is too often unaccountable, even to itself.

The price I paid as a whistleblower was very high. I just about lost it all and came close to losing my liberty and freedom. I was declared indigent by the court, am still in severe debt, have no pension as my career and personal life were turned inside-out and upside-down because the government treated me as a traitor for my whistleblowing on the mass domestic surveillance program that violated the U.S. Constitution. I also exposed 9/11 intelligence failures and subsequent coverup plus massive multibillion-dollar fraud, waste and abuse. The government then turned me into an insider threat and Enemy of the State and prosecuted me as a criminal for allegedly violating the U.S. Espionage Act.

If it is left up to the government to determine what are state secrets, then the government is perversely incentivized to declare as state secrets any disclosures made in the press it does not like. This thinking can only lead to more prosecutions of publishers to protect the State. In the absence of meaningful oversight of the secret side of government, how does the public trust its own government to operate and function in the public interest and not for special or private interests?

But then again, if the press is not doing its job holding government and the public sector to account, why should they be surprised when the public holds even the media in lower regard?

Government should earn the public’s trust and not take it for granted or abuse that trust. The heart of democracy rests on a civil society that it is not undermined by the very government that represents it.

Once the pillars of democracy are eroded away, it is quite difficult to restore them. The misuse of the concept of national security — as the primary grounds to suppress democracy, the press and the voices of whistleblowers speaking truth to and about power — increases authoritarian tendencies in even democratic governments.

The real danger to civil society in Australia is that these same tendencies give rise to extralegal autocratic behavior and state control over the institutions of democratic governance under the blanket of national security with the excuse of protecting the state.

As I continue with this work as chair of the Whistleblowers Public Education Campaign, I’m mindful that my efforts are only possible because of support from so many concerned people.

Thomas Drake is an NSA whistleblower who chairs the Whistleblowers Public Education Campaign.


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