Alex Biles: Thank you, whistle-blowers

BY ALEX BILES

Published November 29, 2010

So much for avoiding the use of Thanksgiving clichés in my column. As I write this, the world is buzzing after more than 250,000 United States government diplomatic cables were leaked to select news organizations that subsequently published the documents on the Internet. And though some have scrutinized this act of whistle blowing, I truly couldn’t be more thankful.

In a world of ever-increasing government secrecy and control, a growing market for transparency and accountability has emerged. Nowhere is this more visible than the release of classified information by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks. Since the beginning of the year, the group has been releasing critical information hidden from the American public. These documents contain information ranging from cover-ups of friendly fire casualties in Afghanistan to the U.S. government’s failure to investigate hundreds of reports of torture and rape by Iraqi police and soldiers.

The most recent disclosure by WikiLeaks highlights the fears of Israel and Saudi Arabia regarding Iran’s nuclear program. According to leaked diplomatic cables, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has urged the U.S. to attack Iran to halt any further advances of Iran's nuclear program.

Whether you support an attack on Iran or are highly critical of military cover-ups isn't the main issue here. The fact is that this information is significant, and concealing these developments from civilians violates the public interest of the world at large. The disclosures I mentioned above are a fraction of the cover-ups, corruption, failed policies and wastes of taxpayer money that WikiLeaks has revealed to the world in recent months. As Simon Jenkins of The Guardian puts it, “if that’s not in the public’s interest, I fail to see what is.”

In anticipation of the organization’s exposé, WikiLeaks maintained high standards of professionalism working closely with the Spanish news outlet El Pais, Le Monde out of France, Speigel out of Germany, The Guardian out of Britain and The New York Times — five of the world’s top media outlets.

The Guardian notes that meticulous processes were carried out to ensure that the leaks “could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.” Governments across the globe will probably condemn the disclosures — but they're wrong to press for the prosecution of whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks front man Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks isn’t alone in their self-described mission to “open governments.” Closer to home, Michigan Votes — a project sponsored by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — has a similar mission. Through the use of a searchable online database, Michigan Votes grants users online access to “concise, plain language and objective descriptions of every single bill, amendment, and vote that takes place in the Michigan legislature.”

An invaluable resource, Michigan Votes allows citizens across the state a previously unforeseen level of accessibility to government information. Before, explanations for the dozens of votes and the allocation of millions in taxpayer dollars that can take place on a daily basis were difficult for the common person to find. Today, a few clicks of a mouse can give Michiganders the opportunity to hold their public servants accountable for their actions.

There is also University alum and U.S. House Representative-elect Justin Amash, whose campaign I worked for this summer. Currently a Michigan state representative, Amash is the first legislator in the country to post every single vote that he makes on Facebook for the entire world to see in real-time. Dedicating himself to enhancing government transparency, he provides a summary of each bill and justification for his votes.

Besides holding himself accountable as a public servant, Amash’s Facebook page is a crash course for anyone interested in the extensive and often frivolous spending of public funds that occurs in Lansing. Fortunately, the trend toward transparency is a hit. Amash’s Facebook page had a couple thousand fans at the beginning of the year. Today, it features more than 15,200 followers from around the country.

My hope is that the trend toward enhanced transparency continues. As fellow Michigan Daily columnist Imran Syed noted in a recent piece, “neither of the two groups that are supposed to look out for the people — government and the press — are doing their jobs” (Judging Wayne County, 11/22/2010). In an era when the institutions that we are supposed to trust have deteriorated, we should welcome with open arms alternatives to the traditional press — which has failed to serve as a check on an increasingly subversive government. To the true journalists, transparency devotees and whistleblowers out there, thank you.

Alex Biles can be reached at jabiles@umich.edu.