Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part II)

Concluding our run-down of some of the most prominent whistleblowers in recent memory . . .

Clive Ponting

A former senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, Clive Ponting leaked information about the sinking of an Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, in 1984. The classified documents revealed that, contrary to official accounts of the incident, the ship was outside an exclusion zone and was moving away from a Royal Navy taskforce when it was sunk by the submarine HMS Conqueror, resulting in the loss of 323 lives. Ponting was charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act 1911 after the leak, but was later acquitted by a jury which decided, against the direction of the presiding judge, that it was in the "public interest" for the documents to be released. In the years following Ponting's acquittal, the Thatcher government introduced the Official Secrets Act 1989, which in effect removed the public-interest defence. Ponting has since written 13 books. His latest, A New Green History of the World: the Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilisations, was published in 2007 by Penguin.

Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico's story was immortalised in 1973 after the release of a film depicting his time as a cop in New York. Starring Al Pacino, the film – titled simply Serpico – detailed the true story of a principled young policeman's battle against endemic corruption in the NYPD. Serpico was appalled by what he witnessed: drug deals, bribes and various other criminal dealings, involving colleagues at the highest levels of the force. With no other option, eventually he blew the whistle, reporting the corruption to journalists at the New York Times. In the weeks that followed, he was subjected to intense intimidation by officers at all levels of the NYPD, and at one point was shot in the face in what was rumoured to have been an attempted "execution". He was eventually awarded an NYPD medal of honour in 1972, but claims he has continued to be shunned by the department. Married four times and having travelled Europe for several years in a camper van, Serpico now lives in a cabin in relative seclusion near New York. Aged 74, he remains vocal in condemning police corruption.

Mordechai Vanunu

Between 1975 and 1985, Mordechai Vanunu worked as a nuclear technician for the Israeli government. Throughout this period, Israel claimed it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. But in 1986, Vanunu leaked information to the British press revealing that the country had in fact manufactured between 150 and 200 nuclear bombs and was also attempting to produce a hydrogen bomb, the most destructive of all. After the publication of Vanunu's leaked information in the Sunday Times on 5 October 1986, he was lured from London to Italy by Cheryl Bentov, a US citizen doubling as an Israeli intelligence agent. He was then taken by boat to Israel, where he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. Released in 2004 after serving 16 years of the sentence, Vanunu today remains subject to strict conditions that forbid him from leaving Israel, using the internet or the telephone. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize on more than 16 occasions, and served as Rector of Glasgow University from 2004-2007 while still confined in Israel, risking imprisonment to remain in regular contact with students.

Bradley Manning (?)

Private First Class Bradley Manning is the 23-year-old US soldier accused of leaking more than 720,000 diplomatic and military documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. He was arrested in May 2010 by US authorities in Iraq after he allegedly confessed to a friend that he had obtained and released classified files. An avid and proficient computer user, Manning reportedly discovered instances of war crimes while serving in Iraq, but was told to "shut up" by his commanding officer when he tried to have something done about it. According to unverified chat logs, he then took it on himself to "blow the whistle" by leaking classified files to WikiLeaks in order to expose instances of wrongdoing – such as a video depicting the killing of 12 civilians (including two Reuters journalists) by US Apache helicopters in 2007. Manning, who has not yet faced trial, has since been in solitary confinement for over 300 days in conditions that have been widely condemned by campaigners and human rights groups. Critics say Manning – if indeed he is the leaker – is a traitor who has endangered the lives of American soldiers. He faces 34 charges, the most serious of which, known as "aiding the enemy", carries the death penalty.

Read: Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part I)

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London, currently working for the Frontline Club. His website is here

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.