Partial Readings: Whistleblowers and Job Security

Partial Readings: Whistleblowers and Job Security

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland (Wikimedia Commons, 2004)

In a recent essay on Seth Rosenfeld’s history of the FBI in the New York Review of Books, Adam Hochschild included a portentous anecdote:

[I]n order to eavesdrop on a meeting in [Communist activist] Jessica Mitford’s house, two bumbling FBI agents hid in a crawl space beneath it; the mission almost came to grief when one fell asleep and started snoring. But today those agents would have access to vastly more: not just Mitford’s phone calls—which they were already tapping—but her credit card statements, her Google searches, her air travel itineraries, her bookstore purchases, her e-mails, her text messages, her minute-by-minute locations as signaled by the GPS in her mobile phone. To hold longtime records of this sort on whomever it chooses to monitor, the National Security Agency is building in Bluffdale, Utah, for $2 billion, the largest intelligence data storage facility on earth—five times the size of the Capitol building in Washington. It is scheduled to open later this year.

Though the power of modern surveillance is startling, it isn’t completely new. Indeed, certain jaded observers have directed their shock at whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed the PRISM surveillance system, instead of at the Obama administration and the NSA. Take David Brooks: leaking executive secrets about unconstitutional policy, he wrote in his New York Times column, not only subverts “democratic structures of accountability” but is symptomatic of a general turn toward libertarianism—juvenile, irresponsible, and devoid of honor. When Brooks’s column provoked a fusillade of responses, James Taranto defended him in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that “no one, including the putative whistleblower…has offered any evidence of abuse.”

If only whistleblowing were the obsession of America’s best-funded libertarians. Atossa Abrahamian‘s fascinating profile of “seasteading” libertarians in n+1 portrays something else: an impressive commitment to tax evasion and a preoccupation with creating countries free of regulatory protections. And despite the protestations about government intrusion from some Silicon Valley executives like Mark Zuckerberg, such figures have been happy to amass and deploy individual’s personal data for profit. If anything, with the surveillance contracting revealed by the Snowden leak, “The view that privacy discussions can be neatly separated into ‘threats from public authorities’ and ‘threats from private companies’ is quickly becoming less persuasive,” as Martin Eiermann writes in openDemocracy.

Three days before the Guardian ran its first story on PRISM, Bradley Manning’s court-martial finally began in Fort Meade, Maryland. Whereas the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Vietnam War–era Pentagon Papers, was dismissed in 1973, the circumstances surrounding Manning’s trial weigh heavily against a similar outcome. Meanwhile, Snowden has gone into hiding, with the UK’s Home Office issuing an alert barring him from boarding planes bound for the country. The penalty for dissent is high even for members of the press, as the administration increasingly turns to investigating journalists as well as their sources. In a particularly dramatic example, a dozen FBI agents took the house of a former NSA employee, surprising him in his bathroom at gunpoint months after interviews had been conducted regarding the leak of which they accused him.

Mike Elk’s take on federal contracting in the defense industry broke through the news cycle tedium by closely examining the Whistleblower’s Protection Enhancement Act. The law, he reports, excludes intelligence workers, and while the president’s Presidential Policy Directive extends whistleblower protections to intelligence workers directly employed by the federal government, it leaves out contract workers (Snowden was working at a private firm when he made the leaks).

Elk also recently reported on the collapsing negotiations in the coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky, where a Peabody Coal spin-off has emptied out its employee’s pension plans. The United Mine Workers of America are considering a strike.

Most unions in the United States currently lack the leverage for large strikes, but workers elsewhere are agitating. The most visible examples are the protest strikes called in Turkey last week. As Michelle Chen reports in Dissent, the country’s two largest union federations coordinated a two day general strike in solidarity with the Taksim Square occupation, bringing over 240,000 workers into the streets.

Greece saw its third general strike of the year last week, following the brusque closure and planned restructuring of the nation’s public broadcasting service. The walkout, which saw some two and a half million workers participate, was planned for one day only. Since the closure on Tuesday, journalists have occupied the broadcast building and continued broadcasting online, prompting the government to issue threats to any television channels that rebroadcast the foreclosed public service. But public pressure appears to still hold some currency in Greece; a decision is expected today on reopening the state company.

Public sector train operators in France struck for two days beginning Wednesday night, protesting a planned “reorganization” of the country’s rail system. The train stoppages come on the heels of an air traffic controllers’ dispute in the EU, which saw a French union cut service earlier in the week, grounding hundreds of flights, and which brought out a British union in support, threatening its own strike in the fall should the proposed consolidation of air space threaten existing jobs—which is exactly what the plan, Single European Sky, is designed to do. Disruptions over the summer and into the fall wouldn’t come as a surprise.

Greece and France are streamlining their public sectors; Britain has matched their efforts with privatization. Crown post offices, a subsidiary of the state-owned Post Office, has announced a plan to franchise its services out to private contractors, eliminating up to 1,500 union jobs. The postal workers’ union has called for a ten-day strike beginning on the 20th, while the company has cited long term budgeting issuing behind its restructuring plan.

And in South Africa labor unrest has again flared in the platinum mines. On Friday the government convened a roundtable with the heads of the multinationals and the competing miners’ unions. The meeting was intended to normalize labor relations and curb the industrial arrhythmia unleashed by the AMCU, the militant trade union that has capitalized on the NUM’s less confrontational posture. Yet on the same day a wildcat strike kept 4,000 miners from work. The striking miners, of the AMCU, were protesting the firing of their union leaders.

Here in New York, the employees of the Legal Services Corporation are on strike over what management considers budgeting effects of the sequester.

From around the web:

Ross McKibbin reviews a new book on the Murdoch empire in the London Review of Books.

Tens of thousands of American ultra-Orthodox Jews staged a protest in New York against revisions to the Israeli conscription laws.

Mike Konzcal intervenes in the debate over whistleblowers and the surveillance state, asking if “a democratic surveillance state” is possible, at the Washington Post.

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