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Snowden: Over-classification leads to decline of democracy

Published time: February 20, 2014 09:15
AFP Photo/Beto Barata

AFP Photo/Beto Barata

US government has been withholding from public much more information than is needed and the trend threatens democracy, Edward Snowden said in a video address congratulating Chelsea Manning on winning the Sam Adams Award.

Imprisoned US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning - formerly known as Bradley - was on Wednesday honored in absentia for revelations of US war crimes. Manning was awarded the 2014 Sam Adams Prize for Integrity in Intelligence at a ceremony held by the Oxford University's prestigious Oxford Union Society.

The event included a video address by Edward Snowden, last year’s Sam Adams Award winner, who praised Manning for bringing to spotlight a very important issue of “over-classification” – unjustified withholding from the public of information that’s not related to national security.

In the last year the White House told us that 95 million records have been created classified and withheld from the public in the year 2012. That’s more than any other year on record and shows a trend where the government is withholding more secrets than ever,” Snowden said, adding that many other Western governments were “on the same trajectory.

The former NSA contractor, currently living in temporary asylum in Russia, believes the trend of making more and more information secret could lead to a decline in democracy, because “when a public is no longer aware of the actions of its officials… it can no longer hold most senior members of its society to necessary account for serious wrongdoing.”

Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley (С) (Reuters/Jose Luis Magana)

Manning was in August 2013 sentenced to 35 years in prison for turning over to WikiLeaks some 500,000 Army documents concerning wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the atrocities of the wars have thus become exposed. The files included the ‘Collateral Murder’ video – footage taken in July 2007 from inside the cockpit of a US Apache helicopter as US troops on board cut down 12 unarmed civilians, including two Reuters reporters.

Documents that we received from Manning showed us that some of this information is unambiguously necessary for public ends,” Snowden said in his address. “For example, how can we vote without evidence of true cost of the wars in which we are involved, instances of public corruption, official corruption in nations that we support, ally ourselves with, or even national participation in torture programs, rendition programs and unambiguous war crimes? All of these were represented in the Manning leaks.

The Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence has since 2002 been given out annually by a group of former US and UK intelligence officers to whoever they think has championed the truth - even if it meant breaking an oath. Sam Adams was a CIA whistleblower during the Vietnam War.

One of those, who decide on who gets the award, is a retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern. He finds the crackdown on whistleblowers highly disturbing.

Actually, it is rather mysterious and rather amazing that three of our six awardees are not free,” McGovern told RT. “Bradley Manning, or Chelsea Manning, in Federal prison, Julian Assange cooped up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and, of course, Snowden in Russia unable to travel because the United States withdrew his passport, making him stateless. So we are beginning to wonder whether the Sam Adams Prize is a good thing to have when 50 percent of our [awardees] find themselves in some kind of confinement.”

In order not to have potential whistleblowers discouraged by fears of persecution former MI5 agent Annie Machon is setting up a new organization called the Courage Foundation, which would provide funding, support and advocacy for those who would ponder leaking sensitive data. Machon believes that with ever more sophisticated technological capabilities available to intelligence agencies the mission of whistleblowers becomes ever more important.

People are very much aware that with the technological capability intelligence agencies can now spy on us all and erode our privacy everywhere. Particularly the NSA and the GCHQ,” Machon told RT. “What we are seeing now is that the technological capabilities outpace the law and the accountability that is supposed to govern these spies. And also of course since 9/11 this sort of brutal response and interventions with illegal wars in the Middle East, with invasions across North Africa and covert actions and drone killing strikes, that there is a great need for people of principle to stand up and say “This is being done allegedly in our name, but actually this is illegal under all international laws.”