The Manning debate comes at a time when Canada’s whistleblower protections are severely underdeveloped. Photo: CC, Marcus Povey.
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In one of Barack Obama’s final acts as president of the United States—and one that came as a shock to onlookers across the political spectrum—he commuted the sentence of former U.S. army analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was serving 35 years in prison for violating several laws that forbid disclosing classified information.

The decision evoked an extremely divided response, with some condemning Manning and others calling her a hero. And while Obama had his own reasoning behind the Manning commutation, the public response has pointed to an issue much larger than the case itself. 

But, you might ask, what is there to argue? Leaking classified information should never be acceptable, right? You might be quick to jump to the consensus that anyone who leaks intelligence information should be branded as a “traitor.” 

In theory, that might be a fair assumption. But in practice, leaking classified information in the U.S. is pretty standard practice—but a lot of these so-called “traitors” don’t reside behind bars.

As reported by Reuters, leaking classified information has been a strategy used time and time again in the U.S. by those in positions of power who are looking to further a political agenda. For example, according to the report, the George W. Bush administration ordered the release of classified intelligence to convince the public and Congress that a war on Iraq was a good idea.

In 2010, NBC News reporter Michael Isikoff detailed similar allowances made within the Obama administration. During a 2008 meeting held in a windowless, secure room, “a wealth of eye-popping details from a highly classified briefing” to president-elect Obama was leaked to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, who later published this information in his book Obama’s Wars.

The key point to take away from these examples? No charges, no jail sentences, no commutations.

One caveat to note is that Manning was charged in military court, which operates under a variant of the U.S. system. But in looking at other cases, like that of fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, we can see that leaking intelligence when you’re not holding a high-level government position can have serious consequences, regardless of the legal system that is used.

In Canada, our whistleblower protections are extremely underdeveloped. Canada’s only federal whistleblower legislation, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act,  provides protection to public service employees, but only six provinces currently have legislation aimed at protecting civil servant whistleblowers. In the private sector, there are no current protections in place for whistleblowers.

However, this lack of protection isn’t applied equally.

In Canada, selective intelligence leaks have also been seen in several prominent cases. You might argue that high-level government has a better sense of when classified information should be made public. But in the cases where this judgement call has been made, there have been huge costs to the individuals implicated in the information released.

In 2003, Canadian Justice Dennis O’Conner found that a series of leaks of government information were selectively presented and timed to implicate a man in a terrorist plot. No evidence was ever found to link the man to terrorist activities.

In 2011 a similar government leak found its way to the press, alleging criminal activity by two Canadians.

A report from the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association points to this activity as problematic because these men had never been criminally charged, and “the system of justice requires that litigation take place in a court of law — not in the press.”

From the ability to find employment to fearing for safety in the case of public backlash, the consequences suffered by these men—who had never been charged in a court of law—were likely huge. But was there sufficient investigative action or a criminal charge made against the person who declassified the information? Nope.

This is an insidious pattern that, while not as infamous in Canada as in the U.S., has impacted the lives of some Canadians in a hugely negative manner. With this in mind, what can we learn from the Manning case?

As a constituency, we must voice our concerns and thoughts about whistleblower protections and ensure that our chosen party is representing those assertions adequately. If Canada doesn’t want more whistleblower protection, that’s fine—but we should be holding our government to account for the regulation that we decide on.

If the government enjoys excesses in whistleblower protection, and we don’t feel this is an issue, why not demand these same liberties for Canadians across the board?

When it comes to whistleblowing, Canada has so much to discuss—and here, we’ve only skimmed the surface. It’s essential that we look at the Manning case with a critical eye, and think about what rights we believe Canadian whistleblowers should be entitled to.

After all, blowing the whistle isn’t the only way to be heard—what are we waiting for?