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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

The plight of whistleblowers

In late April, the government of Israel extended for the third straight year crippling restrictions on Mordechai Vanunu’s freedom of movement and speech. Vanunu, who leaked the news about the secret nuclear weapons plant at Dimona, Israel, in 1986 and was imprisoned 18 years for doing so, is no longer in prison but neither is he a free man. On the dubious grounds that he may cause damage to the “security of the state,” he is not allowed to leave Israel or to travel where he likes within it or to speak to foreign nationals.

From the outset, Vanunu’s treatment at the hands of Israel has been extraordinary. For revealing Israel’s nuclear weapons capability, he was kidnapped in Rome, smuggled back to Israel, tried under conditions of extraordinary secrecy and security and held in solitary confinement for 11 1/2 of the 18 years he was in prison. The restrictions on his freedom after his release seem senseless and vindictive and indeed counterproductive. What do they accomplish but to increase questions about the fairness of the Israeli state?

In an article published in the Israeli daily Haaretz April 26, Yossi Melman points out that the claim that Vanunu is a risk to the state is baseless. (After 20 years, there is little new that Vanunu can reveal about the Dimona nuclear plant where he once worked.) “Morally and legally, and from a democratic perspective, it is intolerable that someone who has been punished should be punished over and over again for the same sin for which he served such a heavy sentence,” Melman writes.

This is true, whether it be in Israel or here at home, whether punishments relate to individual crimes or to the betrayal of state secrets.

This past year has seen a series of revelations about secret U.S. programs that have in turn led to government investigations of those thought guilty of disclosing them. Every government is within its rights to prosecute those who leak classified information, but when that information exposes government deeds that are illegal and immoral the complexion of the situation changes. A government not bound by the rule of law is guilty of tyranny or terrorism and often both. An official who reveals official lies and malfeasance isn’t simply a loose-lipped employee but a whistleblower speaking out in the interests of the public good.

Kidnapping terrorist suspects and transporting them to third countries known to use torture, detaining people without resort to law, eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, these activities betray the very essence of whom we claim to be as a people. Those who reveal those activities should be heralded, not punished. The United States was a prime mover in establishing the principle that the individual is not relieved of culpability simply because he or she was following orders.

Democracy depends on the rule of law, which is easily bent and even broken. Perhaps more often than we know, our freedom as citizens depends on one man (or woman) of courage and integrity speaking out against government crimes that left unchecked would grow.

Nationalism is the cause of many crimes. For offending against Israeli nationalism, Vanunu suffered 18 years in prison. Fortunately, those who have revealed U.S. secret programs have not thus far been subjected to the same harsh treatment. We can hope that their disclosures will remind Americans that justice and the rule of law are just as important as national self-interest.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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