Whistleblower Anonymity limits

The protection of journalistic or blogging or disgruntled employee sources, is something which should be fundamental to professional journalists or to serious political bloggers, or even senior management within a Government or private sector organisation.

The need to protect the anonymity of such whistleblowing sources is vital, but it is not necessarily something which lasts forever.

It is absolutely vital during the early stages of a "Leak" of a story interesting or politically embarrassing or commercially sensitive information, during the initial contact phases between the whistleblower and the person they are complaining to.

It is vital when the circle of people who know about the existence of the leak story is inevitably increased, when second opinions are asked about the authenticity or importance of any leaked emails, memos, reports, photographs or other evidence which the whistleblower provides in support of their story.

The problems about which the whistleblower is complaining might, in theory be resolved, once an organisation starts to get enquiries from journalists or from senior management or external regulatory authorities, indicating that they know or suspect the existence of a serious problem or scandal.

However, it is more likely that incompetent, ignorant, inflexible, or corrupt politicians, bureaucrats or systems, will not magically heal themselves in secret, and will only take action when widespread publicity threatens to embarrass someone in power, or more accurately, when it reaches a crescendo which the internal colleagues, rivals and enemies of those in power might be able to use to their own political or financial advantage.

This usually means that the desperate whistleblower has to be willing go public at some point, with some or all of their allegations, after publication in the press, or after a formal Employment Tribunal complaint etc.

In theory the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 is meant to protect disclosures by whistleblowers, through the chain of senior management, and, if necessary to external regulators, or Government Ministers, or even the press and media.

1) In this Part a "qualifying disclosure" means any disclosure of information which, in the reasonable belief of the worker making the disclosure, tends to show one or more of the following--

(a) that a criminal offence has been committed, is being committed or is likely to be committed,

(b) that a person has failed, is failing or is likely to fail to comply with any legal obligation to which he is subject,

(c) that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur,

(d) that the health or safety of any individual has been, is being or is likely to be endangered,

(e) that the environment has been, is being or is likely to be damaged, or

(f) that information tending to show any matter falling within any one of the preceding paragraphs has been, is being or is likely to be deliberately concealed.

Within international Financial Institutions which comply with the US Sabarnes-Oxley Act, there are meant to be anonymous channels of complaint to senior management, available to all employees, sub-contractors and suppliers, typically a supposedly anonymous internal email account.

In theory, no adverse action is legally permitted against such whistleblowers, e.g. affecting their promotion prospects or being fired from their jobs.

In practice, this whistleblower legal protection does not appear to work very well, if at all.

This deliberately weak and narrow Act has done nothing to protect recent UK Government whistleblowers such as Steve Moxon, whose revelations about the immigration scandals at the incompetent Home Office led, eventually to the resignation of the Immigration Minister Beverly Hughes. Neither did it prevent the the smearing and persecution of Foreign Office whistleblowers like James Cameron, the former British consul in Romania, or Craig Murray the former UK Ambassador in Uzbekistan.

If you are a junior or even senior Civil Servant working for the United Kingdom Government, who contacts the press or broadcast media or even political bloggers with a story, the recently revised Civil Service Code of Conduct could be used to damage your career.

See - Minor changes to the Civil Service Code might affect whistleblowers

Somehow this Code never appears to apply to the Political Special Advisors, media spin doctors or other cliques of political appartachiki which the politicians in charge surround themselves these days.

There, of course, also the Official Secrets Act 1989 which has been used to legally harass, but not to actually convict some recent whistleblowers such as Katherine Gun (who leaked the GCHQ memo about the bugging of United Nations diplomats in New Yorkp) and Derek Pasquill (who leaked FCO letters and memos about the UK Government policy regarding secret CIA rendition flights and contacts with Muslim groups.)

See the articles in the left of centre New Statesman magazine, which explain the journalistic fact checking and legal case background of the Katherine Gun and Derek Pasquill cases.

Similarly the whistleblower Lana Vandenberghe and ITN tv news journalist Neil Garrett involved in the leaks of the Independent Police Complaints Commission Inquiry into killing of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police at Stockwell Tube station, following the bureaucratic official panic, after the failed terrorist bomb attacks of July 21st 2005, were hunted down, and arrested. but not eventually charged with any crime.

The scandal of the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP and his constituent Babar Ahmad, in Woodhill Prison, and the likely bugging of other legally privileged conversations, was only brought to light after retired Detective Sergeant Mark Kearney, the Thames Valley Police officer who conducted the Intrusive and Directed electronic surveillance, and Milton Keynes local newspaper journalist Sally Murrer had already been put under surveillance themselves, and then charged with misconduct in public office, over alleged leaks of minor local crime stories to the local newspaper. The obvious conclusion is that these proceedings were actually simply to apply pressure to cover up the secret bugging scandal.

See the Daily Telegraph : Hundreds of lawyers 'bugged on prison visits'

Remember, that these days, being arrested by the Police is a severe ordeal and punishment in itself, which involve photography, fingerprinting, palm printing, DNA sampling etc. , by force if necessary. All this data is retained in computer databases, effectively forever, even if you are never charged, or never found guilty of anything, unless you really fight to have it removed.

The details of this prison bugging scandal were first revealed not to the press, but, quite rightly, to a Member of Parliament, who then passed on his fears that the Wilson Doctrine was being breached to David Davis, the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, who then contacted the Prime Minister (in charge of bugging of MPs)

Then, once the media eventually printed the story, this whistleblower's anonymity was gone, certainly so far as his former colleagues in the Police were concerned, and Mark Kearney chose to give some public interviews.

However, during the crucial time when some external scrutiny was bringing the matter to the attention of the very senior management (ineffectively, as it turns out in this case) , the anonymity of the whistleblower was preserved.

The cases where a whistleblower's identity remains secret for many years after the fuss about the scandal seem to be rare, e.g. the identity of the Washington Post reporter's Bernstein and Woodward source "Deep Throat" whose revelations about the Watergate cover up scandal which eventually led to the down fall of US President Richard Nixon.

Currently, the identity of whistleblower source attributed, perhaps deliberately misleadingly, to the Crown Prosecution Service, who leaked details of the progress of the Police investigation into the "Cash for Honours" scandal involving former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and his fund raiser Lord Levy, remains private, so whistleblower anonymity is possible, even under intense political scrutiny.

About this blog

We know that there are decent, honest, trustworthy individual politicians, civil servants, law enforcement, intelligence agency personnel and broadcast, print and internet journalists etc., who often feel powerless or trapped in the system. They need the assistance of external, detailed, informed, public scrutiny to help them to resist deliberate or unthinking policies, which erode our freedoms and liberties.

Some of these people will, in the public interest, act as whistleblowers, and may try to leak documents or information to the mainstream media, or to political blog websites etc.

Here are some Spy Blog "Hints and Tips", giving some basic preecautions, and some more obscure technical tips, which both whistleblowers, journalists, and bloggers need to be aware of, in order to help preserve the anonymity of whisteleblowing or other journalistic sources, especially in the United Kingdom, but applicable in other countries as well.

Whistleblower anonymity may not always be possible, or even necessary, forever into the future, but it is usuially crucial during at least the early stages of a "leak", whilst it is being evaluated by others, to see if it merits wider publication and publicity.

Email & PGP Contact

Please feel free to email your views about this blog, or news about the issues it tries to comment on.


Our PGP public encryption key is available for those correspondents who wish to send us news or information in confidence, and also for those of you who value your privacy, even if you have got nothing to hide.

You can download a free copy of the PGP encryption software from www.pgpi.org
(available for most of the common computer operating systems, and also in various Open Source versions like GPG).

We look forward to the day when UK Government Legislation, Press Releases and Emails etc. are Digitally Signed so that we can be assured that they are not fakes. Trusting that the digitally signed content makes any sense, is another matter entirely.


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CryptoParty London

CryptoParty London

Most months there is a CryptoParty London event. where some of these Hints and Tips and other techniques are demonstrated and taught.

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