Whistleblowers, Painted from Life by Florence Hartmann

I have long reserved judgment on the whistleblowers who periodically make public the bundles of documents, confidential diplomatic cables and eavesdropping transcripts that they come across in the course of their duties.

I have tended to see them as courageous individuals performing an often useful function, but also as slightly crazy vigilantes who were participating, like it or not, in that conspiracy against confidentiality, and thus against privacy, about which I have expressed concern on many occasions.

Florence Hartmann's book on the subject (Lanceurs d'Alerte, just published by Editions Don Quichotte in Paris with the subtitle "They risk their lives to protect ours") is the first exhaustive study of the subject. I confess that the former journalist at Le Monde -- who later worked in the international criminal courts convened for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and who was later convicted for having revealed, at the end of her Balkan assignment, the collusion that allowed Serbia to evade responsibility for crimes committed in Bosnia -- has changed my views.

Hartmann does not plead the whistleblowers' case across the board.

She does not downplay the danger of an epidemic of indiscriminate disclosure that might be created by the unchecked spread of the practice of whistleblowing, or even of the principle that underpins it.

One clearly senses the caution, a caution bordering on reticence, with which she imbues her account of the founder of Wikileaks, the arch-narcissist Julian Assange, whose habit of serving up information without consideration for those whose lives his disclosures might endanger bothers Hartmann as much as it does me.

By contrast, however, when one reads her account of whistleblowing pioneer Daniel Ellsberg, whose 1971 disclosure of the "Pentagon papers" helped end the war in Vietnam; when one reads her portrait of soldier Bradley Manning, who chose, three decades later, to make public thousands of the field reports streaming across his desk that acknowledged blunders, attacks on civilians, and acts of torture during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, facts that the authorities wished to conceal; when one follows Hartmann into the head of one sentinel of truth alerting us to the danger to society of a tainted medication or of another discovering a side of the Cahuzac affair that the powers that be would have liked to hush up, or even of Edward Snowden bringing to light the leviathan surveillance systems put in place under Bush and then Obama, under the pretext of the war against terrorism -- well, then, one tends to see things differently.

Most whistleblowers are patriots.

The Americans among them believe in the mission of their country to defend the outposts of the global struggle for democracy.

Far from being the pawns and stooges of al Qaeda portrayed by prosecutors, they are serious people who have a certain idea of freedom and of the liberties that freedom may safely incur without risk of adulteration.

Ellsberg was careful to withhold from the mountain of cables he released to the press those that might, if divulged, compromise his country's negotiating position.

Manning is a child of the 1980s who believes unshakably in the universal vocation of the country of Jefferson.

Snowden, the man who accepted Putin's offer of asylum after all of the doors of Europe closed in his face, is a former member of the Special Forces who, believing in the notion of the just war, volunteered to fight in Iraq.

All, in other words, have drawn a distinction between the degree of secrecy required to carry on a war and that demanded by the overweening madness of power unchecked by any opposing force.

All know the difference between the right to privacy that a great French poet dreamed of seeing added to the list of human rights and the secrecy in which states cloak themselves to conceal their excesses.

All are moderates who at one point or another in their life became incensed at the hypocrisy of the cold monsters who, with one hand, would revive the Benthamite panopticon (updated for the electronic age and capable of casting a bright light on the most minuscule of our secrets), and, with the other, as soon as their ploys are revealed, fall back on the imperative of secrecy, with themselves as its self-serving beneficiaries: Down with transparency! No to the impulse to tell all, see all, and know all!

They know, in other words, that docility can be a crime and rebellion a right.

They know that blind obedience can, as history has shown, cause more damage than well-tempered disobedience.

Whistl-blowers are not saints.

Each harbors his or her share of idealism and cunning.

But they are a fixture of the modern conscience.

They may be a moment of the human conscience.

And who can say whether their clashes with the cynics who strive to conceal under noble robes (fighting crime) their shameful contraband (the eternal quest to subjugate) are not a variant of the old struggle of the citizen against power, of Antigone against Creon?

Florence Hartmann deserves our gratitude for having offered up, in this book, a cogent analytics of the whistleblower: When, how, in the face of what sort of threat, and, above all, accompanied by what theoretical and practical precautions are we justified in letting our contemporaries know what we know?

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy