One day in January 2004 an American soldier, Joseph Darby, was shown disturbing pictures of Iraqis being tortured by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib prison. He informed his superiors and was promised anonymity to avert retribution from fellow soldiers. Months later the photographs were leaked and the images of humiliating physical and psychological torture shocked the world. Darby was sitting with hundreds of fellow soldiers in a mess hall in Baghdad when Donald Rumsfeld appeared on the television news. Breaking the promise of anonymity, Rumsfeld named Darby as having revealed the abuses in Abu Ghraib. Surrounded by other troops, Darby recounted: "I was sitting mid-bite when he said it, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' And the guys at the table just stopped eating and looked at me." A fellow soldier, knowing the potential danger of the situation said, "We've got to move".
Fortunately, many of the soldiers that day shook Darby's hand and commended him for his honesty. However, as is the fate for many whistleblowers, the personal repercussions of his actions were longer lasting. In his hometown of Corriganville, Md., Darby experienced deep hostility and was vilified as a "rat" and a "traitor." His wife Bernadette told of people saying "he was a dead man, he was walking around with a bullseye on his head."
There is a certain drama when someone blows the whistle on a hidden outrage. Rightfully we get caught up in discussing the facts exposed, but often we neglect to recognize the extraordinary bravery and sacrifice of the whistleblower. Imagine yourself witness to a gross malpractice at work, which if revealed by you could mean the loss of your job, damage to friendships, home and future employability. Alternatively, the turning of a blind eye keeps your life in tact. What would you do?
Some even choose to risk jail rather than be complicit. Like Joseph Darby, the name of Katharine Gun is little known, yet her story is also extraordinary. Gun was a Mandarin translator in Britain's intelligence nerve center, Government Communications HQ. On Jan. 31, 2003, she received an email that changed her life forever. It was from Frank Koza at the U.S. National Security Agency in Fort Meade. It asked Gun and her colleagues to eavesdrop on the discussions of Security Council governments including allies France, Chile and Mexico, to help the U.S. and Britain get agreement for the invasion of Iraq.
Gun's job was to gather information from sources that posed a threat to the security of the U.K., not from democratic allies and not to counter legitimate deliberations on the most serious of all international decisions, to go to war. After much hesitation, she gave the e-mail to a friend who passed it on to the Observer newspaper in London. The Observer hesitated in publishing, thinking the astonishing email might be fake. The paper's Washington correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, telephoned the NSA in Fort Meade to establish whether Koza existed. The person answering the phone said "Frank Koza's office". Vulliamy asked to speak to Koza, and when asked who was calling, explained he was a journalist. There was a pause. The person on the other end responded "Who do you want to speak to?" When Vulliamy repeated "Frank Koza", the response was "Sorry, I've never heard of him". The story was published and made headlines around the world, though it got little coverage in the mainstream U.S. media. The U.K. government attempted to prosecute Gun, but eventually dropped the case, not wanting to risk losing in court and prolong its embarrassment.
As we start a new year I toast the bravery and sacrifice of all those who decide to put the public interest before their own. Those who take action rather than turn a blind eye, and who pay the consequences long after they are out of the headlines. A special toast goes to those who are in prison or poverty because they understood the depth of their responsibility and acted on it. It is because of their actions that there is still the possibility of nudging our public and private institutions towards more responsible behavior. So I raise my glass to Joseph Darby, Katharine Gun and others like them, known and anonymous.