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In defense of whistleblowers

An historical thriller about the Dreyfus Affair reminds us that truth is elusive in politics. Credit: Credit: Knopf

"Power is not a means, it is an end…the object of power is power." — George Orwell

"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." — Lord Acton

An Officer and a Spy (Knopf), a new quasi-fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair by Robert Harris, is a screaming wakeup call to anyone who does not apply critical faculties to statements and acts by governments, private institutions and individuals interested in protecting themselves. These self-serving moments occur around us all the time. We need to recognize them when they happen.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army officer attached to the general staff, who in 1895 was convicted of treason, humiliated before thousands in Paris streets and sent to Devil's Island, where he was the only prisoner and where, it was presumed, his brutal treatment would lead to his death. 

Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was a victim of rampant anti-Semitism of the time and also of the senior war ministry and Army officials who knew him to be innocent and, in fact, knew the identity of the real perpetrator who had passed military information to Germany. They manufactured false evidence, lied and attempted to silence and even kill those who discovered the truth and wanted Dreyfus freed.

Lt. Col. George Picquart, a newly appointed chief of Army counter-intelligence, uncovered the truth shortly after Dreyfus was convicted. He attempted to correct the injustice through official channels but eventually was drummed out of the army and jailed. Yet he persisted, at great personal risk, helped by courageous politicians, attorneys and journalists, including Emile Zola, Georges Clemenceau, Jean Jaures and Louis Leblois. These Dreyfus champions operated in a poisonous French political climate in which public opinion overwhelmingly supported the men who had perverted justice. 

After several years' imprisonment and later trials, Dreyfus finally was freed. But he was not pardoned until 1906.

In a rare good-guys-win scenario, both Dreyfus and Picquart were restored to active military service and Picquart eventually was appointed Minister of War (the equivalent of our Secretary of Defense).

In the earlier French Revolution, as in the later Nazi and Stalinist eras, outcomes were less just. Innocent and courageous persons were falsely accused, jailed and executed for the crime of their integrity and refusal to toe a politically correct line. It's still happening today in some parts of the world.

Wars have been started and sustained, lives ruined and questioners punished in the United States because leaders wanted lies and mistakes covered up. The Spanish-American War, the U.S. entry into World War I, the Red Scare years after World War I and the McCarthy era after World War II, blatant discrimination against and oppression of minorities, the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the financial crashes of 1929 and 2008, the Vietnam War, the second Gulf War, the Exxon and BP oil spills, the Enron collapse and the continuing Wall Street corruption all have been surrounded by such conduct. 

President Nixon was forced to resign but presidents before and after have lied too, not only about policy but about their health, personal lives and political opponents. In many cases they were supported at the time, as were the abusers during the Dreyfus era, by overwhelming majorities of public opinion.

Even the highest minded governments slip into self-protective expediency. The same Johnson Administration which launched the Great Society fell victim to the syndrome when it came to Vietnam. President Johnson's senior foreign-policy and national-security advisors had a stake in the war and delivered upbeat reports of progress which the president, in turn, passed on to the American people. Inside the bologna factory, it was another matter. As Vice President Humphrey's assistant in the LBJ White House, I saw and heard from a stream of Pentagon, CIA and State Department officials who told another story entirely but were stifled and muffled by their bosses. In that administration, no one was jailed or sent to purgatory for Vietnam dissent; truth tellers simply were ignored or not promoted.

It's difficult but important to recognize this recurring syndrome. 

For example, I believe Obamacare should not be repealed and that, eventually, its glitches will be ironed out. But I have little doubt that, when he made the Affordable Care Act proposal, President Obama really had little idea of its content and consistently misrepresented its provisions in order to get it passed. I have great skepticism about Administration explanations of NSA wiretapping, alleged IRS abuses, the lethal terrorist raid on Benghazi and progress against global terrorism. I believe race, gender and class are being used shamelessly as political wedge issues when the country desperately needs unifying, consensus approaches to policy. 

The George W. Bush Administration dishonestly presented the rationale for its intervention in Iraq and continued to disinform us as it proceeded. It conducted an energy policy largely devised by the fossil-fuel industry, acting on recommendation of an energy task force whose members were never disclosed. Our next President, whatever his or her political party, no doubt will find occasion to mislead us rather than to admit mistake or trust voters to know the truth.

Anyone who has worked in government, a corporation, university, labor union or large nonprofit knows that conformity is encouraged and that dissent often leads to isolation. Outright whistleblowing is a no-no. But, historically, whistleblowers and disturbers of the peace have been necessary for much of our progress.

I was in the Soviet Union in 1985 during the early Gorbachev reform period. I spent time then with a KGB officer who had served as assistant to Yuri Andropov when Andropov was head of the KGB and then General Secretary of the Communist Party (following Leonid Brezhnev). It was obvious that the Soviet economy and political system were desperately in need of reform. When I mentioned that power corrupted, especially in an entrenched bureaucratic state, and would slow reform, my friend replied, "Yes. Andropov often said that too. He also said that power corrupts people but that, too often, people corrupt power."  

I've thought of that conversation often as the reformist hopes of Russians have been dashed one more time by a power-obsessed Vladimir Putin. When it seems wrong or a lie, write it, say it, tweet it. Hold power accountable. A Dreyfus affair, or even a pale imitation, can recur almost anywhere at any time.  

"In a time of unreal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." — George Orwell

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