For Whom the Whistle Blows?

For Whom the Bell Tolls was a 1940 novel by Ernest Hemingway about an American in the International Brigades who blows up a bridge during the Spanish Civil War with death the ultimate sacrifice.

But what about For Whom The Whistle Blows? That informs the current debate about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, two Americans who risked their lives by leaking documents on US foreign policy and covert cyber-snooping activities during the US war on terrorism. Are they prisoners - one in a US army stockade and the other in exile in Moscow - of conscience?

In contrast to the contemptuous labels and espionage charges the US government slapped on the two, one a US Army private first class and the other a former government intelligence contractor, both claimed their motive was to spark public debate and promote greater transparency in US government conduct. Whistle-blowers in general have all along been quite rightly championed and heralded by the authorities, media and the general public - at least by those whose oxen are not being gored from the revelations. Such are the dichotomies of modern history.

What if we were to apply this whistle-blower question more specifically? The question put before us is this: what would you do if you discovered your company has hidden dirty laundry? And what if these are not small dirt stains but bloodstains, DNA-type hard evidence of serious wrongdoings, that the good citizen-conscience inside you is screaming out loud to reveal and tell the world about, openly or anonymously through a whistle-blower letter, before another person gets hurt?

And the serious issue at stake now is, has your compelling urge to blow the whistle been suppressed by the Manning and Snowden cases?

As it is now, your courageous action to reveal the damaging information has been well received. If the dirt you exposed relates to a company en route to a public listing, you have duly alerted listing professionals such as auditors, sponsors, underwriters and lawyers. On hindsight, you have not only saved them from subsequent slaughter by the regulators but also the investing public from financial losses and other dire consequences if the fraudulent activities were to come to light later, after the company has gone public.

From the Securities & Exchange Commission in the US, the Financial Services Authority in the UK to the Securities & Futures Commission in Hong Kong, whistle-blowing, albeit anonymously, on corporate wrongdoings prior to eventual public listings is always encouraged.

In my line of business, I have investigated numerous cases of poison pen letters submitted anonymously by courageous individuals containing stinging allegations of wrongdoing against aspiring listing debutants. Once proven positive, the listing sponsors have to make the call to kill the deal to prevent a potential bloodbath from Wall Street to Main Street.

And likewise, public listings aside, whistle-blowing on any wrongdoing in the commercial world is also welcomed and promoted by the authorities - wrongdoing such as bribery, corruption, embezzlement, insider dealing, falsifying documents, conflict of interest, intellectual property violations, etc.

In the latest developments, former NSA employee turned whistle-blower and fugitive Edward Snowden finally received asylum from Russia last week, less than 48 hours after a US military judge acquitted US Army Private Bradley Manning of aiding the enemy but convicted him of 20 other charges, including theft and computer fraud, with a maximum 136 years behind bars for his release of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks for online publications.

One could argue that Snowden's decision to seek asylum has turned out to be right as the Manning trial underscores his assertion that the Obama administration would likely not offer a fair hearing and is unwilling to settle for guilty pleas the Army intelligence analyst has offered.

Quite rightly the Obama administration shot themselves in the foot with the double standards they demonstrated on the Manning case. Attorney General Eric Holder assured the Russian Justice minister in a letter last week that Snowden would not be mistreated if he returned to the US for prosecution - with no mention of Manning - as he would not face the military justice system.

The White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in response to the grant of asylum to Snowden by Russia last week, assured that Snowden would be fairly treated with "accorded full due process and protections." Well, let's not forget US President Obama also openly assured in a press conference two years ago that Manning would be treated appropriately.

While Snowden is well aware of the Manning case and assessing the implications for him, the lingering question is the long-term impact on the whistle-blowing culture. Whistle-blowing by its nature has to break certain codes of confidentiality but the prosecution for the very act of it, with absolute disregard and consideration to the information exposed, is severely damaging.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: http://vansonsoo.com)