Dealing with political crime

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 35, October 2003, pp. 7-8.

Brian Martin

Whistleblowers discover all sorts of crimes, from theft to perjury. Some of these can be called political crimes. Treason and subversion spring to mind; these are crimes against the government. But there are also crimes by the government, such as political corruption and human rights violations. Then there are crimes in which both corporations and governments are implicated together.

Making sense of all the possibilities and complexities is not easy. Luckily there is a new book that lays it all out, written by Jeffrey Ian Ross and titled The Dynamics of Political Crime (Sage, 2003). Ross has been writing and editing books about crime for many years, especially about state crime, namely crime by governments. The Dynamics of Political Crime, designed for use as a textbook, draws on his great knowledge. Here I'll outline some key areas that are systematically covered in the book, mentioning possible connections with whistleblowing.

Crimes against the state are called "oppositional political crimes." There are two main types: nonviolent and violent. The nonviolent crimes include dissent, sabotage, subversion, sedition, treason and espionage. Repressive governments are prone to calling any form of opposition a crime. If you're in China or Uzbekistan, publicly criticising the government could get you a prison term or worse.

Governments adopt a double standard: spying or advocating for your own government is laudable, whereas spying or advocating for an enemy government is treason.

Whistleblowers inside government are at great risk of being labelled traitors. The laws against public servants speaking about their work can make whistleblowing, or even just casual comment, a political crime, though these laws are rarely enforced. Andrew Wilkie, who resigned from the Office of National Assessment and criticised government use of intelligence, could easily have been charged with a political crime.

The second type of oppositional political crime is the violent sort, commonly called terrorism or assassination. If you are a member of a terrorist organisation and decide to blow the whistle on your comrades, that's taking a real risk! For whistleblowers who are not terrorists themselves, the bigger risk is being labelled a terrorist. It's like being called a traitor, but even worse.

So much for crimes against the state. Far more interesting, in many ways, are crimes by the state, conventionally called "state crime." Ross gives five main types.

The first type is political corruption, which "usually includes accepting or soliciting bribes (i.e., usually money or some other economic benefit, like a gift or service)." The reason that this is a political crime is that "The citizen's trust has been violated," with citizens being the ultimate victims. The three main groups involved in political corruption are politicians, police and government regulators, but others such as judges can participate too.

Political corruption is damaging to public trust because it means that the people who are passing and enforcing laws are the ones who are breaking them. If you're being framed by the police, who are you going to ring for help: the police?

Most political corruption is covered up by perpetrators and by codes of silence that operate among occupational groups such as police. Occasionally there are scandals, with individuals being exposed and convicted, but outsiders seldom know for sure whether a real criminal has been brought to justice or whether a dissident or witness has been framed.

Whistleblowers are of crucial importance in exposing political corruption. Even more importantly, if many officials are potential whistleblowers, this increases the risk of exposure and reduces the incidence of corruption in the first place.

The second type of state crime is illegal domestic surveillance, such as when government agents listen in on telephone conversations or intercept emails without proper approval. Ross surveys the history of illegal government surveillance in Britain, Canada and the United States. Rather than being an aberration, this sort of surveillance "has been an ongoing organizational policy and practice in democratic states and, in some cases, has been sanctioned by heads of state." No doubt illegal surveillance by governments occurs in Australia, but we hear little of it due to secrecy and the danger to anyone who might speak out about it.

Ross's third type of state crime is human rights violations. This brings to mind torture and extrajudicial killings in third world countries, but it also goes on under systems of representative government. Unlawful beatings by police and prison officers are human rights violations, and there is plenty of evidence that they have occurred in Australia. Many would say that Australian government detention of asylum seekers is a violation of human rights. Another crime in this category is war crime, which could include launching a war in violation of international law. Witnesses are essential for exposing and prosecuting human rights violations, and whistleblowers have a key role to play.

The fourth type of state crime is state violence, which includes torture, deaths in custody, police riots, police use of deadly force, and genocide. Of these, Ross notes that "deaths in custody and police use of deadly force are the most prominent in the advanced industrialized countries." Whistleblowers have a key role to play in exposing such crimes. A few whistleblowers, especially those who are police or prison officers, are targets of state violence.

Ross's fifth and last type of state crime is state-corporate crime, a type of behaviour "committed by individuals who abuse their state authority or who fail to exercise it when working with people and organizations in the private sector." In Australia, this sort of crime is being facilitated by the practice of contracting out government services to private enterprise. As usual, whistleblowers have a crucial role to play in exposing this sort of state crime. Jim Leggate, one of Whistleblowers Australia's four whistleblowers of national significance, revealed that a Queensland government department had a policy of nonenforcement of mining regulations, costing the taxpayer a billion dollars in lost revenue and allowing massive environmental damage. Ross says that "The potential for further harms resulting from these relationships [between private and public sectors] is alarming, particularly considering that regulatory law aimed at controlling private corporations is today being scaled back while corporations are increasingly transcending national borders both in production and in advancing the consumption of their products." It would not be surprising, therefore, if whistleblowing about this sort of crime becomes more important.

The Dynamics of Political Crime concludes with the statement "As long as there are states and power differentials, political crime will exist." It sounds like there will be a need for whistleblowers for some time yet.

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