There were, of course, many whistleblowers before Edward Snowden. But it is undeniable that his sudden appearance across the world’s news outlets two years ago has ignited a debate about the role, rights and responsibilities of whistleblowers. One manifestation of this new interest is the creation of the Courage Foundation, dedicated to helping them:
The Courage Foundation is an international organisation that supports those who risk life or liberty to make significant contributions to the historical record. We fundraise for the legal and public defence of specific individuals who fit these criteria and are subject to serious prosecution or persecution. We also campaign for the protection of truthtellers and the public’s right to know generally.
Currently the Courage Foundation is supporting two whistleblowers: Edward Snowden and Jeremy Hammond. So news that it has set up an emergency fund to help a new, and hitherto unknown, whistleblower, is significant. Here’s the background:
Able Seaman William McNeilly is a 25-year-old British Engineering Technician Weapons Engineer Submariner who has blown the whistle on major safety risks and cover-ups within the British Royal Navy’s Trident nuclear weapons programme, stating, “We are so close to a nuclear disaster it is shocking, and yet everybody is accepting the risk to the public.”
Here are some of his claims:
Among the most startling of McNeilly’s revelations include the fact that three missile launch tests failed, missile safety alarms were ignored, torpedo compartments were flooded and bags were not properly checked for security risks. He also claims that [UK nuclear submarine] HMS Vanguard crashed into a French submarine in February 2009. McNeilly says there was a “massive cover up of the incident. For the first time the no personal electronic devices with a camera rule was enforced.” At the time, the Guardian reported that “the Ministry of Defence initially refused to confirm the incident” and that Vanguard suffered mere “scrapes”, but McNeilly says one officer told him, “We thought, this is it — we’re all going to die.”
You can read the long and detailed document written by McNeilly on a dedicated Wikileaks page. It includes a comment attributed to him that may sound familiar:
“Please make sure this information is released. I don’t want to be in prison without anyone knowing the truth.”
That’s pretty much what Snowden said when he went public. Although there’s no evidence that McNeilly was inspired by Snowden, it would have been hard for him to avoid the huge publicity around the leaks over the last two years. It would be interesting to know whether that played any part in his decision to publish his statement. Unfortunately, unlike Snowden still ensconced in his Russian exile, it looks almost certain that McNeilly will indeed be going to prison:
A Royal Navy spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that AB McNeilly was apprehended last night and is now in the custody of the Royal Navy police at a military establishment in Scotland where he is being afforded the duty of care that we give to all of our people.
The spokesperson went on to say:
“The Royal Navy disagrees with McNeilly’s subjective and unsubstantiated personal views but we take the operation of our submarines and the safety of our personnel extremely seriously and so continue to fully investigate the circumstances of this issue.”
As that makes clear, the UK authorities are trying to play down McNeilly’s serious allegations as “subjective and unsubstantiated personal views” in the hope that public interest in the story will wane. But his decision to publish the claims and accept the consequences — like Snowden — looks as if it will bring about some scrutiny, not least because UK politicians have taken up his cause alongside the Courage Foundation, which is helping him with his defense costs. That’s key, since it may encourage yet more whistleblowers to come forward hoping to achieve the same result.