EU Whistleblower Directive, Poison Pill No. 3: National security loophole

The EU Council proposal (Art. 12, at 47) bans any public disclosures “where competent authorities establish that this threatens essential national security interests.” In practice, this means intelligence agencies could ban any public freedom of expression. It replaces the public’s right to know with a government right to cover up. This open-ended national security loophole is unprecedented in whistleblower laws that protect public freedom of expression. No other whistleblower law permits those accused of misconduct the discretion to cancel protection for public disclosures in any context.

1. The loophole is incompatible with the Directive’s purpose. A fundamental purpose of whistleblower laws is to permit and encourage exposure of institutional misconduct that betrays the public trust. The recital repeatedly reinforces the vital importance of the media for that goal. Of course defined, lawfully-classified information must be kept secret. For non-classified information, however, the importance of public exposure applies the most for national security misconduct that can have the most severe destructive consequences.

2. The loophole is unnecessary. Para. 21 of the recital, at 10, makes clear that “[n]ational security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State, in the fields of both defence and security.” The text, at 33, reaffirms, “This Directive shall not affect the responsibility of Member States to ensure national security.” The same applies to protection of classified information. (Id.) Those laws establish well-defined boundaries restricting release of national security information. There is no basis to replace well-established national security laws with open-ended discretion by intelligence officials to impose secrecy.

3. The loophole will be abused. This subjective standard would allow any competent authority, such as an intelligence agency, to gag any public whistleblowing it chooses, based solely on its unreviewable judgment call that the disclosure threatens national security. In the U.S. experience, those agencies have candidly declared that “virtually anything” can affect national security. In practice, that has meant anything threatening agency self-interest is a national security threat as well. Further, their un-reviewed subjective judgments sometimes have been caricatures of genuine national security. To illustrate, U.S. competent authorities have gagged whistleblowers from disclosing their birthdays or the addresses of U.S. government buildings.

Solution: The subjective standard must be replaced by an objective boundary – information that has been designated as classified. That is the boundary to restrict the public’s right to know which has passed muster under the rule of law. The loophole above should be modified to read “where the report contains information that has been properly designated as classified.” This specific wording is necessary to avoid unmarked or after-the-fact classifications.