Almost four decades after Defense Department insider Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers – thus exposing the lies that led the United States into the Vietnam War – another courageous “national security leaker” has stepped forward and now is facing retaliation similar to what the U.S. government tried to inflict on Ellsberg.
Army Intelligence Specialist Bradley Manning is alleged to have turned over a large volume of classified material about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to Wikileaks.org, including the recently posted U.S. military video showing American helicopters gunning down two Reuters journalists and about 10 other Iraqi men in 2007. Two children were also injured.
The 22-year-old Manning was turned in by a convicted computer hacker named Adrian Lamo, who befriended Manning over the Internet and then betrayed him, supposedly out of concern that disclosure of the classified material might put U.S. military personnel in danger. Manning is now in U.S. military custody in Kuwait awaiting charges.
Though there are historic parallels between the actions of Manning today and those of Ellsberg in 1971, a major difference is the attitude of the mainstream U.S. news media, which then fought to publish Ellsberg’s secret history but now is behaving more like what former CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls the “fawning corporate media” or FCM.
In the Ellsberg case, the first Pentagon Papers article was published by the New York Times – and when President Richard Nixon blocked the Times from printing other stories – the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers picked up the torch and kept publishing articles based on Ellsberg’s material until Nixon’s obstruction was made meaningless, and ultimately was repudiated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Today, the major response of the Times, Post and other tribunes of the FCM has been to write articles disparaging Manning, while treating Lamo as something of a patriotic hero.
The Washington Post depicted Manning as a troubled soldier, “slight” of build, a loser who “had just gone through a breakup,” who had been “demoted a rank in the Army after striking a fellow soldier,” and who “felt he had no future.”
The Post even trivialized Manning’s motive for leaking the material, suggesting that he was driven by his despair, thinking “that by sharing classified information about his government’s foreign policy, he might ‘actually change something.’”
Lamo also was quoted, speculating on what prompted Manning’s actions. "I think it was a confluence of things -- being a thin, nerdy, geeky type in an Army culture of machismo, of seeing injustice," Lamo told the Post.
Meanwhile, the New York Times put Lamo’s motives in the most favorable light.
“Mr. Lamo said he had contacted the Army about Specialist Manning’s instant messages because he was worried that disclosure of the information would put people’s lives in danger,” the Times reported. “He said that Army investigators were particularly concerned about one sensitive piece of information that Specialist Manning possessed that Mr. Lamo would not discuss in more detail.”
The Times quoted Lamo as saying: “I thought to myself, ‘What if somebody dies because this information is leaked?’ ”
According to the Times, Lamo elaborated on his moral dilemma in a Twitter message. “I outed Brad Manning as an alleged leaker out of duty,” Lamo said. “I would never (and have never) outed an Ordinary Decent Criminal. There’s a difference.”
In other words, the Times and the Post – two heroes of the Ellsberg case – seemed more interested in making the case against Manning (and sticking up for his betrayer) than in taking the side of a whistleblower who had put his future and his freedom on the line to inform the American people how the Iraq (and Afghan) wars are being fought.
There has been little suggestion by either the Post or the Times that Manning had done a patriotic service by helping to expose wartime wrongdoing.
The FCM also has shown little interest in the U.S. government’s apparent attempts to hunt down Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of Wikileaks.org which decrypted the video of the Iraq helicopter attack and posted it on the Internet under the title, “Collateral Murder.”
The Pentagon (undoubtedly with the help of the CIA and the National Security Agency) is reportedly conducting a manhunt for Assange, who is known to travel around the globe staying at the homes of friends and doing what he can to evade government notice.
The U.S. military has argued that videos like the Baghdad helicopter attack and photographs of American troops mistreating Iraqi and Afghan detainees must be kept secret to avoid enflaming local populations and putting U.S. soldiers in greater danger. President Barack Obama adopted that argument last year in overturning a court-ordered release of a new batch of photos showing U.S. soldiers committing abuses.
However, there is nothing classically classifiable about the helicopter videos or the other photographic evidence that has leaked out, such as the sordid pictures of naked Iraqi men being humiliated at Abu Ghraib prison. Under U.S. law, the government’s classification powers are not to be used to conceal evidence of crimes.
Yet, except for the changed role of the big newspapers, history does appear to be repeating itself, with the emergence of another “Most Dangerous Man,” the appellation that Nixon’s aide Henry Kissinger gave to Ellsberg during the Pentagon Papers case.
If you haven’t, you need to quickly watch the Academy Award-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, to brush up on your history. You’ll quickly understand how Manning’s recent arrest and the Pentagon’s hunt to neutralize Assange jibe with the story of the copying and publishing of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.
It should also be kept in mind that Ellsberg wasn’t the only “dangerous man” who helped undo the culture of secrecy surrounding the Nixon presidency. When Nixon responded to the Ellsberg case by organizing a special “plumbers” unit, which then spied on the Democrats at their Watergate headquarters, other whistleblowers, like “Deep Throat” (FBI official Mark Felt), helped journalists expose the wrongdoing.
Poor Nixon, in his vain attempt to keep control and power, he just had to keep expanding his “enemy list.”
A very similar crisis of conscience exists now. Power politics, and especially the politics of war, corrupt policymakers who deal with intelligence and security issues – and that leads to secrecy expanding exponentially to cover up bloody mistakes and shocking crimes.
For eight years, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney ran a highly politicized administration that took these inherent problems to new heights. And Obama, for many reasons, has thus far chosen to “look forward, not backward,” and has thus fallen way short of his singular campaign promise of CHANGE.
Despite his assurances of greater government openness, Obama has surely not given support to government whistleblowers. Quite the opposite, Obama has expanded on Bush’s methods, such as claims of the “state secrets” defense to block court challenges to government actions.
The Obama Administration has even instituted criminal prosecution of government employees who blew the whistle on prior unlawful actions of the Bush regime by daring to reveal, for instance, that Bush’s NSA was warrantlessly monitoring American citizens.
The final step in the U.S. government's continuing foray to the “dark side” has been Obama’s signing off on the proposed targeted assassination of an American citizen – who had been linked to support for Islamic terrorism – without any judicial due process.
Another major similarity between the Ellsberg era and today is that the United States is again witnessing the accrual of excessive “War Presidency” powers by the Executive Branch to the detriment and weakening of the legislative and judicial branches, not to mention significant damage to the legitimate function of the Fourth Estate, the press.
Crude attempts to avoid accountability (as well as the constitutional checks and balances) by shredding documents and other evidence to prevent judicial accountability even seem to have succeeded. For instance, CIA officials learned the lessons of the Abu Ghraib photographic evidence by brazenly destroying 92 videotapes of terrorism suspects being interrogated with waterboarding and other brutal methods.
While no legal action has as yet been taken against the CIA officials involved, government whistleblowers and even journalists who helped expose Bush-era wrongdoing may not be so lucky. The Obama Administration is said to be threatening to not only prosecute government whistleblowers but to jail a New York Times reporter for not giving up his sources for stories that revealed Bush’s illegal warrantless monitoring.
No wonder many news executives privately admit that in the current environment, they would never have the guts to publish something like the “Pentagon Papers” even though the Supreme Court upheld their prior brave actions in a landmark decision bolstering freedom of the press.
The current crippling of the U.S. domestic press makes it impossible for a singular Ellsberg-type insider to rely on the press as a last resort to get important information to the public. (Ellsberg had first taken his documents to members of Congress responsible for Executive Branch oversight, but they didn’t act.)
Given the fracturing and weakening of the U.S. press – its transformation into the FCM – a government “whistleblower” is more often like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. (Witness the BP disaster in the Gulf and the prior unheeded warnings of whistleblowers who warned of safety problems and potential spills.)
Having been one of the very few government officials publicly identified in a positive way for “whistleblowing,” Coleen Rowley has often been asked if there’s a “right way” to do it and also “what should and can a loyal and patriotic government employee who has sworn to uphold the Constitution do after witnessing such fraud, waste, abuse, illegality, or a serious public safety issue?”
The hard truth is that there are no good answers. There is no effective whistleblower protection in attempting to disclose within the chain of command and/or to warn one’s Inspector General. (Even some of the IGs who stood up and tried to investigate have been retaliated against or stifled.)
There is no protection as well for the Office of Special Counsel. (Indeed Bush’s former Director of the Office of Special Counsel himself has faced accusations of ethical breaches.)
In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no protection under the First Amendment for government employees making disclosures even if they are privy to and blow the whistle on outright illegal activity. [Garcetti v Ceballos—more here.]
The government insider who witnesses fraud, waste, abuse, illegality or a risk of serious public safety faces certain retaliation or firing if he attempts to disclose internally. Moreover, his/her warnings will undoubtedly be swept under the rug.
It’s easy therefore to argue that less-compromised international press outlets and Web sites, like Wikileaks.org, may offer a better hope for getting out the truth. As Wikileaks.org’s founder Julian Assange has said about the possibility of more news sites releasing sensitive information: “Courage is contagious.”
If the story of the Pentagon Papers is again playing out, the attempt to punish Manning and neutralize Wikileaks.org could be of similar magnitude to the effort employed against Ellsberg and the newspapers that received his photocopied documents. (The criminal case against Ellsberg ultimately collapsed after the disclosure of Nixon's illegal spying operations, including a break-in at the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist.)
There is one possible answer, however. Every decent reporter and journalist as well as every honest government employee and citizen who cares about democracy and freedom of the press could unite to do the Paul Revere thing and sound the alarm.
The little bit of integrity and conscience left in the mainstream media needs to be immediately reminded of the Nixon-Watergate-Pentagon Papers history and awakened to the dangerous consequences that otherwise flow from “war empowered” Presidents, from their well-oiled military machine and covert intelligence apparatus.
The Fourth Estate needs to go back to work battling the undue secrecy and covert perception management which will ultimately be used against them all and the U.S. citizenry. (Those who would have you believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt you must like the BP oil executives downplaying their oil spill.)
It’s quite possible that the future of accountable government is teetering on the brink with the arrest of the 22-year-old Army intelligence specialist and the fugitive manhunt for the WikiLeaks founder. History does repeat itself, but not necessarily with the same positive ending. This time, it could go either way.
The choice now is whether to move toward more militarism (and the secrecy that protects it) or toward more openness and honesty – and possibly a more democratic future.
Coleen Rowley is a former FBI Agent. She holds a law degree, and served in Minneapolis as "Chief Division Counsel," a position which included oversight of Freedom of Information, as well as providing regular legal and ethics training to FBI Agents. In 2002, Coleen brought some of the pre 9/11 lapses to light and testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about some of the endemic problems facing the FBI and the intelligence community. Rowley's memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller in connection with the Joint Intelligence Committee's Inquiry led to a two-year-long Department of Justice Inspector General investigation. Today, as a private citizen, she is active in civil liberties, and peace and justice issues.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on June 14, 2010.