The initial coverup of My Lai in the late 60s, discussed in Part II, helped make Americans more cynical–more likely to believe the government couldn’t be trusted to uncover wrongdoings through the mechanism of internal investigations. The press came to be seen as the more reliable watchdog, and whistleblowers were now more likely to go directly to the media to report governmental offenses. The media, in turn, felt freer to oblige without fear of negative consequences to itself.
My Lai had some special (perhaps even unique) characteristics that make it the purest example of an event that needed a whistleblower. The offenses involved were of an extraordinarily serious and profound nature, and the initial coverup was virtually complete. Furthermore, the whistleblower was not bound by any vow of secrecy. Whether he needed to go to directly to the media (as Ridenhour eventually did, after the second investigation–sparked by his letters–was already in progress and had led to Calley’s being charged with murder) is unclear, however.
Another seminal case from the 60s, somewhat more analogous to present-day leak situations, is that of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It is perhaps the most famous example of someone in a national security position leaking classified information to journalists. Far more than My Lai, the Ellsberg case has certain parallels with the present situation involving the CIA detention center leaks.
At the time he gave the Pentagon Papers to the press, Ellsberg was not a CIA employee. But he was an employee of the RAND Corporation, with access to classified information; one can safely assume he had taken an oath to keep those papers secret. His growing disillusionment with the Vietnam war (although, interestingly enough, Ellsberg had been strongly against the war from his earliest exposure to it, way back in 1961) led him to copy the classified documents with the idea of making them public and exposing the cynicism and duplicity with which he felt the Vietnam war had been conducted.
Ellsberg hoped that the publication of the Papers would cause people to become upset on learning they had been lied to by their government, and then to clamor for the war to end. As such, his position was essentially political–although it was not narrowly partisan, since the Pentagon Papers was an equal-opportunity disclosure; the information obtained therein implicated both Democrat and Republican administrations.
Like Ridenhour, at the outset Ellsburg did not release the documents to the press, but sought instead to persuade certain sympathetic antiwar Senators (chief among them J. William Fulbright) to go public with them on the Senate floor. His motivation for this scheme was that he knew he would be liable to prosecution if he went to the press, and he fully expected to be sent to jail as a result, whereas Senators would be immune from such prosecution.
But no Senator would take the bait, not even Fulbright. As a result, Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the media. Initially, he made an effort to escape prosecution by hiding out:
Although the Times did not reveal Ellsberg as their source, he knew that the FBI would soon determine that he was the source of the leak. Ellsberg went underground, living secretly among like-minded people. He was not caught by the FBI, even though they were under enormous pressure from the Nixon Administration to find him.
However, Ellsberg surrendered voluntarily to authorities only a few weeks later:
On June 28, Ellsberg publicly surrendered to the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, Massachusetts. He was taken into custody believing he would spend the rest of his life in prison; he was charged with theft, conspiracy, and espionage.
But Ellsberg never went to prison. In a stunningly ironic turn of events, the actions of Nixon’s “plumbers” (who later carried out the Watergate burglary, but whose nickname came from their earlier attempts to fix Ellsberg’s “leaks”) ended up inadvertently freeing Ellsberg. As in a Shakespearean tragedy, Nixon’s wild overreaching against Ellsberg sowed the seeds of Nixon’s own downfall, through the mechanism of those very same plumbers:
In one of Nixon’s actions against Ellsberg, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in September 1971, hoping to find information they could use to discredit him. The revelation of the break-in became part of the Watergate scandal. ..Because of the gross governmental misconduct, all charges against Ellsberg were eventually dropped.
Earlier, the administration had sued the Times to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds that such publication would threaten national security. The case went to the Supreme Court; here’s an excerpt from a review of a book written about it, “The Day the Pressed Stopped,” by David Rudenstine:
Despite Americans’ constitutional right to a free press, certain government information–particularly that concerning military affairs–has been placed beyond the realm of public access. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1971, however (brought about when the Nixon administration sued the New York Times) knocked a howitzer-sized hole in that theory when the case allowed the New York Times and the Washington Post to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000- page document regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
I haven’t read Rudenstine’s book–although I’ve added it to my ever-growing, always-daunting, reading list–but the above quote describes what a watershed event the publication of the Papers was. Before then, newspapers would have been reluctant to print such things–whether out of loyalty to the government or out of fear of repercussions, or both. After the 1971 case, the gloves were off.
(For anyone interested in reading some original sources around that groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling–I confess that I’ve not yet done so, myself–this site looks to be an excellent place to start. And, by the way, on the question of whether the publication of the Pentagon Papers actually did pose any true threat to national security, the Rudenstine book supports the controversial contention that they did).
Fast forward to now. National security officers presently are encouraged to spill information with which they disagree–and are provided with support groups, networking, and free legal advice–organized by none other than Daniel Ellsberg himself.
It’s now almost assumed that the proper course of action for such whistleblowers is his final course of action: going to the press, rather than launching an internal investigation or going to Congress with the information. As I wrote previously, it appears that national security whistleblowers are being encouraged to act as virtual moles within their own organizations, remaining in their jobs in order to gain more of the sensitive material and to reveal it as they see fit, according to the dictates of their individual consciences, and often for political reasons. And the idea that there will be any serious legal consequences for the whistleblowers has been weakened; Ellsberg expected to be charged with treason (and was), but many whistleblowers today seem to consider such possibilities to be idle threats.
I believe that, as in so many things, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. We would not want go back to the era when something of the scope of a My Lai could be successfully covered up. The exposure of My Lai was a shock, but one of the benefits is that My Lai has been studied in depth and used as teaching tool by the military, which has instituted reforms that make such an event far less likely to ever happen today.
But it hardly seems necessary–or productive–to allow national security employees to leak like sieves to the press, much of the time about matters that are not clearly illegal, and motivated sometimes by pure partisanship. And it hardly seems good to allow the press to be the final arbiter of whether their own disclosures will damage national security or not.
The next post in the series will deal with suggestions as to how the pendulum might swing back to a more evenhanded position, one that balances the public’s need to know with the need to protect national security. One thing’s for sure: it won’t be easy.