With Bradley Manning’s sentencing imminent and Edward Snowden switching out the ‘w’ in his name for a ‘u’ and taking an extended Russian vacation, the debate about government whistleblowers and how they should be treated and viewed is back in the spotlight – not that it’s been all that long since the last big whistleblowing blow-up. In fact, whether you agree or disagree with what Manning and Snowden did or not, we had all better get used to it – the information age doesn’t have any more secrets to hide than any other time in history, but those secrets are more accessible than ever. This is far from the last time we’ll be having this discussion.
It will be a while before there begins to be what can be called a historical perspective on Manning and Snowden, if that is indeed a thing that exists. For now, we’ll all be waiting to see what fates await the two, with Manning’s sentencing still to come and Snowden granted only temporary asylum in Russia. What we do know is that both are no doubt fated to be listed along with the most legendary government whistleblowers of years past.
So, who are those others, and what became of them after they spoke out? Here are a few men and women who, for better or worse, stood up to possibly the most intimidating opposition you can be faced with – the government of the United States of America.
Daniel Ellsberg is possibly the grandfather of modern whistleblowing – the man behind the leak of the Pentagon Papers to multiple members of the press. The leak revealed a study thousands of pages long conducted at the upper echelons of the United States government. It was a history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, and it was news to the public – the papers revealed that successive presidencies had deliberately misled the country on everything from President Johnson’s supposed unwillingness to send troops to the massive cost of the war to hidden doubts that the war could even yield a positive result. Some say this was the moment that Americans’ almost pathological distrust of the government started.
At the time of the leak, Ellsberg was a military analyst with the RAND Corporation. Needless to say, he didn’t have that job after the leak. Ellsberg was put on trial under the Espionage Act of 1917, but was freed when the judge declared a mistrial – mainly, because it was revealed that the Nixon White House had ordered illegal burglaries and wiretapping in order to find ways to tarnish Ellsberg’s image. He’s been fighting on behalf of whistleblowers and against government secrecy ever since, giving talks and praising the likes of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden for their recent actions.