Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part I)

This Saturday, New Statesman and the Frontline Club host a special adversarial debate on the proposition "This house believes whistleblowers make the world a safer place". Here, we profile some of the most prominent whistleblowers in recent memory . . .

Joe Darby

In 2004, a US military reservist named Joe Darby passed a CD containing shocking images to a member of the army's criminal investigation command. The photographs on the disc were taken at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad, and depicted US soldiers torturing, humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners. The images caused an international uproar. In the weeks that followed, after an investigation, instances of rape and homicide were also uncovered at the prison, photographs of which have since been suppressed by the Obama administration. Eleven soldiers were eventually convicted of charges relating to the incidents at Abu Ghraib and Darby was awarded a John F Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2005. But not all Americans have celebrated Darby's actions. Some, including members of his own family, have branded him a traitor. He now lives in an undisclosed location and has started a new life out of the army.

Daniel Ellsberg

While working as a US military analyst in the late 1960s, 38-year-old Daniel Ellsberg made copies of classified documents relating to the Vietnam war. The papers detailed America's political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 and demonstrated, in the words of Ellsberg, "unconstitutional behaviour by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates". Upon their publication in the New York Times in 1971, the Pentagon Papers caused a sensation, exposing how four consecutive presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson – had knowingly lied to the public over the war. The then president, Richard Nixon, tried to prosecute Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, but all charges were dismissed after it was revealed the prosecution had gathered evidence illegally through wiretaps and other means. Now aged 79, Ellsberg remains vocal in his support of other whistleblowers, and has been a staunch advocate of WikiLeaks.

Mark Felt

When five men were arrested after breaking into offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Watergate Hotel in 1972, few expected the huge political scandal that would result. Known up until 2005 only as Deep Throat, Mark Felt, then associate director of the FBI, leaked details of the Watergate investigation to the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The investigation detailed how burglars who had broken into the DNC's offices had done so with the explicit prior knowledge of the White House, the department of justice, the FBI and the CIA. Most controversially, tape recordings of conversations between President Nixon and his closest aides revealed that Nixon himself was directly involved in attempting to cover up links between his administration and the break-in, forcing his resignation. For 30 years Felt denied he was the source of leaks to Woodward and Bernstein, but came out shortly before his death in 2008 at the insistence of his family.

Katharine Gun

An ex-translator for the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Katharine Gun was catapulted into the public eye after she leaked a top-secret email from the US National Security Agency in 2003. The email detailed US plans to illegally bug the offices of six UN countries in the lead-up to the Iraq war – contravening both the Vienna Conventions (the set of rules that govern global diplomacy) as well as the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Gun, aged 29 at the time of the leak, felt that the email was a direct attempt to undermine democratic process in the run-up to war. It outlined how the US wanted British help in order to access "the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers the edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises". After the Observer splashed the contents of the email across its front page just two weeks before the Iraq invasion, Gun was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The prominence of the case won her high-profile support from the likes of the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see above) and the actor Sean Penn, and the charges were eventually dropped after the prosecution declined to offer evidence.

Read: Eight modern-day whistleblowers (part II)

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London, currently working for the Frontline Club. His website is here.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.