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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.