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In the public interest: leaking and whistle-blowing from the Pentagon Papers to Wikileaks

04 Mar 2011

Bay Fang writes:

Duncan Campbell compared the Wikileaks phenomenon to three famous cases of leakers in the past: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Philip Agee, who exposed the names of CIA agents working in London, and Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear scientist who leaked details of that country's nuclear program. The first point of comparison was the scale of the leakage. Ellsberg, a former US Marine commander who subsequently worked as an advisor to Henry Kissinger and later for the RAND Corporation, became disillusioned with the Vietnam War and photocopied 7,000 classified documents to leak to the press in 1971. The internet allowed Wikileaks to make public a much larger number of documents. In Ellsberg's case, the Supreme Court ruled that under the First Amendment, the newspapers had the right to publish the documents. Ellsberg, however, was prosecuted by the Nixon administration under the espionage act, but didn't go to jail because the administration illegally wiretapped him. The leakage of the Pentagon Papers was one of the key factors leading to the resignation of President Nixon, but it didn't lead to the end of the Vietnam War. Campbell said that when he interviewed Ellsberg in 2002, Ellsberg said his only regret was that he hadn't leaked the documents earlier in the war, and encouraged people in the US government and military to do similar acts to prevent the war in Iraq. Ellsberg has spoken out in support of Wikileaks. One question that emerged in the question-and-answer period was what motivated the leakers. Ellsberg wanted to end the Vietnam war, Agee believed the CIA was backing the wrong people, and Vanunu was a Gandhian pacifist, said Campbell. Julian Assange didn't have a single issue, but has advocated in the past a complete breakdown of government (he once wrote an essay called "Government as Conspiracy"). Another question was what the long-term effect of Wikileaks will be. In Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's recent speech on internet freedom, she said that government confidentiality had to be protected, and that Wikileaks had begun with an act of theft. The act of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to the public may cause the US and other governments to become more transparent, but it may also have the opposite effect of adversely affecting the relationship between the government and media, and making the government more closed off to the public. This led to another discussion about whether the organisation Wikileaks would be likened to leaker or journalist in legal terms, since it had acted as a conduit for the leaked material and obviously had an agenda. In the end, however, while Assange's legal fate has yet to be determined, it is Pfc. Bradley Manning, the US soldier who is alleged to be the original leaker of the documents, who will be prosecuted.