Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, perhaps the online community’s most well-known ‘whistle blower’ website, is currently under house arrest and awaiting extradition to Sweden for alleged sexual offences. Wikileaks has revealed previously secret details about the workings of the Church of Scientology, civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unflattering discussions between diplomats about foreign leaders. To some, Assange is a hero, to others a criminal. For example, in 2009 he received an award from Amnesty International. However, a number of US politicians have asked for his arrest, with one -- former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – even claiming Assange should be executed for treason. How do we put such opposing viewpoints into historical context? Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from a previous whistleblower controversy.<image class="right" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/9/800px-Julian_Assange_20091117_Copenhagen_1.jpg">
This current year is the 40th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine officer, who worked for the Rand Corporation, and his friend Anthony Russo, leaked a number of top secret documents to the New York Times. They revealed:
- President John F. Kennedy’s role in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese head-of-state, Ngo Dinh Diem.
- The US’s secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos.
- The US had doubts if the ‘Domino Effect’ -- the underlying reason for the Vietnam War -- applied to Vietnam at all.
- That President Johnson had lied persistently to the American people about the scale and scope of the war.
- That American and Vietnamese civilian casualties were much higher than those reported by the US media.
- That the war was still being fought not to keep South Vietnam ‘free’, but to avoid a US humiliation.
The ‘Pentagon Papers’, as they came to be known, was a 7000-page history of the Vietnam War, originally commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and completed in 1968. These documents were meant to be seen only by senior Department of Defense staff, and by members of the Johnson administration. Ellsberg had worked for McNamara as a policy advisor and was originally a supporter of the war. However, by the end of the 1960s he had become an antiwar activist, convinced that individuals had a moral duty to oppose immoral actions, even if it meant imprisonment. After failing to convince senior politicians such as William Fulbright and George McGovern to release the documents, Ellsberg contacted the New York Times, which began publishing excerpts in June 1971.<image class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/9/scotus_pentagon_papers.jpg ">
The full weight of the state was brought to bear on Ellsberg. A warrant was issued for his arrest for alleged espionage. Nixon administration employees burgled Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find something incriminating against him. They also secretly recorded his phone calls. These illegal acts were revealed at Ellsberg and Russo’s trial, and both were found not guilty of theft, conspiracy and espionage.
If it wasn’t for Ellsberg’s moral decision to oppose what he saw as an immoral war, we probably never would have known about the duplicity and illegal behaviour of three US administrations, and in particular, the myth of Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ administration might not have been exposed. The verdict of history therefore seems to vindicate Ellsberg’s actions. I wonder, 40 years from now, will we view Julian Assange’s whistle blowing in the same light.