Beyond WikiLeaks: The Trials and Tribulations of Analogue versus Digital Whistleblowers

We continue to live through the ‘WikiLeaks’ moment. At present, British police continue their round-the-clock vigil outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, England. At a cost of $19,000 a day, police have been stationed out-front of the Knightsbridge building for almost a year on the off chance that Julian Assange, founder of the online whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks, attempts to leave the building. While Ecuador has granted Assange political asylum, the British government will not guarantee him safe passage. If he leaves the Embassy, we will be arrested. The embassy has become his de facto prison. Across the Atlantic, Private Bradley Manning, the source of material leaked by WikiLeaks has been held for over three years in a military prison. Finally, after prolonged detainment and harsh, punitive and even unlawful pre-trial punishment, Bradley Manning’s court martial is now under way in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The significance of Manning’s trial must not be underestimated. It is not only Bradley Manning who is on trial but the act of leaking and whistleblowing an age of mass communication and dissemination. Information leaks are nothing new. However, with the rise of the information society where everything is digitalized, not only is more information generated, digital information is promiscuous. In the bygone analogue days of leaking paper memos or photograph negatives could be incinerated leaving little evidence of their existence. However, something the WikiLeaks leaks have made unquestionably clear is that there is no delete button on the internet. Once digital information has been released into the network or networks, it is next to impossible for it to be destroyed. This, of course, does not mean that political players may not try other tactics from DDOS attacks to personal attacks, form choking economic to technical infrastructures but the information still can’t be deleted from the Internet. The US government is aware of this fact. Back in 2008, the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center penned a classified report on WikiLeaks – that was eventually released by WikiLeaks- which stated:

Web sites such as use trust as a center of gravity by protecting the anonymity and identity of the insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers. The identification, exposure, or termination of employment of or legal actions against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others from using to make such information public (Horvath 2008, p. 3).

The above course of action can be summarized as follows: If you can’t denigrate the message, denigrate the messenger. The strategy suggested by the army is not new. In fact, we can see striking parallels with the case of ‘Pentagon Papers’ leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the 7000 page military study officially known as United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense and classified as “Top Secret-Sensitive” –was, until WikiLeaks, the largest leak of classified information in US history.

Like Manning, Ellsberg was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act yet his case was dismissed two years after being indicted and, after a mistrial, due to criminal interference by the Nixon administration’s “Plumbers”. The Plumbers were a covert White House Special Investigations Unit assembled by the Nixon Administration to stop leaks of classified information. During Ellsberg’s court case it was revealed that the Plumbers had previously broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst in an unsuccessful bid to acquire ammunition for an extra-legal smear campaign against Daniel Ellsberg.

White House tapes released in April 2001 reveal that President Nixon was keen to seek retribution in the Pentagon Papers case stating, on June 15, 1971:

Goddamn it. . . . Somebody has got to go to jail [pounding desk]. Somebody’s got to go to jail, that’s all there is to it. Our people here can’t just [unclear] anything about the war. . . . You’ve got to fight it. (Ellsberg 2002, p. 428)

In another conversation two days later, President Nixon stated that, in pursuing the leaker, part of his goal was to put “the fear of God into other people in this government” (Ellsberg 2002, p. 428). President Nixon also wanted to go beyond the criminal courts to try Daniel Ellsberg in the media, as the following extract of a conversation between President Nixon, Henry Kissinger and US Attorney General John N. Mitchell, in the wake of Supreme Court hearing lifting the New York Times publication ban, makes clear.

“We’ve got to get him [Ellsberg]…. Don’t worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press. Try him in the press. Everything, John, that there is on the investigation, get it out, leak it out. We want to destroy him in the press. Press. Is that clear?” (Ellsberg 2002, p. 432).

Kissinger and Mitchell agreed. President Nixon knew the information could not be discredited, so he had to discredit the messenger. Moreover, he wanted to make an example out of Ellsberg to send a message to future whistleblowers of how they could expect to be treated. And here we get to one of many parallels between the cases of Ellsberg and Manning. While the US government is not seeking the death penalty in its charge of “aiding the enemy”, Manning is unquestionably being made an example of. From his thinly veiled public torture of Manning during his pre-trial detention and through his stalled and extended prosecution that the harsh lessons about what happens to whistle-blowers and leakers are broadcast to the public. And, the price of betraying state secrets is shown to be high and profoundly humiliating, indeed.

While one of the most prominent cases, the Manning case must also be seen as symptomatic of the bigger crackdown on unauthorized leaking of information by the Obama administration. His administration has shown very little acceptance of whistle blowing charging an unprecedented 6 people under the WWI-era Espionage Act; double that of all past presidents combined. Moreover, the recent activities of the Department of Justice subpoenaing phone records from the Associated Press and the personal emails of journalists provide further evidence the current administration’s stance towards leaking.

Bradley Manning, to be clear, is in a different legal environment to Daniel Ellsberg. He faces a military court where the Military Judge’ Benchbook is concerned with the act of leaking and not the motivations behind it. And while a military judge will ultimately pass judgment on the charges against Bradley Manning, history will be another judge. Thus while a military court may not deem a whistleblowing argument as valid or show compassion, history books, with the benefit of hindsight and having the fog of war lifted may see him as following in the footsteps of all those before like Daniel Ellsberg who disclosed information about public problems for the greater good of the public. And in that, whether analogue and broadcast or digital and networked, stands the risky and radical practice of the leak, a position filled in the body by Manning but in the broader networked free press, by WikiLeaks, the organization that he reached out to.