[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]
On the particularly fraught and particularly vital role of wartime whistleblowers.
The whistleblowers about whom I’ve written so far this week fall into two broad categories, categories which I’d say encompass the vast majority of folks who take such actions: whistleblowers who outed governmental secrets (as with Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden) and those who took action against powerful corporations (as with Karen Silkwood and Jeffrey Wigand). There are plenty of similarities between both types (not least because the government and such corporations so often align, not only in those specific cases and industries but in their interests and efforts overall), and also some key differences (including the respective questions of legality and forms of criminal charges that come with each type of whistleblowing). But there’s also a third type, one that somewhat parallels the governmental whistleblowers but brings with it its own distinct questions, not just of legality but of the fraught relationship between patriotism and morality: whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning who bring to light military, wartime secrets and lies.
Manning was assigned to an Army unit in Iraq as an intelligence analyst when she began leaking classified information in early 2010, both to Wikileaks and to her online acquaintance Adrian Lamo (subsequently found dead under somewhat mysterious circumstances); that information included videos of military actions, hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, and Army reports that came to be known as the “Iraq War Logs” and the “Afghan War Diary.” Leaking this sensitive and classified material would likely have been treated as a crime had anyone done it, but because Manning was part of the US military in a war zone at the time, her actions carried yet another layer of weight. That extra level was illustrated by the most serious of the 22 charges leveled against Manning by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command after her May 2010 arrest: aiding the enemy, a charge synonymous to treason and which could thus result in a death sentence. Manning was acquitted on that charge but convicted on the others (10 of which she had already pled guilty to), leading to a 35-year sentence at Leavenworth’s U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (a sentence commuted by President Obama in January 2017, after which Manning was released; she subsequently spent another year in jail, between March 2019 and March 2020, for contempt after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Julian Assange).
There’s no doubt that leaking classified information during and about a war is its own form of whistleblowing, and one that can’t simply be paralleled to the other forms I’ve discussed; I’m not suggesting that Manning should have been convicted of aiding the enemy (indeed I don’t believe she should have), but the very existence of the question reflects this distinction, as does the fact that her arrest, trial, and imprisonment were at the hands of the military rather than the criminal justice system. But at the same time, those distinctions themselves make precisely clear why figures like Manning play a vital role in our collective histories: because wars lend themselves so easily and fully to ideas of shared and absolute patriotism, of “supporting the troops” and “politics stopping at the water’s edge” and the rest of it, it is that much easier for illegal actions to take place without awareness (much less consequence). What Manning did, in the face of those longstanding and ongoing realities, wasn’t just tremendously brave (although it certainly was); it was a vital embodiment of the necessity of whistleblowing if every aspect of our society, including if not especially our military, is to function with transparency and integrity.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?