A Brief History of American Whistleblowing


On 17th January, shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama commuted the majority of the 35 year prison sentence that Chelsea Manning was given in 2010 after being convicted of leaking classified documents regarding American military activity around the world, many pertaining to action taken in the war in Afghanistan, to Wikileaks. As a result, Manning is set to be released in four months’ time. The leaking of the Afghan war logs was perhaps the most significant act of political whistleblowing in American history, and launched Wikileaks into the public sphere. However, it is not a new phenomenon and so we must look back almost 250 years at some of the landmark cases of political whistleblowing.

One of the first cases of whistleblowing was in 1777, when John Grannis, representing 10 sailors from the Continental Navy, submitted evidence to the Continental Congress that the commander of the Continental Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, had tortured British sailors who were being held prisoner. Congress suspended Hopkins, but Hopkins retaliated by suing the sailors for libel in Rhode Island and two sailors who were living in Rhode Island at the time, Samuel Shaw and Richard Marvin, were jailed. In response to this, Congress passed a law to protect whistle blowers from such violations – “That it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge” – and also gave the imprisoned sailors financial support in order to allow them to mount a legal defence, which was successful in releasing them from jail.

The attitude of the Continental Congress was that people should speak out about individual or institutional abuse of power so that the Thirteen Colonies, and the newly formed United States, would be held accountable for their actions. By offering both public and financial support to whistleblowers, they ensured that people would not be afraid to, or have anything to lose by, calling out the wrongdoings of the individuals or institutions they work for and within. In more modern times, government and its associated agencies have undermined this principle with the notion of ‘classified information’ and ‘national security’. Whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have all fallen foul of the American government for actions which the Continental Congress, the first legal delegation made up of individuals from the Thirteen Colonies, would have praised and supported.

Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst in the 50s and 60s who in 1971 leaked a top secret report, known as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed America’s involvement in the South Korean coup of 1963, their secret military escalation of the war in the surrounding countries of Laos and Cambodia (as well as illegal attacks on villages and towns in North Vietnam) and a knowledge that with the levels of resources being committed to the war, victory for America was unlikely. Nixon’s government went after both Ellsberg and the New York Times, who published the report, but their case against the former was thrown out due to unlawful gathering of evidence and government misconduct – individuals working for Nixon broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and stole his psychological records in an attempt to discredit him – and, despite a brief halt in publishing ordered by a court of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the New York Times, allowing them to print the classified information obtained through Ellsberg. This ruling is one of the modern foundations on which freedom of the press rests, a freedom which has been instrumental for the likes of Wikileaks and The Guardian to publish information given to them by whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Snowden is undoubtedly the most famous political whistleblower in American history, after leaking classified information gathered at the NSA, where he had worked since 2009, on the massive surveillance systems which the intelligence organisation used to spy on the private communications of ordinary people all around the world. Snowden is currently stranded in Russia after being found guilty of theft of government property and violation of the Espionage Act.

The second charge is particularly problematic as it states that “whoever knowingly and wilfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorised person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government or trans-national threat to the detriment of the United States any classified information…” The law is so watertight with regards to its ability to find the likes of Manning and Snowden guilty that the latter’s legal representative, Jesselyn Radack, argued that “the Espionage Act effectively hinders a person from defending [themselves] before a jury in an open court, as past examples show.” It also threatens the first amendment rights of media publications to publish information with the government infringing their ability to do so. The change in attitude from that of the Continental Congress and the legal foundations on which the United States was created is truly remarkable, and deeply worrying.

[Tim Abrams]

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