I love whistleblowers. Bradley Manning. Daniel Ellsberg. WikiLeaks. Whistleblowers remind all of us that no matter where you work, no matter how you draw a paycheck, you must follow your conscience and do what’s right.
But what happens when someone blows a whistle, and no one will listen?
That’s what happened to whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg when he first sought to leak the Pentagon Papers, a cache of secret Defense Department documents about the Vietnam War. It was only when Marcus Raskin, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, lent Ellsberg a hand that the Papers made it into the public eye.
Raskin remembers well meeting Ellsberg for the first time, on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s. The two were summoned to a small-group meeting of top minds on nuclear policy. Raskin worked for the National Security Administration. Ellsberg worked for the RAND Corporation, a defense contractor. They both took very different paths. Raskin founded the Institute, a progressive think tank, in 1963. Ellsberg worked in Vietnam and came to regard the war as a mistake.
In 1969, with the help of another friend who worked at RAND, Ellsberg had secretly photocopied a 7,000-page classified Defense Department study with shocking details about possible U.S. war crimes. Officially titled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, this was the tome that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Feeling that the truth about Vietnam could help end the war, Ellsberg tried to convince a member of Congress to release the Papers. But none of the lawmakers he approached was willing to make the Papers public.
Ellsberg eventually told Raskin about the study and shared several thousand pages with him. Raskin used the Papers in a book on war crimes he was working on. Ellsberg told Raskin that he had been trying to get the Papers to go public by going through a member of Congress. Raskin asked him why he didn’t want to release them through the news media. Initially, Ellsberg resisted the idea.
Raskin was the first to urge Ellsberg to hand the Papers over to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, the journalist who finally broke the story. And it was Raskin who first picked up the phone to give Sheehan a call. Raskin and Sheehan arranged for a young reporter working with Sheehan to come pick up the Papers. Raskin urged Ellsberg to make his own connection with the New York Times, which he did.
Ellsberg told Sheehan about the section of the Papers that addressed the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the event widely accredited as having started the Vietnam War. The top-secret history didn’t support the official story of the event. For some reason, Ellsberg was reluctant to hand over this part of the study. He told Sheehan that he would not.
Sheehan received the account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident anyway. Though he has never disclosed his source, the account was released to him by Raskin.
“My hope, you see,” explained Raskin, “was that the Papers would be treated as proof of war crimes.”
The New York Times began publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. These dispatches, along with other subsequent ones in The Washington Post, helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war and put an end to the conflict in Vietnam.
Whistleblowers like Ellsberg are heroes. And the people who help make them heard are also heroes. When a person is ready to blow his or her whistle and expose government wrongdoing, they can count on people like Marcus Raskin and organizations like the Institute for Policy Studies to help them gain a wider audience. They can rely on networks like WikiLeaks, now under U.S. government scrutiny, to help amplify their voices.
Come one, come all. Whistleblowers can find ready assistance among fellow persons of conscience.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.