On Tuesday evening, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hosted “Patriot or Traitor? Whistleblowing and Journalism in the Age of Government Surveillance,” an event featuring well-known government whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration.
Robert Scheer, a professor and founder of Truthdig, moderated the panel, which, along with Ellsberg, also included two other prominent whistleblowers: Thomas Drake, former senior executive of the National Security Agency, and attorney Jesselyn Radack, who currently represents Edward Snowden.
The event, a collaboration between the Annenberg School and the Government Accountability Project, is part of a two-day forum featuring the importance of government whistleblowing and the crucial duty of the press to release important truths to U.S. society.
“You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a whistleblower,” Drake said. “I don’t remember going to my high school counselor and saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a whistleblower.’”
Radack noted that a “leak” differs from whistleblowing in that it often serves no purpose for the greater good.
“Whistleblowing, on the other hand, is done to serve the public interest and the public’s right to know,” she said.
Moreover, when the pillars of the government begin to fail, the press becomes of the utmost importance to keep the government reliable. People who factually expose the government as incompetent, however, can suffer serious consequences.
“God forbid you should disclose government illegality — because then the hammer will really fall on you, and you will face prison the rest of your life,” Radack said.
Drake, who was the second American to be charged under the Espionage Act since Ellsberg, was publicly indicted and faced 35 years in prison for whistleblowing.
“[The government] wanted to make me the example,” Drake said.
Since 9/11, Drake said, the government has disengaged itself from the Constitution, granting itself authority to use emergency powers.
“And we have been operating in that mode ever since,” he said.
Nevertheless, all three panelists expressed the opinion that whistleblowing is important to defending the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.
Ellsberg, who claimed that the government failed to carry out its oath as stated in the Constitution, said he and his colleagues were beyond the Constitution and instead worked for the president. Ellsberg believes that he, as well as dozens of other people, had access to the papers that could have sealed a lid on the Vietnam War.
“Despite life or death situations, most of those people have stayed quiet,” Ellsberg said. “Practically everyone who had that documentation should have realized that the Constitution was being violated.”
Ellsberg stressed the cost for the United States could be steep, and when those secrets are kept and whistleblowers do not question the government.
“The price of a government keeping secrets is wars like Vietnam and wars like Iraq,” Ellsberg said.
Scheer echoed Ellsberg’s sentiments.
“Where [were] all of the people who knew that people were dying in wars that made no sense? Where are the several thousand that knew their neighbors and children who were being spied on?” Scheer asked.
Those potential whistleblowers do not release information, because if they do, they are often labeled as traitors and lack the proper protection for whistleblowers that should be enacted, Radack said.
Even so, despite now being considered a hero following the release of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was quickly labeled a traitor, Scheer said.
Ellsberg, who said he identifies with Snowden’s current struggle, still remembers the first time he was called a traitor in 1971.
“Chelsea Manning and now, Snowden, are no more of a traitor than I am,” he said. “And I’m not [a traitor].”
Radack, the former ethics advisor for the U.S. Department of Justice, was accused of “leaking” information when she drew attention to the illegal treatment of John Walker Lindh, who was captured as an enemy combatant by Afghan Northern Alliance forces during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
After a photo of Lindh exposed the prisoner naked, blindfolded and gagged, the Attorney General publicly claimed that they did not know the prisoner had a legal counselor, Radack said. Emails between Radack and the FBI, exposing U.S. intelligence illegality, disappeared from Radack’s office and she was put on the no-fly list.
“I didn’t realize by going to the press I was releasing the full force of the executive branch,” Radack said.
Since this incident, Radack has defended Drake and many other anti-government whistleblowers.
“I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to recognizing whistleblowers,” she said.
She added that the country is at a point where the First Amendment is currently “under attack.”
Drake agreed, noting issues of the government keeping secrets have increased to illegal data recovery without the consent of American citizens. He mentioned that since 9/11, the NSA has been using its extraordinary power to spy on Americans.
“The First Amendment, which I ultimately had to confront after 9/11, is the cornerstone of who we are as Americans,” he said. “If we don’t have the First Amendment, everything disappears.”
Also discussed was the importance of the press in keeping the government reliable.
“If you don’t have press, everything else becomes propaganda,” Drake said.
Geoffrey Cowan, former dean of Annenberg, said that the United States is not going to be protected by our leaders alone.
“[The leaders] have to feel the pressure from our citizens,” he said. “There couldn’t be journalism without sources. Whistleblowers, in a certain way, are sources with steroids.”
And in the time of the Vietnam War, the journalists failed at searching and clawing for the truth, the panelists said.
“Journalists were behaving as government lapdogs rather than government watchdogs,” Ellsberg said of journalism in the time of the Vietnam War. “To this day, we don’t have nearly as many whistleblowers as we could and should have.”
Students in attendance noted the panel was extremely telling on issues that are often not covered heavily.
Jamie Moskowitz, a senior majoring in communication, said she was inspired by the passion of the three speakers and how they took action to work toward justice.
“It was an honor just to hear their story,” Moskowitz said.
Sanam Ghaneeian, a sophomore majoring in communication, said the panel was helpful because she had no idea how much whistleblowers risked when presenting information to the U.S. public.
“I can’t believe how dangerous [whistleblowing] is and how much courage these people had to disclose information,” Ghaneeian said.