Whistleblowers have become a fact of life - a seeming necessity - in our democracy. The most famous of them, Daniel Ellsberg, is touring Oregon this week to speak on behalf of what he feels is a vital part of the democratic conscience.
Ellsberg gained fame, as well as criminal charges that could have placed him in prison for 115 years, for making public in 1971 the Pentagon Papers, which awakened the nation to the illegality of the war in Vietnam. He speaks in Eugene on Saturday.
I've gained insights into the psyche and courage of whistleblowers through correspondence with Ellsberg the past year. He and I have a tenuous link through John McNaughton, chief assistant in the mid-1960s to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Ellsberg was McNaughton's right-hand man when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution expanded the Vietnam War. I was a young reporter on an Illinois newspaper, the Pekin Times, when McNaughton was its managing editor a decade earlier.
Ellsberg's book on the Pentagon Papers, "Secrets," was published in 2002, and its 457 pages make fascinating reading. But its impact can't compare to that of the 7,000 pages of secret documents he photocopied in 1969, then gave to The New York Times in 1971. From them, the Times printed stories that described how a series of U.S. administrations illegally extended the war, adding to the number of deaths it produced.
In 1973, Ellsberg went on trial for giving copies of the papers to the Times, The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. He had official access to them between 1964 and 1967, when he held the highest civil service rating as assistant to McNaughton, one office away from McNamara. Charges were dismissed because of criminal efforts by the Nixon White House to silence him.
Some of the same agents of Nixon who broke into Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel also burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, seeking material that could be used to blackmail Ellsberg. As Nixon's illegal forays collapsed around him, he exclaimed: "The sonofabitching thief is made a national hero, and the Times gets a Pulitzer for stealing documents!"
Startling as Ellsberg's actions were to those in power, they also energized public and private employees to speak out for corrective action to cheating in government and big business. The number of workers blowing the whistle on fraud, abuse or unfair practices has doubled over the past seven years. Whistleblowers include:
• Jeffrey Weigand, vice-president of research and development for Brown & Williamson, who revealed that executives of tobacco companies knew cigarettes were addictive, and added carcinogenic ingredients to them.
• Three women were chosen by Time magazine as its Persons of the Year for 2002 because of their whistleblowing: Sherron Watkins was an Enron vice-president who complained the company's accounting methods were improper. Coleen Rowley was an FBI attorney who said her early alerts about Zacarias Moussaoui, indicted Sept. 11 conspirator, had been ignored. Cynthia Cooper blew the whistle about WorldCom covering up $3.8 billion in losses with phony bookkeeping.
• Sibel Edmonds, a Turkish-American translator for the FBI, gave to the 9/11 Commission information she said proves senior government officials knew of al-Qaeda's plans to attack the U.S. with aircraft months before the airliners hit. She said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's denial of the data is "an outrageous lie."
The pattern went overseas when a technician at Israel's Dimona reactor, Mordechai Vanunu, revealed that Israel had built atomic bombs it denied having. He was tried in a Jerusalem Court in 1986, and served 18 years in prison before release this year.
Whistleblowing even emerged in Oregon this year when Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus in Hermiston ordered stronger whistleblower protections for workers who have safety concerns at the army's Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Plant. He said workers should not be punished for expressing their concerns.
Ellsberg alerted Americans to how the executive branch - in his experience, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon - compromises the truth in conducting foreign policy and military strategy. It's a lesson that takes on new meaning as the fighting in Iraq escalates. Ellsberg's impact on history, even if not on government, is best described by Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio:
"Ellsberg single-handedly changed the course of history. His message of the menace of secrets rings true today."
George Beres of Eugene formerly managed the University of Oregon Speakers Bureau.
Copyright 2004 The Register-Guard