Barack Obama has been accused of having the worst record of any US president on dealing with whistleblowers by the Oscar-nominated director of a documentary about the man behind the Vietnam war Pentagon Papers leak.
Judith Ehrlich, whose 2009 film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers explored the 1970s leak of US government documents relating to the Vietnam war, said that Obama has indicted five whistleblowers since taking office in January 2009, which already made him the "worst president in terms of his record on whistleblowing".
Among the five she is understood to be referring to is Bradley Manning, the US army private who is being held in detention accused of leaking 250,000 diplomatic cables to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks US embassy cables leak, published in late 2010 in partnership with papers including the Guardian and New York Times, has been compared to the Pentagon Papers in terms of its scale.
Another is understood to be Thomas Drake, a former senior official at the National Security Agency accused of passing classified documents to a newspaper reporter.
Ehrlich, who co-directed the 2009 film profiling Ellsberg and events leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, won a Peabody award and an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.
Speaking at a session on WikiLeaks at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on Thursday, she said that whistleblowing has become more dangerous than ever, due in part to the restrictions imposed by the US Patriot Act, which was brought in by former president George W Bush in 2001 and recently extended for several years by Obama.
Ehrlich also praised Manning for his "courage" if he were responsible for the US embassy cables leak, adding: "There is no safe way to leak. He is prepared to spend his life in prison or be executed [for it]."
She added that the alleged Manning leak – if it came from him – was from the "very bottom" of the food chain, adding that secrecy is usually imposed by governments "mainly to cover up mistakes from people within government". "People have a right to know what their government is up to," she said.
Also speaking at the session, WikiLeaks: Behind the News, was Vaughan Smith, the founder of the organisation championing independent journalism, the Frontline Club, and a friend of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Smith, who sheltered Assange on his Norfolk estate following the publication of the diplomatic cables last year, defended Assange against criticism from some on the panel.
He said that, contrary to popular perception, Assange does not promote "radical transparency" and is interested in a "conversation about what can and cannot be made transparent".
Smith added that Assange was a victim of widespread misinformation, slander and "dirty tricks", especially from postings on the internet. He said that his current life's work was dedicated to "showing what is true and what is not".
"We are missing the point by saying we would like it to be different. Well [the internet] is here and what Julian is doing is giving us an opportunity and what we have to decide is what we do about it," he added.
Smith said Assange has been "extremely effective despite the apparent chaos" of the US embassy cables operation, which has seen him fall out with many news organisations. "He is the inspiration for WikiLeaks and that troubles a lot of people," he added.