Secrets, strategies and whistleblowers

Anyone who has produced an investigative report, especially one that involves whistleblower allegations, knows there are some common strategies when it comes to fighting back. It’s useful to examine some of those strategies, against the backdrop of the current debate about the Wikileaks revelations. Earlier this month I took part in a discussion at the…

Anyone who has produced an investigative report, especially one that involves whistleblower allegations, knows there are some common strategies when it comes to fighting back.

It’s useful to examine some of those strategies, against the backdrop of the current debate about the Wikileaks revelations.

Earlier this month I took part in a discussion at the
University of Manitoba about the ethics of Wikileaks. During the debate, I
thought it was important to outline how investigative reports – particularly
those that involve whistleblower allegations – are often greeted by the targets
of the investigation.

The first reaction is often silence. By refusing to comment,
some people hope the report won’t be picked up by other media outlets and will
just fade away. Luckily for many targets of investigations, media rivalries
often work in their favour. If one newspaper or broadcast outlet gets a scoop, others may try to
ignore it. And if no one seems interested, the original media outlet may get
discouraged. The story ends up having no legs, and a potentially important
investigation may get curtailed.

A second strategy is often a studied indifference. The
investigation is labelled old news, or it is disparaged as not really revealing
anything of consequence. The strategy once again is to convince other media
outlets, and news consumers, that there is nothing to the report. If it is in
the power of the target to create a distraction, or a competing announcement,
this can also serve to divert attention from the report.

Strategy Number Three involves attacking the messenger. The
whistleblower who provided the media with information is labelled evil,
corrupt, perhaps even mentally ill. As for the media outlet itself, it is
called a dupe of the whistleblower, perhaps part of a conspiracy to smear the
targets of the investigation. This strategy can get nasty. Whistleblowers can
be slapped with lawsuits, and reporters can be thrown in jail for refusing to
reveal sources, or for inducing sources to smear their former employers. If you
have seen the movie The Insider, about allegations against Big Tobacco, you
know the strategy well.

Of course in some countries, it can get more extreme.
Journalists can get shot, even murdered. It has happened around the world. Call it Strategy Number Four, the ultimate one.

So in many ways, what has happened with the Wikileaks story
is not altogether surprising, though the scope of the revelations and the
ferocity of the reactions verge on the unprecedented.

Wikileaks has been around since 2006, but despite many
fascinating early revelations, Strategy Number One was in place. It was largely
ignored, and many people never heard of the website until 2010, when the
disclosures really started ramping up.

Then came the revelations last fall about the Iraq war,
showing evidence of 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths
in Iraq. The U.S. and Britain were saying up to this point that there were no
official counts of casualties in Iraq. The documents instead showed meticulous
records and an exact toll of 66,081 non-combatant deaths over a five-year

So Strategy Number 2 kicked in. A Pentagon spokesman called
the release of these documents “mundane”, and former British Prime Minister
Tony Blair insisted that they contained nothing new.

But that couldn’t hold up for long, especially when the UN chief investigator on torture
said: “In relation to what now has been revealed by WikiLeaks, it confirms
what we have heard about the brutality and the torture that were systematically
practiced by Iraqi security forces and irregular militias.” And another top
United Nations official called on the Obama administration to investigate the
role of U.S. forces in human rights abuses in Iraq.

Things have escalated exponentially since then, of course. Arguably,
Strategy Nunber 3 is in place. Now there’s talk of charging Assange under the
Espionage Act in the US, and there have even been a few calls, joking and
otherwise, for his assassination.

It is useful to compare the entire Wikileaks saga with the
Pentagon Papers, as it reveals a number of similarities in strategy.

Daniel Ellsberg was a US establishment insider. He worked
for the Pentagon, then the State Department, and then for a think tank
analyzing the Vietnam War. He decided to leak an exhaustive internal analysis
of that war. His aim was to bring an end to the war.

This was in 1971, and Richard Nixon was president.
Interestingly, Nixon at first wanted to take the indifferent approach. The
revelations went up to 1967, and mostly concerned Democratic presidents. But
the US was so fearful of a culture of continued leaks that it chose to ramp up
the strategy to the next level: smears and threats.

The most colourful part of the strategy, of course, was the
creation of a secret unit called The Plumbers, a covert team that broke into
Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to get files that would
discredit him. This is where G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and other shadowy characters made their first appearance. All of this was subsequently
revealed, and became part and parcel of the scandal that eventually forced
Nixon from office. But in the meantime the attack on Ellsberg continued.

Ellsberg provided the papers to the New York Times, which
consulted its lawyers, who advised not to publish them. But the newspaper
decided to proceed, amid risks of injunctions, lawsuits and threats of worse.
Ellsberg was threatened with prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act, the same
law Assange is being targeted for. He was eventually charged with theft and
being in possession of secret documents. But the dirty tricks campaign, and
other tainted evidence, led to the dismissal of all charges. On the question of
whether the New York Times and other newspapers had the right to publish the
material, the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the press. Here is what
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said:

“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose
deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free
press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the
people, and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and
foreign shot and shell. … The government’s power to censor the press was
abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the
government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of
government and inform the people.”

It’s interesting that many people who find fault with
Assange have said they support the publication of the Pentagon Papers. At the
time, though, Ellsberg and his media partners faced many of the same strategies
and attacks that Wikileaks is now enduring.

How should investigative journalists assess the
Wikileaks phenomenon? We can debate the sincerity or appropriateness of Julian
Assange’s motivations, just as we can examine every aspect of his private life,
down to the choices he makes or alleged improprieties he may commit in individual
sexual encounters. It seems clear, though, that it is far more important to
assess the value of the information he has helped to publicize. Does it help us
get any closer to the truth of important issues? Does it assist us in holding
powerful institutions to account? Those are the issues people in the U.S.,
Britain, Tunisia, Egypt and many other countries are grappling with today.