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2021 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate - Daniel Ellsberg and The GroundTruth Project

Posted  December 21, 2021

Earlier this year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of one of the seminal moments in whistleblower history:  the publication, starting on June 13, 1971, of the “Pentagon Papers,” a 47-volume top-secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, based on classified documents, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former U.S. Marine and military analyst for the RAND Corporation.  The papers revealed that four presidential administrations had been lying to Congress and the American people for years about the country’s military involvement in Southeast Asia.  The publication of excerpts from the secret report by the New York Times and other newspapers led to a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court relating to press freedom, helped galvanize the Vietnam anti-war movement and, inadvertently, due to Nixon’s overreaction to Ellsberg’s act of civil disobedience, to the Watergate scandal and the downfall of an American president.

To mark the occasion, this past year The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world, organized a year-long public history project with UMass Amherst on the life and legacy of Ellsberg.  A focal point of the project was an online conference in late April, co-sponsored by GroundTruth and UMass Amherst, featuring various historians, activists, journalists, and former government officials who reflected on Ellsberg’s daring release of the Pentagon Papers, as well as his life-long commitment to nuclear disarmament, truth in government, and whistleblowing.

During one particularly powerful session, Edward Snowden spoke with Ellsberg about how he had been inspired after watching “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” a documentary about Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, to engage in his own act of civil disobedience, namely, leaking classified documents relating to the NSA’s mass surveillance of U.S. citizens following 9-11.  Snowden, like Ellsberg, views whistleblowing as a safeguard of democracy of last resort and was willing to risk imprisonment to reveal the truth about the NSA’s illegal actions to the American people.  The debt owed by Snowden, Reality Winner, Chelsea Manning, and other government whistleblowers to Ellsberg is profound and unmistakable.  Without Ellsberg’s courageous example during the height of the Vietnam War, subsequent whistleblowers might never have had the confidence to reveal important truths about our government’s deceptive actions and thereby hold officials accountable who tell lies and engage in misdeeds.

Remarkably, at age 90, Daniel Ellsberg is still motivated by “the power of truth as an act of dissent” and engaging in acts of whistleblowing.  In May, he leaked another classified report that he copied decades before at the same time as the Pentagon Papers.  Published this year by the New York Times and GroundTruth, the 1966 report documents how startlingly close the U.S. came to starting a nuclear war with China in 1958 after Communist Chinese forces began shelling islands controlled by Taiwan.  Although thwarted by President Eisenhower, American military leaders expressed the view at the time that, if the communist forces invaded Taiwan, the U.S. would have “no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes deep into China as far north as Shanghai,” despite the significant risk that this would cause the Soviet Union to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes on the U.S.

Ellsberg chose to leak the full classified report now because of increasing tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.  As reported by the New York Times, Ellsberg views the 1958 crisis as a historical antecedent for the present tensions:  “As the possibility of another nuclear crisis over Taiwan is being bandied about this very year, it seems very timely to me to encourage the public, Congress and the executive branch to pay attention to what I make available to them.”  In the same article, Michael Szonyi, a Harvard University historian, described the classified report as “hugely interesting” and relevant to nuclear war-planning that might already be underway.

Ellsberg has made clear that he has another reason for leaking this second classified report.  As revealed in “The Whistleblower,” a GroundTruth podcast that complements the joint UMass Amherst conference, Ellsberg is seeking to be prosecuted (again) by federal authorities for violating the Espionage Act, which makes it a crime to disclose, without authorization, defense-related information that could harm the United States or aid a foreign adversary.  Before he dies, Ellsberg wishes to bring a challenge before the Supreme Court to the constitutionality of the Espionage Act.  In his view, it is a violation of the First Amendment to criminally prosecute a whistleblower for revealing truthful information to the American people.  As Ellsberg states in Part 5 of the podcast: “There are some things worth risking a life in prison or even death to do or to reveal.  And the truth about climate change, the truth about a pandemic, the truth about nuclear war risks are among those things.”

For their sustained commitment to truth-telling as an act of dissent, we nominate Daniel Ellsberg—the father of modern-day whistleblowers—and The GroundTruth Project as Whistleblowers of the Year.


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