Are Whistleblowers Good for the Country?


A whistleblower is a person who exposes any kind of information or activity that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within a private or public organization.

The Prometheus of American Truth Tellers

Note: Most of the biographical information in this article is from

Daniel Ellsberg was born on April 7, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Highland Park, Michigan the son of a civil engineer and a homemaker. His parents were Jewish who had converted to Christian Science. When he was 15 years old his mother and sister were killed in an automobile accident on a family outing. Given these antecedents it is no surprise that his classmates remember Danny Ellsberg as an introverted and unusual child. He was an excellent student, however, and won a scholarship to the prestigious Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, outside of Detroit. He graduated first in his class in 1948 and was awarded another full scholarship to attend Harvard. There he majored in economics and wrote a senior honors thesis entitled “Theories of Decision-making Under Uncertainty: The Contributions of von Neumann and Morgenstern.”

But Ellsberg didn’t stop there. He took advantage of a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship to study economics for a year at King’s College, Cambridge University (UK), then returned to the United States and volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps Officer Candidates Program. Ellsberg’s military service lasted three years, from 1954-’57, working as rifle platoon leader, operations officer and rifle company commander. Ellsberg’s military service as a Marine officer seems atypical for a person with his profile, but it was to be a positive character reference for him later when he was accused of being a traitor to his country.

Further Study, Think Tank Experience

After completing his military service, Ellsberg returned to Harvard on a three-year
Junior Fellowship to do graduate study in economics. In 1959, he went to work as an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a West Coast think tank that enjoyed traditional close ties with the American intelligence community. RAND’s favorite subject was, predictably, military strategy. Ellsberg’s first assignment at RAND was as a consultant to the Commander-in-Chief Pacific. Then, in 1961 he was assigned to draft the Secretary of Defense Guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on operational plans in the event of a nuclear war.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out the following year, Ellsberg was called to Washington, D.C. to serve on various working groups reporting to the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. That same year he completed his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard with a thesis titled “Risk, Ambiguity and Decision.” Ellsberg made a good impression in Washington and in 1964, he went to work as a Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, John T. McNaughton. His first day of work at the Pentagon, August 4, 1964, coincided with the alleged Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam. After the war the government admitted that the attack on the Maddox never occurred. It was a home-grown false-flag attack to whip up fervor for full-scale American intervention in the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg_VietnamEllsberg’s primary responsibility for the Defense Department was to craft secret plans to escalate the war in Vietnam—plans he says he personally regarded as “wrongheaded and dangerous” and hoped would never be carried out. Nevertheless, when President Lyndon Johnson chose to ramp up American involvement in the conflict in 1965, Ellsberg moved to Vietnam to work out of the American Embassy in Saigon for two years evaluating pacification efforts along the front lines. Hleft Vietnam in June 1967 after contracting hepatitis.
Ellsberg returned to the RAND Corporation in August 1964 to work on the team preparing a top-secret report ordered by Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, entitled U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-1968, aka, “The Pentagon Papers.” This report was a 7,000-page, 47-volume study that Ellsberg referred to years later as “evidence of a quarter century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder.” Although he worked as a consultant on Vietnam policy to new President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger throughout 1969, Ellsberg grew increasingly frustrated with their insistence on expanding upon previous administrations’ policies of escalation and deception in Vietnam and resigned in 1969.

Change, Change, Change

It was at a War Resisters League conference at Haverford College in August 1969 that Ellsberg was inspired to change his life and–though he wasn’t aware of it then–the life of his country. It happened as he listened to a speech by a draft resister named Randy Kehler, who said he was “very excited” that he would soon be able to join his friends in prison. Ellsberg was poleaxed:

And he said this very calmly. I hadn’t known that he was about to be sentenced for draft resistance. It hit me as a total surprise and shock, because I heard his words in the midst of actually feeling proud of my country listening to him. And then I heard he was going to prison. It wasn’t what he said exactly that changed my worldview. It was the example he was setting with his life. How his words in general showed that he was a stellar American, and that he was going to jail as a very deliberate choice—because he thought it was the right thing to do. There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year. I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that.

In late 1969, with the help of former RAND colleague, Anthony Russo, Ellsberg began making several sets of photocopies of the entire Pentagon Papers. The die was cast and Ellsberg never turned back, despite the massive personal and professional risk he was taking. (When the case got to court on January 3, 1973, Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 along with other charges of theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years.)  Before going to the press he offered the Papers to several congressmen including the influential J. William Fulbright, but none was willing to make them public or hold hearings about them. So in March 1971 Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which began publishing them three months later.

When the Times was issued an injunction ordering a stop to publication, Ellsberg provided the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post and then to 15 other newspapers. The case, entitled New York Times Co. v. The United States ultimately went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which on June 30, 1971 issued a landmark 6-3 decision authorizing the newspapers to print the Pentagon Papers without risk of government censure.

When he chose to leak the Pentagon Papers in 1971, many people both within and outside the government derided him as a traitor and suspected him of espionage. Since that time, however, many have come to regard Daniel Ellsberg as a hero of uncommon decency and bravery, a man who risked his career and decades of prison to help expose the deception of his own government in carrying out the Vietnam War.

The coals of Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers are still glowing due to his support of more recent high-profile whistleblowers like WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who has been under virtual house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than six years; soldier Bradley/Chelsea Manning, whom President Obama pardoned from a 35 year sentence; and defense analyst, Edward Snowden, who lives as a political exile in Russia (a nice irony, that). Do these people deserve the severe punishment they are receiving, or should they be awarded medals and have statues erected in their home towns? Who can ever forget the horror of seeing and hearing the 2007 video that Bradley Manning passed to Wikileaks of two American Apache helicopter gunships machine gunning a group of Iraqi civilians, and then the good citizens who rushed to aid the survivors?

Ellsberg said of his Pentagon Papers revelations: “They made people understand that presidents lie all the time, not just occasionally, but all the time. Not everything they say is a lie, but anything they say could be a lie.” Since leaking the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg has remained active as a scholar and antiwar, anti-nuclear weapons activist. He has authored three books: Papers on the War(1971), Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002) and Risk, Ambiguity and Decision (2001) as well as articles on economics, foreign policy and nuclear disarmament. In 2006, he received the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” “for putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk, and dedicating his life to inspiring others to follow his example.”

Here’s the Not-to-Be-Missed Ellsberg/Pentagon-Papers Documentary and You Can Watch It on YouTube


Though it deals with events that took place in the 1960’s and ’70’s, this four-hour PBS documentary will still give you goosebumps: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers! (Don’t be intimidated by its four-hour length. If you are the kind of person who is fascinated to know what really happened in recent American history this film will keep you riveted to your seat. Make some popcorn.)

Who is protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act–and More Importantly Who Is Not?

After many federal whistleblowers were scrutinized in high-profile media cases, laws were finally introduced to protect government whistleblowers. In 1989, Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act to “strengthen and improve protection for the rights of federal employees, to prevent reprisals, and to help eliminate wrongdoing within the Government.”

According to, “For purposes of disclosure and protection from retaliation, the law generally covers current federal employees, former federal employees, and applicants for federal employment. However, the OSC does not handle claims for employees of federal contractors, members of the military, or the U.S. Postal Service, among others. With regard to complaints of workplace retaliation, the OSC also cannot represent you if you work for certain intelligence agencies (such as the CIA, FBI, or NSA). Additionally, the OSC does not handle disclosures that are specifically prohibited by law and required by Executive order to be kept secret (for example, information necessary for national defense).”

The Whistleblower Protection Act places more emphasis on those federal employees who are not protected under the act’s provision than on those who are. And those who are not protected are among the people with access to the most critical information: government
contractors, military personnel, intelligence agents, and other people with access to “information necessary for national defense.” These limits on the law’s applicability would seem to indicate that the Whistleblowers Protection Act is more of a hollow gesture designed to give the impression of protection while actually reinforcing the legitimacy of persecuting the most relevant whistleblowers. Consequently, the most important American whistleblowers currently are not protected, rather rabidly pursued..

Is This Whistleblower Story About Them or You?

Obviously, it’s about people who reveal state secrets, but in the larger sense it’s about ordinary citizens’ perception of the revealers and their acts. Is it a healthy thing for public servants in sensitive positions to disclose their knowledge of documented cases of abuse or dishonesty in government? This entails, of course, revealing pertinent documents which most of them have signed solemn promises not to reveal. It’s not an easy question to unravel. It depends upon the values of the beholder. What does one consider more important, to safeguard information that the government has seen fit to classify as secret or to make that secret information public when its classification seems clearly contrary to the United States Constitution or abusive of democratic values, whether intended to cover up corruption, personal faults, war crimes or other human rights violations. Is it more important to obey the law oneself or to unveil officialdom’s far greater abuses of the law?

In more innocent times American citizens trusted their government and few people felt the necessity to denounce, or even suspect unfair play on the part of elected officials or high-ranking government employees. It was, in fact, the whistleblowers–over the past 50 years–who played prominent roles in changing this naive perception, starting with Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers–of which he was one of the authors–in 1969. The incredible upshot of the Pentagon Papers/Watergate cases–the resignation of President Richard Nixon when his impeachment conviction by the United States Senate was imminent–gave Americans a lot of food for thought. Could they trust their government to be honest and transparent? Obviously not, and that was the onset of the whistleblower phenomenon.

Ellsberg’s odyssey through the American intelligence and legal systems turned him into a hero for sane Americans, many of whose sons and daughters were being sacrificed needlessly in a war of bald aggression on an innocent sovereign country. At the same time, he was considered by many conservative Americans and authoritarian members of the government an outright traitor to his country. The most egregious example of this– which I have cited before, but it merits repeating–was President Trump’s current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declaring in 2016:

“He (Edward Snowden) should be brought back from Russia and given due process, and I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence,” Pompeo said.

Clearly, there is still a lot left to achieve in the matter of whistleblower protection. But there is cause for optimism. Daniel Ellsberg has shown the way.


Read more rantings in my ebook, The Turncoat Chronicles.
Thanks for liking, commenting and sharing.



Author: Michael Booth

Michael Booth, the creator of, is a US-born publicist, author and online publisher who has lived in a Spanish village in the foothills of Sierra Nevada for the past five decades. Though better known abroad for his fine-art printmaking sites and online magazine, Booth's day job for the past decade and a half, until recently, was his communications agency, dedicated principally to designing and implementing Internet strategies for Spanish companies and institutions. It took him a long time to get out of publicity and into writing but it was worth the wait.

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