Ellsberg in 2020 Photo from Wikipedia

The moral stakes of whistleblowing

  • June 29, 2023

The June 16 death of Daniel Ellsberg again brings to the fore the morality of his release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers during the height of the Vietnam War. Did Ellsberg perform a morally good action in releasing documents detailing a long history of American deceit, lies and self-deception about a war which took the lives of up to three million Indochinese and 58,000 Americans? Or should he have upheld his oath to maintain the secrecy of confidential information?

In the publicity following Ellsberg’s death, the morality of whistleblowing has received little discussion. Perhaps our society has come to automatically regard the exposure of wrongdoing by those sworn to protect their company’s or nation’s internal workings as morally acceptable. If so, that acceptance is tenuous. Whistleblowers who bring media attention to their causes may be lionized by the public, but many will find their future career prospects bleak and suffer major psychological damage.

Most whistleblowing takes place within organizations, some of which have established channels for informants to anonymously bring their concerns to those who can act on their complaints. But even if whistleblowers do not suffer retaliation from their bosses, they may be shunned by fellow employees.

Many, but not all, informants are motivated by a desire to end unethical practices. Also, many complaints about unethical behaviour are false or based on incomplete information. In Canada, the office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner reports the results of investigations to Parliament but does not report the percentage of complaints judged to lack merit.

Also in Canada, the prime minister’s national security advisor has expressed her determination to catch and punish the official who leaked information to the media about Chinese interference in federal politics. “The law has been broken. Sources, techniques, have been put at risk. Our credibility with Five Eyes allies has been put at risk,” Jody Thomas told CBC’s public affairs program The House. “There are better ways of trying to bring some light to this topic than risking Canada’s national security.”

Of course, as part of the establishment, she would say that. Whether her fears are justified, Thomas does point out negative repercussions of whistleblowing.

So what about Ellsberg? The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Ellsberg made the papers available to a New York Times reporter four years later, and it published key portions of the documents. However, his first attempt to draw attention was through senators and government officials. Only when they failed to make the papers public did he go to the media.

It seems clear that Ellsberg’s intention was to help end the war rather than for any benefit he might have received. In 2007, he said the documents “demonstrated unconstitutional behaviour by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates.”

Did the public revelation of U.S. lying, deceit and participation in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government violate Jody Thomas’ concerns about putting sources, techniques and international alliances at risk? It appears not, although the charges against Ellsberg for espionage, theft and conspiracy never went to trial because of the Nixon administration’s interference in the process of justice.

What Ellsberg released was a historical study rather than, say, military plans for the invasion of a foreign country. The publisher of The Times said, “These papers … were really a part of history that should have been made available considerably longer ago. I just didn’t feel there was any breach of national security, in the sense that we were giving secrets to the enemy.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the newspaper’s right to publish the papers and, in 2011, the government declassified them.

Although the Pentagon Papers did not bring an end to the Vietnam War, it made the public aware of a story it had a right to know. I am no one’s moral arbiter, but I believe Ellsberg performed a heroic action by releasing the documents.

However, the publication of the papers had long-term consequences. It contributed to the collapse of public trust in government which, over the past 52 years, has led to erosion of public order. But you cannot blame Ellsberg for that. If governments always told the truth and worked unceasingly for the common good, they would have much greater credibility.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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