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The latest saga of revealed U.S. secrets stirs memories of past legendary leaks

<em>The New York Times</em> resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon Papers in its July 1, 1971 edition, after it was given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jim Wells
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AP
The New York Times resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon Papers in its July 1, 1971 edition, after it was given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The recent arrest of anAir National Guardsman in Massachusettsis just the beginning of another protracted struggle over leaked top secret documents, renewing a recurring theme that predates the age of the internet.

Each new episode stirs debate, both legal and political, about the motives of the leakers, the proper response to their actions and the larger consequences to come.

But whether we call them whistleblowers or traitors, whether we consider their actions conscientious or unconscionable, the people who decide on their own to share such material have often altered the course of events.

The current case has introduced a 21-year-old named Jack Teixeira to the world. He is alleged to have obtained classified material about the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role in that war. He is also alleged to have harvested information gathered by intelligence agencies from their surveillance (eavesdropping) on world leaders. He is accused of accessing all this while serving on base as a reservist and later leaking it in a group chat on the platform Discord.

It was a shock to most to think that someone so young and far down the chain of command could have such access – or manage to get it.

The fallout so far includes cries of outrage from various U.S. allies who have been the targets of U.S. intelligence gathering, otherwise known as spying. Some of the official reaction could be for show, of course. It is hard to imagine foreign governments are truly surprised at such activity by the U.S. or anyone else with the means.

But exposing it to the world is another matter. It embarrasses the targeted governments. It also shakes the confidence of frontline combatants such as Ukraine who depend on the U.S. for much of their weaponry. It has the potential to sow discord among the U.S.' allies in the NATO alliance and thereby aid the Russian invaders.

Teixeira was arrested and arraigned last week. The latest saga is just beginning to unfold, and much more will need to be learned about the motives involved. But the sudden appearance of new leaker has stirred memories of previous information release crises and their historical consequences.

For Americans who remember the Vietnam War era vividly, the idea of leaking government information instantly conjures the name of Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971. He has been credited with hastening the end of that war and contributing, if indirectly, to the eventual downfall of a president.

Ellsberg has been an inspiration for countless others in the U.S. and abroad ever since. And at 92, he is still actively supporting many of those emulators. Much more of him in a moment.

Dobbs decision and its fallout

Perhaps the most consequential leak of confidential and official material in recent history was last year's sharing of a draft decision in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The draft, which carried the preliminary assent of five of the nine justices, had the effect of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized abortion in all 50 states in 1973. It was first published by Politico early May 2022; in late June the court issued its official opinion.

To this day, the identity of the leaker has not been established. The court ordered an internal investigation that took months and involved the justices, clerks and staff. It failed to identify a guilty party.

The question of responsibility to one side, there is no question the Court's decision (and possibly the role played by the leak) have had enormous consequences.

When the public saw the leaked draft decision, there were protests outside the court and elsewhere. There were furious editorials and shouting matches on cable TV. Some theorized that whoever leaked the draft was trying to prompt protests and intimidate the majority supporting the draft decision.

People protest in response to the <em>Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization</em> ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
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Getty Images
People protest in response to the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

But it was also argued that the leak — far from breaking up the five-vote majority — would actually lock it in place. The theory was that once their initial votes on the draft decision were known the justices could not change them, lest they appear to have been swayed by the uproar.

It was also surmised that, had it not been for the leak, Chief Justice Roberts might still have organized a majority around an alternative – such as a ban on abortion after a stated period of gestation (such as 20 weeks). That was far less likely to happen when any deviation from the vote count on the draft would be glaring.

In the end, all five of the justices who affirmed the draft held the line, so the draft became the ruling of the court and the law of the land.

So, with the regulation of abortion left to the states, more than two dozen now have imposed strict restrictions – some verging on outright bans. The decision also gave the green light to a federal district court case withdrawing the decades-old FDA approval for the abortion drug mifepristone.

But the repercussions have not stopped there. If the Dobbs decision was a huge victory for anti-abortion forces, it was also a clarion call to action for abortion rights supporters. Shortly after the Dobbs ruling, the Gallup Poll found opinion on the issue had shifted nationally in favor abortion rights, with 55% calling themselves "pro-choice" – the highest such reading in decades.

Anti-abortion measures on the ballot went down to defeat in Kansas and Kentucky, states usually considered reliably conservative — especially on cultural issues. Then in the November 2022 elections, Democratic voting surged in many states, particularly among women of child-bearing age. Other factors in the mix last fall generally favored the Republicans, leading many observers to attribute the outcomes to the Dobbs decision more than any other. Partly as a result, Democrats were able to win their first outright majority in the Senate since 2014.

And the trend continued this spring, when Judge Janet Protasiewicz won a seat on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court campaigning as foursquare pro-choice liberal. It was not a typical nail-biter in Wisconsin, either, with Protasiewicz running up a victory margin of 11 percentage points.

WikiLeaks becomes a household word

In 2009 and 2010, a new organization styling itself as a journalistic enterprise won worldwide attention by publishing a series of documents from the U.S. military and intelligence services leaked by U.S. Army soldier and intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

Former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning speaks with reporters after arriving at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on May 16, 2019. Manning spoke about the federal court's continued attempts to compel her to testify in front of a grand jury.
Cliff Owen / AP
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AP
Former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning speaks with reporters after arriving at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on May 16, 2019. Manning spoke about the federal court's continued attempts to compel her to testify in front of a grand jury.

Manning was subsequently charged with 22 counts of disobeying orders and violating the Espionage Act. That law, enacted in 1917 during the First World War, has often been used against leakers and other kinds of dissenters. Manning also faced a count of "aiding the enemy" that could have carried the death penalty.

The Manning-to-Wikileaks pass off included 750,000 classified or sensitive documents, diplomatic cables, Army logs and diaries. There were also powerful videos of events such as a 2007 helicopter strike on a Baghdad street and another airstrike in Afghanistan in 2009.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in confinement. Her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama after she had served seven years.

"I have a responsibility to the public," she told ABC news upon her release. "We all have responsibility."

Wikileaks was founded in 2006 by an Australian editor-publisher-activist Julian Assange. He has spent many of the years since battling extradition to the U.S. for the Manning leaks and to Sweden on a sexual misconduct charge (since dropped). He has lived in Ecuador or the Ecuadoran embassy in London and he has been in prison in England since 2019 and is currently appealing an extradition order to the U.S.

Wikileaks was also involved in the case of Edward Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant for the National Security Agency who had also worked for the CIA. In 2013, Snowden leaked information about surveillance programs run by the NSA and similar agencies of allied governments around the world. Stories based on the documents involved appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian and other publications.

Snowden was charged with stealing government property and, like Manning and Ellsberg, for violating the Espionage Act. He left the country in 2013 under the sponsorship of Assange, intending to go to Ecuador. En route, however, he received temporary asylum in Russia and found it difficult to leave without being arrested in another country. He has been in Russia since, and was granted Russian citizenship in 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to consider any extradition orders for Snowden.

In an interview with NPR in 2019, Snowden said he shared classified material to protest the excessive collection of data on Americans by the government and others.

"Where this data that your [smart] refrigerator was collecting, that your phone was collecting, that the government was collecting — where all of this data was going was intentionally hidden from us," he said. "We are no longer partner to our technology, in large part, just as we are increasingly, unfortunately, no longer partner to our government, so much as subject to them. And this is a dangerous trend."

Wikileaks was also well known for accessing and blasting out the emails of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign managers and the Democratic National Committee in 2016. The leak made clear the DNC had favored Clinton on her way to the nomination and forced the resignation of the DNC chair. It also enraged supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders' rival campaign and embarrassed the Clinton campaign and the party on the eve of its national convention.

Ellsberg has been godfather to generations of information rebels

Among those who rose to the defense of both Manning and Snowden was Ellsberg himself, now an aging icon of the political left and still the most famous whistleblower in U.S. history.

As a military analyst working on a Pentagon project in 1971, Ellsberg chose to release to the public an extensive, documentary record of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Known as "the Pentagon Papers," Ellsberg's mammoth disclosure changed the national temperature about the war, prompted a landmark Supreme Court decision on freedom of the press and provoked an overreaction from President Richard Nixon that led directly to the scandals that ended his presidency.

As John A. Farrell wrote in his 2017 biography on Nixon: "The saga of the Pentagon Papers came to a close with the president, not the whistle-blower, as the premier casualty."

Ellsberg was at the time a 40-year-old Marine Corps veteran with a Harvard doctorate who had worked for the Defense and State Departments and the RAND Corporation. A "hawk" before going to Vietnam in 1965, Ellsberg had since turned against the war and the official justifications given for it.

Since 1969 he had been one of dozens of analysts studying and writing about the decisions behind the escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The study covered the years from 1945 to 1968, and had first been commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara toward the end of that period.

He and a RAND colleague, Anthony Russo, had access to a copy of the 7,000-pages of classified documents and historical narrative they kept at RAND. They began smuggling sections of it out to photocopy them at night, one page at a time. It took most of two years.

Ellsberg showed the material to a few senators who had been critics of the war. He said he hoped they would hold hearings, or enter the report in the Congressional Record. But they were not willing to do so, and one encouraged him to go the New York Times.

Ellsberg did just that. On June 13, 1971, the first story ran atop the front page.

As the Times' Neil Sheehan struck the theme, he wrote that the United States had gone to war not to save the Vietnamese from Communism, but to maintain "the power, influence and prestige of the United States...irrespective of conditions in Vietnam."

Ellsberg later summed it up by saying: "We always knew we could never win." Yet the war went on and more lives were lost because American leaders were unwilling to acknowledge the futility of the war or to accept the humiliation of defeat.

The reaction to the papers' publication was immediate. President Richard Nixon's Justice Department got a federal judge to order the Times to cease publishing the stories. But Ellsberg was able to share another copy of the report with The Washington Post, which took up where its rival paper had left off. Other papers also stepped up, and eventually 19 papers would publish parts of the Pentagon trove.

Ellsberg was eventually charged with violating the Espionage Act and the sum total of the charges against him threatened a total jail term of 115 years. But in the meantime, the orders against the newspapers went to the Supreme Court on an expedited basis that June. The justices voted 6-3 to say "prior restraint" of publication required the government to meet a high test of necessity and irreparable harm — a test the court said had not been meant. The Times resumed publishing on July 1.

While Ellsberg awaited trial, the Nixon White House tried various other means to discredit him, including sending burglars to raid his psychiatrist's office. When these and other illegal activities came to light, a federal judge overseeing Ellsberg's trial dismissed the charges. They were never reinstated.

"The White House plumbers," as they were known because their job was plugging leaks, later relocated to the Nixon reelection campaign and twice broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington D.C., located in the Watergate office complex not far from the White House.

On their second visit, the burglars were discovered and arrested in June 1972. Thus began the unraveling and revelation of numerous crimes, "dirty tricks" and official cover-ups known collectively as the Watergate scandal. Investigations and impeachment proceedings would push Nixon to resign in August 1974.

Ellsberg's name and prominence receded as time went on, and he devoted most of his time to teaching and writing. But he was often seen and heard at various protests involving war and peace, nuclear weapons, and the actions the federal government took against whistleblowers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.