Ellsberg, Manning, Snowden: the varying fates of whistleblowers.

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. There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. 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.”

A response to the fighting in Iraq? Or Afghanistan? In fact, this was Daniel Ellsberg’s reaction to a War Resisters League meeting he attended in 1969. At the time, he worked for RAND, the US Armed Forces think tank. As Ellsberg listened to a young man explain his refusal to fight in Vietnam, he had an epiphany. It triggered one of the twentieth century’s most famous acts of whistleblowing. Ellsberg decided to leak Pentagon papers that revealed the futility of the Vietnam war effort – the US government had known, at an early stage, that the war was unwinnable.

He faced trial and the prospect of up to 115 years in jail, but revelations of FBI skulduggery – including illegal wire-tapping – led to all charges being dismissed. Instead of a life in prison, Ellsberg has received several awards over the years, including the Right Livelihood Award – seen as an alternative Nobel Prize – in 2006. Time has defined his whistleblowing as a brave and important act.

Ellsberg’s fate contrasts with those of Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. Snowden’s exposure of illegal surveillance programmes has forced him to abandon his family and seek asylum in Russia. Manning’s exposure of potential human rights violations and the flouting of international humanitarian law by the US army has landed her a 35-year jail term.

In the medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, the House of Lannister’s retaliations are brutal and heavy, ensuring that their name remains feared. The disproportionate punishment of Manning resembles Lannister justice in its medieval severity. As Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International, says, “it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning's trial was about sending a message: the US government will come after you.”

Last week Manning apologised for harming the US, but the damage she has caused remains uncertain. ‘National security’ is often invoked as a reason for US actions. Yet, despite talk of information sources being endangered, there is scant evidence of the leaks causing any repercussions – other than embarrassment, of course.

The persecution of those exposing unlawful activity appears even more extraordinary given the lack of accountability for crimes committed by US forces. No charges have been issued in relation to the US secret detention programme. Eleven low-ranking soldiers were convicted for the human rights abuses committed at Abu Ghraib. They served a combined total of less than thirty years in prison. Manning’s sentence will comfortably surpass their cumulative jail time. 

Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden all bore secrets they found unconscionable, but their actions have carved different futures. Ellsberg’s courage has been praised over the past four decades. Amnesty is calling for the US to commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence; her decisions, born from good intentions, deserve better than four decades of cell walls. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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