From The New Republic:Our country's constitutional culture is made up of the stories we tell each other about the kind of nation we are. When we tell ourselves how strong our commitment to free speech is, we grit our teeth and tell of Nazis marching through Skokie. And when we think of how much we value our watchdog press, we tell the story of Daniel Ellsberg. Decades later, we sometimes forget that Ellsberg was prosecuted, smeared, and harassed. Instead, we express pride in a man's willingness to brave the odds, a newspaper’s willingness to take the risk of publishing, and a Supreme Court’s ability to tell an overbearing White House that no, you cannot shut up your opponents.
Whistleblowers play a critical constitutional role in our system of government, particularly in the area of national security. And they do so at great personal cost. The executive branch has enormous powers over national security and the exercise of that power is not fully transparent. Judicial doctrines like the “state secrets” doctrine allow an administration to limit judicial oversight. Congress’ oversight committees have also tended to leave the executive relatively free of constraints. Because the materials they see are classified, there remains little public oversight. Consider the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the interrogation torture practices during the immediate post 9/11 years: Its six thousand pages, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, are “one of the most significant oversight efforts in the history of the United States Senate.” But they are unavailable to the public.
Freedom of the press is anchored in our constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog. The government is full of well-intentioned and quite powerful inspectors general and similar internal accountability mechanisms. But like all big organizations, the national security branches of government include some people who aren't purely selfless public servants. Secrecy is necessary and justified in many cases. But as hard-earned experience has shown us time and again, it can be—and often is—used to cover up failure, avarice, or actions that simply will not survive that best of disinfectants, sunlight.
That’s where whistleblowers come in. They offer a pressure valve, constrained by the personal risk whistleblowers take, and fueled by whatever moral courage they can muster. Manning's statement in court yesterday showed that, at least in his motives, he was part of that long-respected tradition. But that’s also where the Manning prosecution comes in, too. The prosecution case seems designed, quite simply, to terrorize future national security whistleblowers. The charges against Manning are different from those that have been brought against other whistleblowers. “Aiding the enemy” is punishable by death. And although the prosecutors in this case are not seeking the death penalty against Manning, the precedent they are seeking to establish does not depend on the penalty. It establishes the act as a capital offense, regardless of whether prosecutors in their discretion decide to seek the death penalty in any particular case.
Hard cases, lawyers have long known, make bad law. The unusual nature of Manning's case has led some to argue that his leaks are different than those we now celebrate as a bedrock component of accountability journalism: Daniel Ellsberg leaked specific documents that showed massive public deception in the prosecution of the Vietnam War. Deep Throat leaked specific information about presidential corruption during the Watergate investigation. Manning, though, leaked hundreds of thousands of documents, many of which were humdrum affairs; perhaps, some have argued, the sheer scope raises the risks. But in the three years since the leaks began, there has still been no public evidence that they in fact caused significant damage. The prosecutors say they will introduce evidence of harm in secret sessions; one of these bits of evidence is reportedly going to be that they will show that several of the files published were found on Osama Bin Laden's computer. Does that mean that if the Viet Cong had made copies of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg would have been guilty of “aiding the enemy?”