By Shayna Plaut
In 1971, a long time staffer of the Department of Defense leaked confidential documents to the Washington Post and the New York Times in what is now known as the Pentagon Papers. Later that year, a group of eight people (including a husband and wife team who were parents of three young children) concocted and executed a plan to steal FBI documents and sent them to journalists throughout the USA. And about six months after, in 1972 two reporters began pounding the pavement after the Watergate Hotel was broken into and a psychiatrist’s office bugged. Investigative journalistic digging unearthed the executive government’s internal spying program as a means of maintaining political power in a shadowy world of “us” versus “them.”
These events – and the whistleblowers and journalists involved – are now spoken of in terms of “courage,” “conviction” and even “patriotism.” But at the time they were “communists” and “radicals” – terms that were synonymous with “criminals.” FBI warrants sought the arrests of the perpetrators; court injunctions were ordered to cease newspaper publications; and COINTELPRO carried out various covert operations including tapping phones and opening mail of their alleged suspects. National secrets – including the US government spying on its own citizens – had been exposed and state powers argued that the nation’s safety was in peril. Like today, “security”, “privacy”, “protection” and “right to know” were seen as impossibly co-existent. Dissent was assumed to be dangerous; people were scared and stayed silent.
John and Bonnie Raines, two of the eight “burglars”, kept their democratic actions silent for 43 years knowing that they could be criminally charged and convicted as consequence of their actions. They were part of a loose team who broke into the FBI office in Philadelphia, stealing the secret documents that exposed COINTELPRO and sending the information to prominent and sympathetic journalists with the hope that it would inspire investigation. It worked. Betty Medsgar, a reporter for Washington Post was the first journalist to cover the story and did so doggedly for years. But even she did not know who sent the documents. But now, as high-profile cases like that of Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning) and Edward Snowden raise important questions about the public’s right to know “state secrets,” the Raines family along with five of the eight Burglars have chosen to reveal themselves. John Raines, a retired instructor of Religious Studies at Temple University explains, “dissent is fundamental to democracy.”
So, what about the role of journalism? What is the relationship between those who know, those who reveal, and those who publicize? History shows us that at least in the USA journalists can play a key role in keeping those who have power accountable. To do so, however, not only takes time and courage by the journalists and the editors, but also money and a willingness to prioritize such stories. Are journalists and media outlets willing to take on this responsibility?
How journalists can hold truth to power responsibly is an unfolding question as exemplified by the heated exchange between journalist, Glen Greenwald, and former editor of the New York Times, Bill Killer, regarding “the relationship of journalists to the state.” According to Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden leak information documenting NSA surveillance, since the heydays of the 1970s, being a whistleblower, particularly against powerful governments, has become more dangerous. “National security” is defined by those who are in power, want to protect their power, and who will use institutions and laws to do so.
What needs to happen is a reframing of what is understood as “national security” – if we are the people who comprise this nation, how do we understand security? How can we be secure from those who abuse power? As Edward Snowden explained in his “alternative Christmas message” – the world of Orwell’s 1984 is the present and it has not made us safer. According to Greenwald, rather than thinking that exposing state secrets is dangerous, “not publishing the leaks puts people in danger.”
Shayna Plaut is a contributing editor of Praxis Center.