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Blackbox Special Report: Part II

Pentagon Papers to Watergate to WikiLeaks

The role of anonymous sources in the public’s right to know



We live in the Information Age. It is a time of unprecedented access to all kinds of information through the internet. It is called the Information Highway for a reason.

Information. It is a loaded word. We store a lot of data on the internet – insurance data, banking data, medical data and social data. It is a world of data. But data can be turned into information. That is data with a purpose. In the wrong hands, it can do a lot of damage.

So information is a tool, and like any tool it can be used with good intent or ill.

Information as a tool has risen exponentially in the last 50 years. Likewise, its usefulness as a tool for good or ill has followed the same trajectory.

Information is often confused with the truth. And the truth, it is said, will set you free. So news media are always in search of the truth looking for information. But Information is a slippery fish.

The Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg are perhaps just a footnote in today’s history books, but it was a groundbreaking event in which the Supreme Court in 1971 upheld the public’s right to know and a free press’s right to print that knowledge.

The Supreme Court held there are limits to the president’s executive privilege. In short, the president could not count on the use of the “because I said so” excuse to limit the public’s right to know.

Ellsberg was a military analyst who had served in Vietnam and worked for the Pentagon and The RAND Corporation, one of the original “think tanks” for modeling foreign policy.

The Pentagon Papers was a mind-numbing 47-volume, 7,000-page history of decision making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. Among the things it disclosed was how in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson blew out of proportion (if not fabricated) an attack on U.S. warships by North Vietnam.

This resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which Congress authorized Johnson to escalate military operations to include the use of U.S. ground troops in what then became an undeclared war.

Ironically, it was the Nixon administration at this time that was trying to squelch Ellsberg and the New York Times.

As was later borne out in his infamous White House tapes, Nixon decided to smear Ellsberg in the press. This included an ill-advised burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get what damaging information they could.

“The plumbers,” a secret dirty tricks unit created by the White House, were found out and the presiding judge dismissed the government’s case against Ellsberg.

This is the same unit caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel building in Washington.

That set off the chain of events that led to Nixon’s resignation. What was important to remember is that the New York Times and the Washington Post (with young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) were able to unravel the threads of conspiracy back to the White House.

Reporters were able to use documents (leaked in some cases, others not) and unnamed sources (to protect from retribution real or imagined) to reveal not just abuses of power but a conspiracy to use the full weight of the government to bear down on individuals.

Watergate is still with us today in many ways although they may not know the connection. For instance, adding the suffix “gate” to a word to denote scandal – Irangate, for example when the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran to finance contra rebels in Nicaragua, also called Contragate.

“Stonewall” as a verb came from the Nixon Era as did “cover-up.”

But the legacy of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate went deeper than just the end of Nixon’s presidency.

It marked the end of a longstanding policy at least since Franklin Roosevelt for the press not to not delve too deeply into the president’s methods or motives.

Roosevelt was a father figure to many Americans who guided the country through the Great Depression and World War II. Harry Truman became a war president too with Korea.

Eisenhower was the general who won the war in Europe and was thus a hero twice over. Kennedy was the fallen martyr and so the torch was passed to Johnson.

But as the public soured on the Vietnam War, Nixon could have rewoven the cloak of inviolability that was granted to the office of the presidency.

Instead, he self-destructed despite having one the largest margins of popular vote ever.

The press developed a taste for investigating presidents it hadn’t evinced before.

Ronald Regan took hits for Irangate and Bill Clinton for Whitewater.

Today, information is collected in such megabytes that it can only be stored in the Cloud.

Everyone has at least a half-dozen passwords, but the only true protection for one’s identity is that of the herd. In a world of 7.5 billion people it may be never before anyone can get around to your Cloud.

Now comes Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks. Here information is collected through informants given total anonymity.

We have learned to amass and aggregate vast amounts of information that we want held as secret. Whether it is to guard against harm from our enemies or simple embarrassment about the lengths with which we went to collect it, we need to protect it.

Yet the ease of filing and retrieval information means that even low-level minions can find and loot these information troves.

Most recently WikiLeaks has downloaded Vault 7, its name for CIA hacking tools. It was WikiLeaks’ downloads of Hilary Clinton’s emails that kept her campaign in turmoil last summer.

When you can release information by the gigabyte, it makes most investigative journalism pale in comparison.

But there is a need for true investigative journalism. When it is done well and with good intentions, it is a valuable asset for the public.

Those who deal in such information need to know the source, however. This has always been an uneasy tightrope for news media and the courts. Information that comes from confidential sources can be kept secret, but if the information is sensitive enough to land the news organization in court, it may find judges have differing views.

Certainly in places such as Washington, information is the coin of the realm. It is bartered like tribal beads sometimes for a quid pro quo later. Information is swung like a club at other times.

Often it tells us as much about the exploiter as it does about the matter at hand.

We have seen seismic changes in the way information is used for good or ill. The willing partners in this are the news media. Getting to the truth of the matter at hand often means dealing with sources that want or need to remain anonymous.

Sometimes it is a whistleblower who wants to right a wrong. Such was the case of Daniel Ellsberg.

But one man’s whistleblower is another’s informer – or worse.

That is why sources must be double-checked by another source whenever possible. Ground rules should be established. Usually, it is wise to establish time limits for anonymity if possible.

But named sources are much stronger than unnamed ones and must be preferred. It makes our stories more transparent. And we must make it clear why an informant must remain anonymous.

The clear problem with news today is the excess of news or opinions offered as fact. The internet has opened a huge window on the world.

All conclusions drawn from information on the web should be independently verified.

With heaps of information available, it is harder – not easier – to discern the truth.

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