The Whistleblowers of Oz

Why, after all these years of government leaks, has so little changed?

By Mark Ames , written on October 27, 2015

From The Legal Affairs Desk

This past summer, a federal judge unsealed grand jury transcripts from a 1942 investigation of the Chicago Tribune for violating the Espionage Act.

The investigation was in response to a front page article about America’s victory at the Battle of Midway — in which the Tribune leaked one of the biggest secrets of World War 2: US codebreakers (from the precursor to the NSA) had broken Japan’s code.

The article leaking the US military secret was headlined “Navy Had Word of Jap Plan To Strike At Sea” — it ran the same day the US victory at Midway was reported, and was republished in the Tribune’s sister publications, The New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald.

The article began,

The strength of the Japanese forces with which the American navy is battling somewhere west of Midway Island in what is believed to be the greatest naval battle of the war, was well known in American naval circles several days before the battle began, reliable sources in the naval intelligence disclosed here tonight.

FDR’s Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, was furious, of course. Knox asked the attorney general, Francis Biddle, to charge the Tribune’s reporter who leaked the story, Stanley Johnston, under the Espionage Act—which could carry the death penalty. And to investigate whether the paper’s managing editor—and therefore the corporation, and its publisher––could be held criminally liable. It was the last time the federal government tried to charge a newspaper or journalist with treason for leaking, though many have contemplated it since — most recently when the Bush Administration announced it was looking into   charging the New York Times under the Espionage Act for leaking the NSA warrantless wiretap story that was revived a few years ago with Edward Snowden’s leaks.

But the Chicago Tribune’s leak of the proto-NSA’s war secret were not driven by the kind of principled idealism we’ve come to associate with dangerous military leakers.

The Tribune’s publisher, Col. Robert McCormick, was about as close to an out-and-out fascist as a major newspaper tycoon got. He co-founded the isolationist America First Committee and turned his newspaper into the movement’s leading propaganda organ. He backed overt fascist and Nazi sympathizers like Elizabeth Dilling and Harry Jung, who was given an office in McCormick’s Tribune Tower, known locally as “Devil’s Tower.” Jung was America’s first major distributor of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and he ran a far-right anti-Semitic labor-busting group, the American Vigilante Intelligence Federation, which collected files on well over a million Americans suspected of being “Reds” or otherwise labor union troublemakers.

It was this violent fear of labor unions, the New Deal, and socialism in general that pushed reactionaries like McCormick into de facto alliance with fascists and Nazis, under the more respectable sounding banner of “anti-interventionism.” As far back as 1920, at the peak of the Red Scare over the Bolshevik Revolution, McCormick’s Chicago Tribune published an editorial headlined “World Mischief” which argued that Bolshevism was merely a “tool” for a Jewish plan to establish world domination. During the early Cold War years, McCormick was a major backer of Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts, and helped found the American Security Council, a sort of crypto-fascist intelligence agency that kept millions of files on suspected American communist sympathizers. Murray Rothbard, one of the founding fathers of American libertarianism, was “educated” by McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, according to libertarian historian Brian Doherty.

Pro-Nazi sentiment was far more common among America’s upper class reactionaries of the 30s and 40s than we’re taught—that, and a willingness to side with anyone and do anything to destroy Roosevelt and his New Deal. For example, Charles Koch’s father, Fred Koch—who co-founded the libertarian John Birch Society—praised Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in late 1938, positively contrasting the fascist countries with FDR’s social democratic New Deal programs:

“I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard.

“When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925 you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.”

This was McCormick’s mindset, the company he kept and supported, and the propaganda he disseminated. Leaking the US military’s secret codebreaking success against the Japanese wasn’t the first time he tried undermining FDR’s war against the Axis. On December 4, 1941 — three days before Pearl Harbor — his Chicago Tribune ran a front page story exposing the entire American war plan, which had been leaked to McCormick’s reporters.

The classified American war mobilization plan, Rainbow 5, called for mobilizing a 10 million man military force, including a five million man army to invade Europe and smash Hitler. The Tribune also leaked a confidential letter by FDR ordering the war plans be drawn up. Secretary of War Henry Stimson—knowing full well why McCormick published it—denounced the Chicago Tribune’s war plan leak and called for bringing Espionage Act charges against the journalist, but FDR let it slide. As he was to learn the following year, and as other presidents have learned since, even during the peak of war, you can’t go after powerful media in this country no matter what they publish. You can rattle them, but you can’t charge them with treason—that’s why they go after leakers instead.

Immediately after the Tribune’s leaks were published, reactionary isolationists in Congress pounced on it to attack FDR for secretly plotting to bring America into Europe’s war. But the outcry was cut short on December 7, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and there was no question anymore about going to war against the fascist powers. One of the unintended consequences of McCormick’s leak was that it was cited by Hitler a few days later, on December 11, when he declared war on the United States. Most of us forget that FDR hadn’t declared war on Germany, only Japan; Hitler declared war, citing war plans leaked by Hitler’s American friends. Not the smartest bunch. Mean and rich, but not exactly smart....

Around that same time, there was another series of major war plan leaks by another anti-interventionist named Tyler Kent. Born into a wealthy, privileged family—his father was in the foreign service, and Tyler went to Princeton — he started work in the US Embassy in Moscow in 1936, at age 25, and was transferred to the US Embassy in London in 1939, where he worked as a cipher clerk managing coded messages and cables. Kent quickly fell in with a group of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi British Tories and aristocrats. Like them, he wanted to expose government secrets in order to destroy the war effort and bring down the Roosevelt government — among the hundreds of cables he decoded and made copies of were secret letters between FDR and Churchill, in which FDR secretly promised much more help in the war effort than he let on publicly.

Like Ellsberg, Kent spent several dangerous months copying the secret cables to stop a war; like Snowden, Kent was 29 years old and specialized in encryption and decoding for the US government; like them both, he wanted to prevent what he saw as a disastrous war. But Tyler Kent was different in that he was an avowed anti-Semite and anti-Communist, who, like so many fascist sympathizers, made no distinction between Jews and Communism. For him, as for McCormick and many America Firsters, the real enemy was Communism and socialism, not fascism.

Kent was caught by Scotland Yard, and, with US approval, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the Official Secrecy Act. As World War Two came to an end, Tyler Kent’s powerful family lobbied to get their son released from jail, forming a lobby group that called itself the “American Justice for Tyler Kent Committee” whose members included one of the founding fathers of libertarianism,   Frank Chodorov. Naturally, being from a privileged white family, Kent got off light, and was on his way home to the US by 1945. He immediately aligned with America’s neo-Nazis, joining the board of Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby, and launching his own KKK newspaper.

Adam Curtis wrote an interesting post about Kent in late 2010, when the WikiLeaks scandal hit its peak, and posted an old BBC interview with a completely unrepentant Kent in his trailer park home on the Arizona-Mexico border. As Curtis wrote:

Looking back, most people now feel that Daniel Ellsberg was right in 1971 because the Vietnam War had become a horrible disaster that needed exposing.

Today, we are not sure of Bradley Manning's motives (and it hasn't been proven that he is the source of the leak), but again there is a general feeling that it was a good thing because the cables have exposed an empty nihilism at the heart of America's foreign policy.

But the perspective the Tyler Kent story brings is the realisation that diplomatic leaks are not automatically a good thing. It just depends on who is using them. And why.

Before Snowden, the NSA’s biggest leaks came from two disillusioned agents, both around Snowden’s age— William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, described by James Bamford as “the most important defectors in American history.” They were driven by fears that US aggression, testing Soviet air defenses in the Caucasus, would spark a nuclear holocaust. So they fled to Moscow and blew the whistle on NSA programs which they leaked to press, revealing not only how the US had lied about its reckless (and deadly) penetration feints into Soviet airspace, but also how the US was conducting vast secret surveillance programs against its own NATO allies. They were also the first to leak just how closely the NSA worked with GCHQ.

Eventually they grew disillusioned with the Soviet Union too, and tried to make their way back home. And this wound up being their punishment—they were condemned to a life (and death) outside American borders. Martin died in a Tijuana hospital in 1987 after spending years unsuccessfully trying to get his citizenship restored. Mitchell died in St Petersburg in 2001, reportedly bloated and unhealthy from years drowned in vodka.

The most famous leaker of our time, Daniel Ellsberg — whose powerful story defines our assumptions about government leakers and whistleblowers — had initially made little impression on Nixon when the Pentagon Papers were first published. As Mark Feldstein writes in his book Poisoning The Press, on muckraker Jack Anderson’s war with Nixon,

On June 13, 1971, the Times filled four entire pages in its first installment of what would become a series of extensive articles about the Pentagon Papers.

At first, President Nixon dismissed the story because it uncovered misconduct only by previous, mostly Democratic administrations. Publication of the papers “doesn’t hurt us,” he told his staff, so “the key is for us to keep out of it.”

The Vietnam War was already winding down by that point. Nixon had other plans—and other leaks that worried him far more than the Pentagon Papers leaks. Someone inside of his own National Security Council was stealing Henry Kissinger’s secret documents and leaking them to Jack Anderson, who was publishing the secrets almost in real time as they were created. Nixon activated his Plumbers and his security officials to smoke out the leaker, who turned out to be a young Navy yeoman and National Security Council aide named Charles Radford. Under severe questioning, Radford gave up the names of those who were running him—the head of Nixon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer, was running the leaks to Jack Anderson, and he was backed by two other admirals in Nixon’s National Security Council. We forget this today, but the far right and the Bircher crowd loathed Nixon and Kissinger—many in the military-industrial complex saw Nixon and Kissinger, with their secret maneuvers to open up to Mao’s China, and to forge detente with the Soviet Union, as appeasers and sellouts, if not outright Soviet agents.  Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, even used the NSA to wiretap Kissinger’s phones and conversations.

When Nixon and Kissinger realized that the damaging Jack Anderson leaks were actually a plot from within their own National Security Council to undermine them, they were floored.

It was Nixon aide (and Watergate plumber) John Ehrlichman who broke the news: The documents were being leaked from right inside the White House, “here in the Joint Chiefs of Staff liaison office.” As Feldman writes,

“Jesus Christ,” the President exclaimed.

[...] “If you can’t trust a yeoman in the navy, I don’t know goddamn who can you trust?”

In all, Radford stole some 5000 classified documents — and when his commanding officer, Admiral Robert Welander, was brought in and asked, he casually admitted to everything, including the fact that Nixon’s own head of the JCS, Admiral Moorer, was in on it too. Which was a problem for Nixon, because Moorer was known as a hawk who opposed Nixon’s plans to pull out of Vietnam:

Moorer’s involvement greatly increased the gravity of the scandal. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs was a hard-liner who opposed Nixon’s withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and disparaged Kissinger as being soft on Communism. Was Moorer’s spying part of a larger military cabal to thwart the policies of America’s civilian leaders?

When Ehrlichman got further confirmation from Moorer’s own deputy that yes, they were the ones in charge of leaking all of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s secrets, they panicked hard:

“And they knew that he was stealing from Kissinger?” the President asked.

“Oh, they had to!” Ehrlichman replied. “They had to.”

“Jesus Christ!” Nixon exclaimed.

The President was especially aghast that Radford had taken documents out of Kissinger’s briefcase during flights aboard Air Force One. “I’ve got stuff in my briefcases that are— that, that I don’t think that [anyone] should ever see,” Nixon said. “Never. All my notes and things, you know. Things you just think about and then discard . .  . Oh my God.”

The more Nixon thought about it, the wider he saw the plot among his own military chiefs. He was sure his Deputy National Security Advisor, Alexander Haig, was in on it too. And he wondered if it was the start of a coup — and realized politically, his only choice was to hush the whole thing up. If word got out that Nixon’s military brass was out to get him and Kissinger, his entire rightwing base would be lost:

Nixon concluded that the entire affair was "a federal offense of the highest order," nothing less than a Pentagon "espionage system" with the military "setting up their own Gestapo" and "spying on the President." Attorney General Mitchell agreed and thought it raised the "specter of [a] military takeover."

"If it was in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it," Nixon marveled.

The President and his advisors wondered if the leak to Anderson originated with the military command itself.

... “It’s almost as if they, they meant to do something,” [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman observed.

“That’s what I fear,” the President agreed.

“The Joint Chiefs,” Haldeman said. “Think of that story.”

In the end, Nixon and his team tried thinking of every possible scenario for bringing criminal charges against the leakers in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, against the yeoman Radford, and against Jack Anderson — but eventually decided that it was both politically impossible, and legally dicey. So Nixon’s plumbers, led by ex-CIA man Howard Hunt, decided they’d take care of Jack Anderson the old fashioned mob way: They’d whack him using CIA techniques tested out in the Third World — arranging a deadly car accident in Washington DC, hiring a criminal to kill Anderson during a mugging, or using an untraceable poison which they tried obtaining from a CIA doctor. In the end, they got distracted by Watergate and an assortment of other crimes, including illegally breaking into Ellsberg’s shrink’s office to leak his mental health records and discredit the Pentagon Papers. In the end, Anderson went on to collect his Pulitzer, and Ellsberg’s charges were dropped — and we now assume that everyone who’s a leaker is another Daniel Ellsberg.

That’s why it’s been hard to make sense of where Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are really coming from. There’s no indication I know of that either of them are antiwar pacifists or leftists. The fact that Snowden tried joining the Army special forces in 2004, and then the CIA; and that Chelsea joined the military in 2007— well after anyone with a functioning brain who considered themselves “progressive” understood how bad, stupid, wrong, deadly, and evil Bush’s wars were — should’ve given people pause. You can separate the leaks from the leaker, if you’re a perfectly rational robot, but for most mammals  it’s kind of hard to.  

In Chelsea Manning’s first statement after receiving her sentence  in 2013, she wrote,

From my perspective at least, it’s not terribly clear ot me that my actions were explicitly done for “peace.” I don’t consider myself a “pacifist,” “anti-war,” or (especially) a “conscientious objector.” Now—I accept that there may be “peaceful” or “anti-war” implications to my actions [...] I believe that it is also perfectly reasonable to subjectively interpret these documents and come to the opposite opinion and say “hey, look at these documents, they clearly justify this war” (or diplomatic discussion, or detention of an individual). . . . I’m a “transparency advocate.” I feel that the public cannot decide what actions and policies are or are not justified if they don’t even know the most rudimentary details about them and their effects.

The effect of Manning’s letter on her fans, who had projected onto her their own ideals of what she must represent, was weird: For the most part, they barely said a thing about it. Instead, they migrated, all together, to a new issue for Chelsea, away from politics — her transgender struggle.

Snowden too has said many times that his goal was transparency, to help the public make a more informed decision about whether or not they wanted mass unchecked surveillance programs. And then there’s Snowden’s politics—something no one really wants to talk about. . . .

When Snowden was first revealed in June 2013, along with his support for Ron Paul, I initially sided with him, writing for NSFWCORP about  20,000-plus words worth of stories tracing back the rise of the government’s secrecy and censorship apparatus, and how it dealt with leakers and whistleblowers of the past. I initially passed off his libertarianism and Manning’s half-baked neoliberal cant about transparency as perhaps necessary for a leaker — under Obama, they were in the political opposition, and when you’re in the opposition, you see the shitty things your government does in a very different light than when your party is in power.

But Snowden lost me when he fled to Moscow for protection, and gave that shameful statement honoring Putin’s Russia,

“for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.”

Snowden’s human weaknesses on the lam, combined with his courageous leaks, should have made him a more interesting person. But our culture is weird in ways I don’t quite get—a strong tendency towards cult of personality worship, a tendency that has been encouraged by the Snowden crew, perhaps for entirely practical and good purposes—in the hopes that the more he’s worshipped by a growing cadre of gullible cultists, the better his chances of cutting a fair deal with the US government and returning home.

That’s fine, if you’re his lawyer, or his PR flack, or an activist working on Snowden’s behalf. But journalists should be skeptical of everything, especially when a culture circles the uncritical wagons around its latest cult figure. The Snowden and Manning leaks were supposed to bring about a lot of change—reforms, debates, a better world... But all these years later, nothing has changed for the better that I can tell. Compare that with the tobacco leaks of the 1990s, which helped to finally kneecap Big Tobacco’s power here, something that will save millions of people’s lives over the next few decades. Snowden’s leaks have so far given us the Freedom Act, which, paradoxically, legalized for the first time some of the very NSA practices Snowden and other privacy advocates wanted exposed.  

And so the question becomes —  is our culture’s need for hero worshipping, for moral demigods, projected onto these flawed people, part of the problem?

Warren Hinckle, as editor of Ramparts magazine — the magazine that pretty much pioneered the adversarial anti-government leaker/whistleblower by exposing a Michigan State University program in Saigon and the National Students Association both as CIA fronts — didn’t succumb to cheap cultish hero worship for his whistleblowers. He saw them as subjects too; he wanted to make sense of them, rather than caricature them. He gave this memorable description of Michael Wood, the young Californian who blew the whistle on the National Students Association:

Even when they are straight, as was Wood, such assassins of their own past are plagued by Raskolnikov’s dance. They have difficulty sitting still. They twist their necks. Their eyes have a malarial glare. They’re guilty about what they did — and equally guilty about informing on their friends, past and present, who may still be doing it. They are caught between a need to do some good that may live on after them and fear of some evil that may be interred with their bones. 

But now that I think of it, maybe it’s because Hinckle had the skeptical instincts of a journalist and a literary hellraiser, rather than a panderer — maybe this is why Hinckle faded into obscurity and grubby poverty.  

Maybe that’s the real lesson here.