Whistle-Blowers as Truth-Tellers-Jacqueline Bao10-04-2011
The New York Review of Books first published Hannah Arendt’s Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers on November 18, 1971, after Daniel Ellsberg had leaked 47 sections of the document to the New York Times. Originally commissioned in 1967 by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Pentagon Papers was an effort to produce an “encyclopedic and objective” report on the Vietnam War. The report was an authenticated document that proved the American government was engaged in over a decade of deception and secrecy aimed at the public—the president had lied, the secretary of defense had lied—no one was telling the truth, and even worse, truth just wasn’t accessible to anyone but the insiders.
The term “whistleblower” acquired its contemporary meaning in the early 1970’s as “‘one who blows the whistle’ on a person or activity, especially from within an organization.” The colloquial saying ‘to blow the whistle’ is derived from the literal act, like when a referee blows the whistle on a foul play or a police officer blows the whistle to expose and halt a crime in a crowded street. According to OED, the noun whistle-blower was first used in a contemporary, more figurative sense in 1970. In 1972, one year after the Pentagon Papers were leaked, an onslaught of critical whitstleblowers followed Ellsberg and Russo’s lead: Peter Buxtun blew the whistle on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, ending a four-decade syphilis “study” conducted on 400 poor black Alabama males. That same year, Ralph Nader hosted the first organized conference on “professional responsibility,” later known to root the beginnings of corporate whistle blowing culture. And most famously, W. Mark Felt (or Deep Throat) tipped off the arrest of five men in the Watergate democratic headquarters, leading to the Watergate investigations. Whistleblowing would rise to become one of the prominent modes of truth telling in the increasingly withdrawing public sphere.
Forty years after the release of the Pentagon papers, WikiLeaks released “Collateral Murder,” a classified United States military video depicting soldiers firing indiscriminately at civilian targets, including two Reuters journalists. Private Bradley Manning was later charged and arrested for leaking half-a-million reports from the Iraq War, including the video “Collateral Murder.” Unlike the Vietnam War, during which photographers and journalists had relative independence in reporting, beginning with the Clinton administration and continuing through the Bush and Obama administrations, severe restrictions were placed on media coverage for wars. Truly authentic images of the war, as opposed to staged photo-press “opportunities,” surfaced mainly through insiders, amateurs, and whistleblowers. For instance, the amateur shot images of Abu Ghraib exposed by Joe Darby became the most publicized photography to come out of the Iraq War because of their unquestionable authenticity. The images proved and documented various incidences of torture, and what’s more, that torture was being inflicted on prisoners solely as a pleasurable pastime to fight the boredom of soldiers.
Hannah Arendt writes that secrecy has been a part and parcel of politics since the beginning of recorded time: “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings” (LP4). But within the last half-century, lying became so prolific within politics that it became an “adequate weapon against truth” (TP 232). The fabric of our common reality, what Arendt defines as factual truth, began to erode. Unlike rational truth, or the truths of the mind—those mathematical, scientific, and provable axioms and theories—factual truths are dependent on discourse between men and remembrance in history for its survival. With the popularization and sharpening of organized lying, truth, exceedingly fragile in current affairs yet resilient in time, was lost in man’s present world. Without factual truth, “we should never find our bearings in an ever-changing world” (TP 261). Though the falsehoods of organized lying would never come to substitute facts, Arendt’s greater concern is that to live in a world without bearings means that men increasingly cannot move, act, and judge in the public realm; men lose touch with the world.
In the ‘ever-changing’ world where information cycles constantly—the 24 hours news circuit, twitter posts, and online media—more information often equates only to an increasingly defactualized world. In a recent New York Times article on the global mass protesting occurring independently on the streets of India, Israel, Spain, Greece, and even Wall Street, young protesters indicated “they were so distrustful their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.” Indeed, whistleblowing has always sought to ‘assault the system’ by exposing organized secrets to the public to bring forth real change. But apart from the media outlets that they inevitably be dispersed in, does the leaked documents inhabit a privilege position to truth in our distrusting and cynical world? Or are these leaks just more organized lies atop a sea of deception. The latter of this paper is dedicated to examining, albeit shortly, the specific whistleblowing cases of the Pentagon paper, Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and the photographs from Abu Ghraib and how they are relegated into the factual world.
Daniel Ellsberg was the first figure to be called a whistle-blower in American popular culture. The legitimacy of the Pentagon papers derived not from the innumerable facts of a 7,000 page report, which of course few can say have read in full even after it was officially declassified this summer, but from the fact that because it was officially mandated, it revealed decades of deception by the executive branch aimed at both the public and Congress. In alignment with Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Ellsberg’s actions voiced that it is a civil responsibility to disobey an unjust government and let truth be heard. What made Ellsberg a compelling truth-teller were the risks he took—ruining his career and ending his life as a free man—because it proved there could be no self-interest in the story and the interest really was simply telling the truth.
The ability to decipher what is real and what is a lie is continually being uprooted in our digital age as it becomes harder and harder to determine what documents are authentic. And yet, the digital age has introduced new cyber spaces, which are opening up for action. Last year, with the publication of Collateral Murder, it seemed WikiLeaks and its spokesperson/founder Julian Assange
affirmed Arendt’s optimism in human natality, as the small non-profit has reimagined the possibilities of political activism and created a new and aggressive approach to insert itself into politics. Assange boasted that the organization provided ‘the world with more classified documents than the rest of the world’s media combined.’ However one year later, Assange is under trial for sexual misconduct, in process of being extradited by Sweden, and filing suit for the unauthorized publication of his autobiography. WikiLeaks and Assange appear in the media much less for whistleblowing leaks, than for defaming law suits. In a world where image is so pervasive, the defamation of Assange led to a discrediting of information provided by Wikileaks, despite the inherent truth or false value in them.
The Abu Ghraib prison photographs, released by Joe Darby to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and exposed to the public by Seymour M. Hersh in a New Yorker article, evidenced what is ‘torture’ by standard definitions occurring in the Iraqi prison. The photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib are perhaps the most important images to come out of the Iraq War because unlike Collateral Murder, where content was edited, the photographs of Abu Ghraib spoke in totality. The premiere intellectual debate to rise from the images was not one that questioned the photograph’s legitimacy, but one that questioned what the image depicted, mainly, was it “torture”? To which Susan Sontag, the great cynic of photography responded “to refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib -- and what has taken place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay—by its true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan genocide a genocide.” Of course, the alterations of words—from torture to abuse—seek to shape and defactualize the truth of the image, alleviate the gravity of the crime. But whatever word chosen to replace the truth could never undermine the common sense reaction the photographs elicited: that it was wrong, it should be stopped, and it was hard for us all to witness.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag ends her essay: “it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.” The tenacity of images and their multiplication in digital world, mirrors the stubbornness of facts as Arendt affirms: “their fragility is oddly combined with great resiliency” (TP 259). Though it is impossible to quantify the impact in each of the three whistleblowing cases, whistle-blowers force the public to endeavor in the hard task of bearing witness. ‘Bear’ derives from the PIE root bher meaning to ‘give birth’ or to ‘carry the burden.’ In bearing witness, we carry the burden of the unpleasantary of truths just as we give life to the permanence of the world by establishing a common reality: “what is at stake is survival, the perseverance of existence, and no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously—namely, to say what is.” (Truth and Politics, 229).
 Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics
 New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/world/as-scorn-for-vote-grows-protests-surge-around-globe.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3&ref=world
 It should be noted that Collateral Damage was not
 Ted Talks, Julian Assange Interview
 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others