Whistle blowing has been of enormous help to law enforcement in revealing embezzlement, corporate theft, corporate piracy, stock market manipulation, tax evasion, and other illegal practices that might otherwise have gone undetected. Sometimes, as in Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon papers for the Vietnam War and for the presently imprisoned Wiki-leaks whistleblower, Bradley Manning and Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange, public reaction is mixed. We don’t like snitches and sometimes we prefer loyalty to a scoundrel rather than the betrayal of the companies that employ the whistleblowers. I am much more sympathetic to the whistleblowers than I am to those with power who are doing something wrong.
I was shifted to this view while researching a book on Agent Orange which I am still writing and revising. Almost all of what I have written is based on primary sources obtained from documents in the Kennedy Library in Boston and in the Matthew Meselson collection at Harvard University. A substantial number of those documents are declassified from their status as Top Secret or Confidential. This is what I learned. Most of the documents involving policy decisions on the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War were not military documents but civilian documents from government agencies and White House personnel. Most had little to do with military secrets of importance to the enemy. They had a lot to do with finding ways to describe the use of Agent Orange as “weed-killers,” or as essentially harmless to human health, or as a Vietnamese program rather than a US program before we got heavily involved in that war. They included quite a few military documents that expressed doubts about the usefulness of using Agent Orange for defoliation of tropical forests, for revealing enemy bases hidden in those forests, or for starving the enemy troops into submission.
When one weighs the terrible damage done to people’s lives in times of war, especially so-called “collateral damage,” I believe the status of real heroes should be assigned to those who release these documents before they are declassified. A healthy debate on those issues by Congress (most of whom were not privy to these secret documents) might have saved more US lives (not to mention civilian and military Vietnamese lives) if the debates were informed with these findings. Instead policy was based on inadequate information or misleading information. It certainly illustrated to me the reporters’ credo that in times of war the first victim is truth.