Reflections on the late Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblower-journalist relationships

By Mia Marzotto and Sarah Gamard

The late Daniel Ellsberg is one of the greatest-known whistleblowers in contemporary history, and his story of leaking the Pentagon Papers is a reminder of the persistent challenges that whistleblowers can encounter when working with journalists.

According to the New York Times, Ellsberg told the veteran Times journalist Neil Sheehan that he “could study the papers and take notes, but not photocopy them.” He gave Sheehan a key to the apartment and left town, according to the Times.

But in a 2015 account that he requested not be known until after his death, Sheehan revealed that he went against the deal, believing the documents were “the property of the people,” and made copies to bring to New York.

Sheehan said he had never revealed Ellsberg’s identity, but another journalist did so not long after the story broke, according to the Times.

There are elements to Ellsberg’s story that persist today in whistleblower cases: Namely, the delicate balance between a reporter’s allegiance to informing the public versus allegiance to their source. As seen with Ellsberg, a reporter is typically expected to choose the former.

Even when the journalist is careful about their source, they may still put that individual’s safety in jeopardy. One way is by accidentally revealing a whistleblower’s identity. Whistleblower and former National Security Agency translator Reality Winner’s identity was revealed when The Intercept sought to verify the classified document she provided anonymously. Winner provided the information for the public good to help U.S. citizens better understand Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the lead reporter on the story shared with authorities a copy of the document that contained identifying markings revealing Winner as the source.

The Intercept also published that document on the internet. After an internal review, The Intercept acknowledged shortcomings in their handling of the document and the failure to protect an anonymous source.

But Winner bore the punishment of the mistake. She was subsequently arrested and sentenced to five years and three months in prison — the longest in history for unauthorized release of government information to media.

During her transfer to federal prison from Georgia, the 26-year-old was held in isolation for a week in a Florida jail — an especially distressing experience because her transfer had been endorsed by a judge in order to be medically treated for depression and bulimia. The Intercept reported that, during her week in isolation, Winner received meals in Styrofoam boxes through the door and her personal belongings, including the Bible, were taken away from her.

Ali Diercks, the #MeToo whistleblower who was key to journalists’ reporting on the CBS executive Les Moonves, chose until this year to be anonymous. But she faced retaliation long before then. It’s believed that the New York Times reporter she worked with, Rachel Abrams, accidentally revealed her identity by including one detail in her story: the number of pages in a draft report Diercks provided. Diercks said she remembers requesting that detail not be published.

A recent episode of The Daily podcast includes accounts from Abrams and Diercks of that journey, and how Diercks’ life fell apart after her identity was revealed as a whistleblower.

During the podcast, Abrams tells Diercks, “You went through this horrific, probably traumatizing experience. And I feel terrible about that. But like you, I’m not sure what I’d go back and do differently. And I wonder how you feel hearing that?”

Diercks responds that she knew Abrams felt bad, and notes: “Our career trajectories were thrown in diametrically opposed orbits by the same thing, the same catalyzing event. A scoop like this is going to make your career and ruin mine at the same time.”

The relationship between a journalist and whistleblower source is an unavoidably delicate and precarious one. We see this symbiotic relationship play out with varying levels of success and stress. Some of the whistleblowers we help go public, but more often they remain anonymous while working with journalists. We are working to better educate journalists and whistleblowers on how to make sure sources are safe from real-world harm while fostering accountability.

Whistleblowers, whether they go to the media before or after giving information to their employers or the authorities, deserve to know that their actions in the public interest will not lead to negative consequences. Journalists must guarantee that a whistleblower’s identity will be protected if they share information for a story on corrupt or illegal activities.

In these cases, laws to protect whistleblowing to the media as well as to one’s employer or to regulators, both anonymously and openly, are critical. These laws are possibly the strongest link for a mutually beneficial relationship between the media and whistleblowers, but they need to be strengthened. It is important for the media at large to take more responsibility and inform the public of the full spectrum of whistleblowers’ experiences and ultimately put pressure on governments to make much needed improvement to whistleblower protections worldwide.

Additionally, brave investigative journalists need proper training to keep their whistleblower sources safe. Working with whistleblowers is a specific skill that most journalists are not trained in; it is different than being trauma-informed or working with other types of sources because this particular source may be risking their lives to share details. Some valuable resources already exist, such as The Perugia Principles for Journalists Working with Whistleblowers in the Digital Age, the media guide of the Tech Worker Handbook and the GAP guide for journalists: Working with whistleblowers. As whistleblowing laws change and new digital tools become available, we are working to ensure both whistleblowers and journalists have access to reliable and up to date guidance.

Daniel Ellsberg, at age 90, two years before his death, once again went to the media to reveal a hidden truth. Providing a long-lost document to Charlie Savage of the NYT, about the 1958 crisis between the United States and China over Taiwan, he asked that it be shared to the public as a matter of public interest. But he also asked Savage to do one more thing: reveal him as the source so that he could get arrested and challenge the constitutionality of the US Espionage Act – the law under which Winner and other journalistssources were sentenced in recent years. His rationale for risking a prison sentence near his life’s end? He felt it would better define the act and hoped the right of the public to know information would help future whistleblowers.

Savage published the piece, but Daniel was not arrested. As we now remember this great man of service, let’s take up his wish to better protect whistleblowers who come forward to the media with important information.

The Signals Network (TSN) is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting whistleblowers who risk their livelihoods to share public interest information with the press. Founded in 2017 by journalists, whistleblowers and lawyers, TSN operates internationally to hold powerful interests accountable. TSN provides customized support to a selected group of whistleblowers who have contributed to published reports of significant wrongdoing. This support may include legal, psychological, physical safety, temporary safe-housing, online safety, career support and communication support.