The evolution of the denunciation, from Rome to the Pentagon papers to Wikileaks


Historian Amanda Foreman searches the past for the origins of today’s world. Read the previous columns here.

The Pentagon Papers, a Department of Defense secret journal of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, went public 50 years ago next week. The ensuing Supreme Court case guaranteed press freedom to report government malfeasance, but the US military analyst behind the revelation, Daniel Ellsberg, still ended up being prosecuted for espionage. . Luckily for him, the charges were dropped after the lawsuit got caught up in the Watergate scandal.

The twists and turns that surround the Pentagon Papers have a distinctly American flavor. At the time, no other country saw whistleblowing as a fundamental right.

The origins of denunciation are much less idealistic. The idea arose from the Roman laws “Qui Tam”, from a Latin expression meaning “he who pursues for himself also does so for the king”. Qui Tam laws served a policing function by giving informants a financial incentive to report wrongdoers. A citizen who successfully sued for wrongdoing was rewarded with part of the defendant’s estate.

The phrase “raising the whistle” did not appear until the 1920s, but by then the American culture of whistleblowing had already reigned in corporate giant Standard Oil.

Anglo-Saxon law has retained a crude version of Qui Tam. Initially intended primarily to punish Sabbath breakers, it has evolved into a denunciation of corruption. In 1360, the English monarch Edward III used Qui Tam-style laws to encourage the reporting of jurors and officials who accepted bribes.

However, whistleblowers could never be sure those in power would not retaliate. The fate of two American sailors during the War of Independence, Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw, is a good example. The men were jailed for libel after denouncing Navy Commander Esek Hopkins for a series of abuses, including the torture of British prisoners of war. In desperation, they demanded redress from the Continental Congress. Eager to assert its authority, Congress not only footed the legal bill for men, but also passed what is widely regarded as the first whistleblower protection law in history. The law was strengthened during the Civil War through the False Claims Act, to discourage the sale of shoddy military supplies.

More “historically speaking”

These early laws framed such actions as an expression of patriotism. The phrase “raising the whistle” did not appear until the 1920s, but by then the American culture of whistleblowing was already reigning in corporate giant Standard Oil. In 1902, a clerk glanced at some documents he had been ordered to burn, only to find that they contained evidence of wrongdoing. He passed them on to a friend, and they reached journalist Ida Tarbell, forming an essential part of his account of Standard Oil’s monopoly abuses.

During World War II, the World Jewish Congress asked the government for special permission to ransom Jewish refugees in German-occupied Romania and France. A Treasury Department attorney named Joshua E. Dubois Jr. discovered that State Department officials were surreptitiously preventing the money from going overseas. He threatened to make the evidence public, forcing reluctant President Franklin Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board.

Over the past half-century, the number of corporate and government whistleblowers has increased dramatically. The Internet is full of Wikileaks-style whistleblowers these days. But unlike the Pentagon Papers saga, which became a watershed in the Vietnam War and ended with Mr. Ellsberg’s vindication, it’s unclear exactly what the release of classified documents by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden accomplished. For some, the three are heroes; for others, they are simply spies.


How has the whistleblower climate changed since the publication of the Pentagon Papers? Join the conversation below.

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Appeared in the print edition of June 12, 2021 under the title “Denunciation of Rome to Wikileaks”.


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