Like Daniel Ellsberg, others who leaked US government secrets have been seen as traitors and heroes

Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers made him an instant hero to opponents and a traitor in the eyes of the White House

Via AP news wire
Friday 16 June 2023 21:17 BST
Obit Ellsberg
Obit Ellsberg (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak a secret Defense Department study of the U.S. war in Vietnam — the Pentagon Papers — made him a traitor in the eyes of the White House and its supporters and an instant hero to opponents of the war.

That’s been true of others who released top-secret information that they felt was evidence of official wrongdoing. While Ellsberg, who died Friday, will be remembered in a largely positive light, the reputations of more recent figures are still contested.

Here are some other examples of people who exposed government secrets:


An associate director at the FBI, Felt was “Deep Throat,” the source who gave information about the Watergate break-in to The Washington Post in the 1970s.

Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers indirectly led to Watergate. Infuriated at the exposure of the study, Nixon ordered an effort to dig up dirt on Ellsberg. Operatives linked to the White House broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Months later, five of them would be caught trying to break into Democratic Party offices at the Watergate.

A high-ranking FBI official, Felt provided hints to Post writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigated the burglary and attempted cover-up. Journalists and congressional investigations eventually implicated Nixon, leading to his resignation.

“Deep Throat” became a shadowy star of the classic film “All the President's Men.” Felt unmasked himself in 2005, shortly before his death in 2008.


Snowden, 39, disclosed how U.S. intelligence agencies were secretly collecting massive amounts of Americans' phone calls, emails, and other data, launching a national debate over privacy and national security.

A contractor and systems engineer at the National Security Agency, Snowden showed how the NSA could seize data from U.S. telecommunications companies and how it spied on leaders allied with Washington, among other programs.

Shortly after the first stories with his cooperation were published in 2013, Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow with plans to eventually travel to Ecuador. The U.S. cancelled his passport and he stayed in a Moscow airport for weeks.

He would eventually settle in Moscow and speak remotely to audiences around the world about civil liberties and privacy. The Justice Department during the administration of former President Barack Obama charged him with espionage and theft in a case that remains active today.

A decade later, he remains in Russia and took Russian citizenship last year. His detractors point to that decision as proof that he damaged national security and should not be considered a hero.

On Twitter Friday, Snowden said Ellsberg had hoped to dedicate his final hours to reducing the risk of a nuclear exchange, calling him a “hero to the end.”


Manning, 35, gave more than 700,000 documents to the web site WikiLeaks while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2010.

The documents included State Department cables and classified video of a helicopter attack by U.S. forces gunning down a group of Iraqi men, including two journalists for Reuters.

Manning was convicted in military court of having violated the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her sentence was commuted by Obama just before he departed office in January 2017.

She then was jailed for more than a year because she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.


Winner, 31, leaked a classified report on Russian government efforts to penetrate voting software ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She printed out a copy of the report at an NSA office in Georgia and mailed it to a news outlet.

While authorities never explicitly identified the outlet, the Justice Department announced her arrest in June 2017 on the same day that The Intercept reported on a top secret NSA document about Russian hacking.

She pled guilty in 2018 to a single count of transmitting national security information. Given a five-year sentence, she was eventually released early in June 2021.

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