As Benjamin Franklin once said, a small leak can sink a great ship. A fitting metaphor for the topic of famous American leaks, especially since Franklin himself was embroiled in one of the country’s earliest leak scandals. Throughout U.S. history, leaks have shaped public opinion and public policy, raising vital questions about the role of the press and the people’s right to know while sinking a few reputations, careers and administrations in the process. These four rank among the best known.
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The Hutchinson Letters
One of the earliest leaks in U.S. history played a key role in stoking tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. In December of 1772, Benjamin Franklin–then living in England as a colonial representative–received a packet of 13 private letters penned by Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts and a prominent British loyalist. In them, Hutchinson criticized colonial leaders and recommended a stronger British military presence in Boston, where the seeds of rebellion had already begun to take root following the unpopular Stamp Act and other incendiary legislation by the British Parliament. Franklin sent the correspondence, which had been leaked by one of Hutchinson’s political opponents, to radical acquaintances in the colonies. Though he would later take up the patriot cause, Franklin shared the letters in an effort to minimize anti-British sentiment by showing that Hutchinson—not Parliament—was responsible for the crackdown in Boston. Despite his request that they remain confidential, the letters were published in the Boston Gazette in June 1773. Reviled by his colonial subjects, Hutchinson fled to England, while Franklin was publicly reprimanded for the leak and sent back to America, where he would help draft the Declaration of Independence and take part in founding a new nation.
The Pentagon Papers
The most famous leak in American history came to light in June of 1971, when The New York Times began publishing sections of the so-called "Pentagon Papers," a top-secret Department of Defense report on America's involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The 47-volume study indicated that the U.S. government had systematically misled the public and Congress, deceiving them about the scope, goals and progress of the increasingly unpopular war. The Times had obtained the incriminating papers from Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst turned antiwar activist who had smuggled them out of the Pentagon. Their publication sparked a nationwide furor, galvanizing the powerful antiwar movement and damaging the credibility of America's Cold War-era foreign policy. It also precipitated a decisive ideological and legal battle over the freedom of the press to disclose “classified” information and the public’s right to know about its government’s activities. President Richard Nixon attempted to stop further publication of the papers, but the Supreme Court refused to issue an injunction.
The Watergate Scandal
The second major leak scandal to rattle Richard Nixon’s presidency emerged on June 17, 1972, when five men were arrested for breaking into and illegally wiretapping the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington, D.C. The subsequent investigation revealed ties between the perpetrators and the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a fundraising organization for Nixon’s 1972 election campaign. The Nixon administration denied any involvement, but later that year, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post uncovered a web of conspiracy surrounding the incident and its ensuing cover-up, relying on leaked information from a secret informant with the unforgettable pseudonym “Deep Throat.” (In 2005, former FBI agent W. Mark Felt came forward as the Watergate whistleblower.) In 1974, after a series of Senate hearings amassed compelling evidence directly implicating Nixon, he became the first president in U.S. history to resign.
The Plame Affair
On July 6, 2003, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he questioned the George W. Bush administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq earlier that year. Contradicting a statement made by Bush, Wilson reported that his 2002 mission to Niger as a CIA envoy had failed to substantiate claims that Iraq had attempted to purchase enriched uranium yellowcake. Eight days later, Washington Post writer Robert Novak responded with a column that criticized Wilson and described the diplomat’s wife, Valerie Plame, as an “agency operative.” Wilson alleged that the White House had leaked Plame’s undercover status as retaliation for his Times op-ed, and in December 2003 an investigation was conducted by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. He interviewed Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials, along with various journalists. New York Times reporter Judith Miller served time in a federal detention center after refusing to testify, but was released three months later when Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, signed a waiver giving her permission to speak. On March 6, 2007, Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to federal investigators. His resulting prison sentence was later commuted by the president.
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