Wendell Potter, the former communications chief for health insurer Cigna who turned whistleblower and exposed the insurance industry’s most deceptive practices, has come out in defense of secrets outlet WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
In an interview with Raw Story on Monday night and Wednesday afternoon, Potter said he certainly finds similarities to the Pentagon Papers released by Daniel Ellsberg during the Vietnam War.
“Well, it takes me back,” he said. “The Nixon Administration came after Ellsberg and tried to shut it all down and tried to intimidate the news media. There are a lot of parallels here.”
Potter called the freezing of WikiLeaks accounts in recent days by corporations such as MasterCard, VISA, Amazon and PayPal – Amazon after calls from US senators including the chair of the homeland security committee Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and PayPal at the request of the US State Department – “a disturbing trend.”
“This kind of action, this kind of involvement is dangerous,” he warned. “What’s most important is freedom of information. So I think this is a disturbing trend.”
Potter, who is currently a senior fellow on health care for the Center for Media and Democracy and author of the newly released book Deadly Spin, which details his transformation from health insurance spinmeister to whistleblower, said that he understands concerns about the possibility of sensitive documents being released.
But he pointed out that “a lot of this information that is now public is important for the public to know.”
Asked to respond to claims by some members of the Obama administration and the news media that the WikiLeaks documents have revealed nothing of importance, Potter called that “nonsense.”
“I think that’s entirely wrong,” he said.
“If they were revealing nothing of importance,” he explained, “why would the media pay attention to it at all? Why would The New York Times be writing stories about it?”
Potter added, “It is information that has not been publicly disclosed before, so I think that’s nonsense.”
He also said that the denial of service attacks to shut down WikiLeaks and federal government and corporate actions to squelch WikiLeaks’ hosting and funding sets a “very scary precedent” for the future of free speech on the Internet.
“Clearly what’s at stake is whether or not the Internet really can become the medium that serves the public good and lives up to its potential,” Potter said.
“If it is shut down in ways that we’re seeing right now,” he cautioned. “I think that Americans should be very alarmed.”
He added, “And so should the rest of the world for that matter.”
As for calls to arrest Assange, or even to assassinate him, over the disclosure of WikiLeaks documents, which is separate from allegations of sexual misconduct for which Assange is ostensibly now in custody, Potter also strongly disagrees and underscored the value of his work.
“In terms of what he’s doing to make public documents available, it serves a purpose,” he noted. “And if The New York Times and other publications are publishing them and we’re learning from them, I think that’s important and I don’t think he should be arrested [for that].”
Potter said he wouldn’t necessarily support the release of every detail that’s been disclosed by the leaks and acknowledged that governments may have some secrets better left unrevealed.
On the other hand, he said, “It’s important for there to be freedom of information. In my view, that’s paramount.”
He also said the controversy over WikiLeaks raises a vital question for our democracy, one he believes that warrants a vigorous national discourse.
“We really ultimately need to have a conversation about how much all this is really necessary. What are we really accomplishing by all the secrecy and all that’s going on that is not publicly disclosed?”
[Editor’s note: Look for more from our extended interview with whistleblower Wendell Potter next week, including new revelations about his national apology to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore for being involved in the smear campaign against “Sicko,” Potter’s shocking account of manipulating the news media over the years, and how he would encourage other potential whistleblowers to step forward.]
Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/bradpjacobson.
With editing by Stephen C. Webster.