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Daniel Ellsberg: ‘I’m Sure That President Obama Would Have Sought A Life Sentence In My Case’


In 1971, an American military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg gave a New York Times reporter a copy of “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” a multi-volume work that became known as the Pentagon Papers. The massive, classified study painted a candid and unflattering portrait of the military’s conduct of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court rejected the government’s request for an injunction against its publication later that year in a 6-3 ruling.

Ellsberg became the first person prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. But the case was thrown out after the judge learned that the government had engaged in the illegal wiretapping of Ellsberg and other misconduct.

Today, Ellsberg is one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration’s prosecution of leakers. Under President Obama’s tenure, the government has prosecuted six individuals for releasing classified information to media organizations.

Ellsberg is particularly fierce in his support of Bradley Manning, a young soldier who released a large amount of classified information to WikiLeaks. Manning was arrested in 2010, and his military court-martial began this week. Ellsberg considers Manning a hero, and he argues that there is little difference between what Manning did in 2010 and what Ellsberg did four decades earlier. We spoke by phone on Friday. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Timothy B. Lee: Why are you publicly supporting Bradley Manning?

Daniel Ellsberg: There are two reasons. One is to educate the public on the wars that he was exposing and the information that he put out. He has said his goal was to help the public make informed decisions. We’re grateful for that, and we’re trying to extend that word and bring that about.

Also, I and a lot of other people feel that we need more whistleblowers, and that to allow the government simply to stigmatize them without opposition does not encourage that. I think we’ve got to convey to people appreciation for the information that we do get, the idea that someone can make a difference.

In a military trial there isn’t a whole lot of possible influence, but the general atmosphere in the public is bound to make some influence on the judge. [We want the judge to] stop and think that there were some benefits [to Manning's actions].

TL: In a 1973 interview, you said that a “secondary objective” of releasing the Pentagon Papers was “the hope of changing the tolerance of Executive secrecy that had grown up over the last quarter of a century both in Congress and the courts and in the public at large.” How has that “tolerance of secrecy” changed over the last four decades?

DE: There was a period after the Vietnam war, partly due to the Pentagon Papers, and largely due to Watergate, that made people much less tolerant of being lied to, much more aware of how often they were lied to and how the system operated to make that lying possible without accountability. We got the Freedom of Information Act. The FISA court was set up. The FBI was reined in a great deal. The NSA was forbidden to do overhearing of American citizens without a court warrant. That lasted for some years.

But 40 years have passed, and after 9/11 in particular, all of those lessons have been lost. There’s been very great tolerance that if the magic words “national security,” or the new words “homeland security” are invoked, Congress has given the president virtually a free hand in deciding what information they will know as well as the public. I wouldn’t count on the current court with its current makeup making the same ruling with the Pentagon Papers as they did 40 years ago. I’m sure that President Obama would have sought a life sentence in my case.

Various things that were counted as unconstitutional then have been put in the president’s hands now. He’s become an elected monarch. Nixon’s slogan, “when the president does it, it’s not illegal,” is pretty much endorsed now. Meaning not only Obama but the people who come after him will have powers that no previous president had. Abilities on surveillance that no country in the history of the world has ever had.

Interestingly, after the AP revelations and the [revelations about] Fox News reporter [James Rosen], who was actually charged with aiding and abetting a conspiracy with a source, every journalist has suddenly woken up to the fact that they’re under the gun. That may actually have the effect of waking people up to the fact that, for example, Attorney General Holder has been violating the Constitution steadily, and that he should be fired. But fired for what? For doing what had the approval of the president.

Holder should be fired for a whole series of actions culminating in this subpoena for James Rosen’s cellphone records. I think that would be the first step of resistance in the right direction, of rolling back Obama’s campaign against journalism, freedom of the press in national security.

TL: Is government surveillance of journalists more alarming than prosecution of leakers?used it six times. He’s doing his best to assure that sources in the government will have reason to fear heavy prison sentences for informing the American public in ways he doesn’t want.

In other words, he’s working very hard to make it a government where he controls all the information. There will be plenty of leaks of classified information, but it will be by his officials in pursuit of his policies. We will not be getting information that the government doesn’t want out, that [reveals government actions that are] embarrassing or criminal or reckless, as we saw in Vietnam and Iraq.

I think the newspapers really need to address the fact that they’re going to be put in the position of printing nothing more than government handouts. There will be in effect a state press, as in so many other countries that lack freedom of the press. I don’t think they have really awakened to that change. There would be a lot of newspaper people who would be comfortable with that. But there are a lot who would not.

TL: Do you think Bradley Manning is in a different category than the other people President Obama has prosecuted?

DE: Bradley Manning’s case might seem to have no relevance to some of these other civilian disclosures because it’s a military court-martial. But the charge they’re using against him, the specific one of aid and comfort to the enemy, is one that puts virtually all dissent in this country for government policies at risk. Not only leaks in general, like WikiLeaks, or the New York Times for that matter, but people who aren’t in journalism at all. He’s charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy, a charge that has no element of intention or motive, simply by putting out information that the enemy might be happy to read.

I think they’re going to put into the trial for example, indications that Osama bin Laden downloaded the New York Times, as anyone in the world could do. No doubt Osama was happy to have the world realize that his enemies were committing atrocities that they weren’t admitting and that they weren’t investigating. It was no intention of WikiLeaks or Bradley Manning to give comfort to Osama bin Laden. That was an inadvertent effect of informing the American public of that, which definitely did need to know it.

Specifically, they’re charging Bradley with the video. [A video of a 2007 helicopter strike in Baghdad released by WikiLeaks under the title "Collateral Murder."] That was not in fact classified. But whether it was or not, it was wrongly withheld from Reuters who twice made Freedom of Information Act requests knowing it existed. David Finkel at The Washington Post quoted from the video. Bradley Manning was aware that Reuters had made that request and had been denied and that The Washington Post had access to the video and he believed that they had the video. I don’t think it’s ever been established whether the Washington Post reporter had the video.

That video depicts a war crime, an unarmed, injured civilian being deliberately killed. A squad was going to be in the area in minutes. They also shot at people who were trying to help the victims, including a father and two children.

Manning sees this, knows it’s a crime, knows the evidence has been refused to Reuters. He knows there’s no way for the American public to see that except to put it out. By any standard that’s what he should have done. For them to charge him with that shows an outrageous sensibility. Going after the man who exposes the war crime instead of any of the ones who actually did it, none of whom were indicted or investigated.

TL: I think some people have the impression that recent leaks have posed a greater threat to national security, and that the government’s prosecutions were therefore more justified, than what you did in the early 1970s. Do you think that’s true? font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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DE: Bradley Manning could have put this information on the Web. Instead, he gave it to an organization that he had reason to expect would give it to media who would have editorial judgment, staff to work on it, and long experience with such material. I would have criticized it if he’d put material that he hadn’t read himself directly on the Web.

On the other hand, he had no ability to read it all himself. It was just too much. He saw a lot of criminality, a lot of harm. He made a judgment to give it to WikiLeaks. I think that WikiLeaks did make a mistake in their release of the Afghan war logs, which they put on the Web at the same time the newspapers put their selected versions on the Web. I think that was a mistake and could have had some risk associated with it.

WikiLeaks learned from the criticism of that. And the Iraq war logs and the State Department cables, they put up only what the newspapers had chosen with a few exceptions. I think that was the right way to do it.

The Afghan war logs were not Bradley Manning’s fault. The State cables came out as a result of screwups involving Guardian and other people. Assange and others made mistakes. Bradley Manning had nothing to do with that.

TL: If you were in Bradley Manning’s situation, would you have released as much information as he did?Iraq Body Count Web site had compiled some 80,000 civilian deaths from newspaper accounts. But when the Iraq cables came out, they discovered that the army had recorded 20,000 additional deaths. That was one thing where you had to have the whole body of war logs.

There were innumerable — hundreds, possibly more than 1,000 — cases where American military had reported instances or knowledge of torture by the Iraqi authorities to whom we were turning over prisoners. In every one of those cases the cables showed that they were given the instruction not to investigate further. That was an illegal order. Turning over prisoners knowing they would be tortured is itself illegal under international law. It’s just as illegal as if we were doing the torture ourselves. International conventions require us to investigate and prosecute if appropriate.

That pattern of illegality goes right up to the commander in chief. I think that has something to do with Obama’s strong pursuit of this case. Unlike the Pentagon Papers which did not reveal criminality. They revealed recklessness, lies, but the Pentagon Papers didn’t show field-level crimes. What Bradley Manning revealed was a large number of clear-cut war crimes.

I believe there’s strong reason to believe that without Bradley Manning’s revelations, some 20,000 to 30,000 troops would be in Iraq right now. That had been Obama’s plan. He was negotiating to that end. But the disclosure by Bradley Manning of a cable that disclosed that the State Department was aware of an atrocity that we had officially denied, and was neither investigating it further nor prosecuting it, made it politically impossible for the prime minister in Iraq to allow Americans to stay in Iraq with immunity from Iraqi courts.

In the face of that revelation, [pressure from] the political opposition and his own party in Iraq meant that [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] could not allow the troops to remain, because he couldn’t grant immunity as President Obama was seeking.

A lot more Americans would have died in Iraq if troops had remained there as Obama would have preferred. Bradley Manning saved the lives of many troops. I think that’s good. Other people may feel they should have stayed. I certainly would be happy to have caused the end of that commitment to what was after all an aggressive war.

TL: Why do you think Bradley Manning’s leaks have received less public support than your release of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago?

DE: First of all, the war was incomparably unpopular by that time because there were more than 40,000 deaths, a number that would reach 58,000 by the end of the war. That made the war unpopular in a way that was not true of Iraq.

We’ve killed an enormous number of Iraqi civilians, but the public has not shown curiosity about what the number is, whether it’s 40,000, 400,000, or 1.5 million. There wasn’t pressure on Congress even to find out. The media didn’t show great interest in that. American casualties have been around 4,000, not 40,000.

So when the Pentagon Papers revealed that we were lied into in Vietnam, it had a much bigger effect on public opinion. It showed that these men had been wasted in a wrongful unnecessary war by the U.S. We were lied into Iraq to the same degree, in the same way. But it didn’t lead to as bloody a war.

Second, we had a much more independent Congress than we’ve had now for more than a decade. Since 9/11 neither party has been willing to challenge the president lest they individually or together be charged with being weak on terrorism. Both Democrats and Republicans have let the president get away with unconstitutional actions as a result. The Congress in those days was much less willing to do that.

Third, I was able to speak from the beginning, in terms of what the papers represented and presented my motives in a way that made a lot of sense to the public. A lot of the rest of the public regarded me as a traitor. I heard it as much as Bradley Manning did. The president and vice president both used those words. But I was out on bond and was able to explain what I had done and why I had done it. That definitely had its effect on the trial.

In Bradley Manning’s case, he’s been held essentially incommunicado. For three years, no journalist has [talked to] Bradley Manning by phone or in person. He’s a figure you’ve heard nothing from. They haven’t allowed anybody to see him. In fact, [former congressman Dennis] Kucinich [D-Ohio] tried formally to get in to see him. He was refused, or put off indefinitely.

The U.N. rapporteur for torture tried officially to see him, privately, which is the only way he’s allowed to operate, without the alleged torturers present. Manning was held for 10 months in conditions that the rapporteur claimed [were] at the very least cruel and inhumane conditions. I would say that by itself is grounds for dismissal of the trial. He should have been released for reasons of government misconduct, just like my case.

All the public has heard are unfavorable accounts with an emphasis on Manning’s gender identity. It’s clear from his statements to his informant that [Manning's sexual orientation] had nothing to do with [the motives for] his revelations. Those were entirely conscientious and political. It had nothing to do with his [personal] difficulties. The idea that he did this because he was “troubled” is defamatory.

TL: What do you think is the correct legal framework for handling classified information? Some information needs to be kept secret, right?

DE: William Florence, who drafted most of the regulations [on classified information] in the Pentagon in the 1950s, said at my trial that in his estimation, some 5 percent of what is classified is properly classified at the time. After a few years, about 0.5 percent remains worthy of classification.

Anybody who knows the system knows that Florence is not wrong. Very little meets the requirements of classification within two to three years. So as I say, something between 95 and 99 percent should not be classified at all. Yet it stays classified essentially forever.

So much is classified because it might turn out to be embarrassing. You can’t tell at the moment what prediction or recommendation will be a great embarrassment. So classify everything. Some of it is criminal at the time. A lot of it is lying and deception of the public. Some of it is breaking of treaties.

So you need a much stronger Freedom of Information Act. You need more people to declassify information. Money spent on more people declassifying is money very well spent for our democracy.

There should not be a secrets act which criminalizes all release of all classified information. President Obama is using the Espionage Act [as a de facto secrets act] which should have been regarded as unconstitutional.

TL: But there needs to be some penalty for disclosing secret information, right?