For decades, Daniel Ellsberg was the world’s most famous whistleblower. The former military analyst leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971, a trove of classified documents that outlined the full extent of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their publication in the The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major news outlets helped bring that conflict to an end, but Ellsberg was vilified as a traitor to the US. Five decades later, the man who blew the whistle on lies about the Vietnam War is held up as a patriot in his country and a legend internationally.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Ellsberg and Julian Assange, whose extradition to the US on espionage charges was recently blocked by a London court. In September, Ellsberg testified in Assange’s defence, highlighting the many similarities between their efforts.
We caught up with Ellsberg about his past work and his thoughts on the Assange case.
Can you explain why you came to testify in favour of Julian Assange?
I’m in favour of all the whistleblowers who are put on trial. Now, Julian is in a different class because he’s a publisher, like the New York Times or The Guardian. In that sense, his indictment is even more sinister, because it strikes directly at press freedom and the First Amendment [which, in the US, protects the freedom of speech and the press]. To be clear, the prosecution of sources like me is already very questionable under the First Amendment.
Major legal scholars argued at the time that it was unconstitutional to use against a former official like myself. They argued that freedom of the press and freedom of speech should assure protection of my statements. However, that hasn’t been upheld by any courts since my prosecution, and about a dozen such defendants have been convicted or actually made guilty plea bargains because of the risk of longer imprisonment that they faced.
The Supreme Court has, however, addressed the unconstitutionality of going after the press itself – which, after all, is the only non-government profession mentioned in the constitutional Bill of Rights. This isn’t because the press are wonderful people, but because they serve a role which is absolutely vital to a republic and to any country that aspires to be a self-governing democracy.
They provide the information that the public need if they are to be sovereign. So they are protected – and obviously Julian Assange should be protected. But for reasons that I can’t truthfully fathom, a number of journalists disclaim that he is a journalist. I don’t know what they hope to achieve by making a point like that.
How do you explain the mainstream media’s aloofness from all this? The coverage is so minimal, it seems the public hardly know what’s been playing out at the London’s Old Bailey since September 7…
First of all, I really think that journalists look down on WikiLeaks, in the way that police look down on their informants – they regard them as snitches. They rely on them but they don’t respect them. So why do they treat Assange as badly as Chelsea Manning or me, at the time? I warned Julian that he could expect no sympathy from the New York Times, based on the way I had been treated. That applied to Snowden, Chelsea Manning and all the other whistleblowers.
I am somewhat baffled why they distance themselves from Assange. Maybe it is because they want to retain respect from their official sources who supply them with exclusives.
But I am somewhat baffled as to why they distance themselves from Assange. Maybe it is because they want to retain respect from their official sources who supply them with exclusives, even when those exclusives are often false. In other words, it is very much in journalists’ career interests to be lied to by officials on “deep background” that isn’t available to other reporters at the same time. They like the secrecy system, which an official can violate for them and which gives them a scoop – even though it deprives them, next week, of somebody else’s scoop.
But then they figure, ‘If we are respectable and responsible, unlike this scruffy Assange, we’ll get more scoops from these people.’ These journalists prefer to be told falsehoods by high officials on the grounds than to expose them. If they did expose them as liars, criminals or dangerous fools, then they wouldn’t have any more access. I think it’s a question of retaining respectability, not with their readers, but with their official sources.
This sounds very cynical, and also very short-sighted – wouldn’t the prosecution of Julian Assange create a dangerous precedent for investigative journalism as a whole?
Yes, I think it’s very short-sighted of them. Because once this precedent is decided in the United States, it will not only apply to American journalists – this very case is about an Australian and Ecuadorian outside the US. If Assange is extradited with the help of the British, and faces prosecution in the US, then no journalist in the world is safe from life imprisonment in the US. The extradition would potentially mean that journalists, anywhere in the world, could be extradited to other countries for exposing classified information of those countries. Yet the possibility of democracy in the world depends on the public’s ability to get information through investigative journalism, and through leaks.
In 2010, WikiLeaks revelations were treated as priceless scoops by major outlets like The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. Ten years down the road, Assange is fighting for his sanity and his freedom in a London courtroom, and no one seems to really care. Has there been a change of mood among the press corp?
I was very impressed when Chelsea Manning’s revelations came out thanks to WikiLeaks and the newspapers who collaborated with WikiLeaks. I had been hoping for decades for someone to release thousands of pages as I did. Manning showed a willingness to go to jail indefinitely, or even be executed, to get this out. It included large amounts of information that revealed some blatant crimes, as in the case of the Collateral Murder video, but mostly patterns of behaviour as in the case of torture and assassination in the Iraq and Afghan war logs.
The fact that someone did leak after all that time was very encouraging. Then, three years later, we had Edward Snowden. But, in the last seven years, there haven’t been as many such revelations as there should have been. One example I can give is 6,000 pages of an intelligence report done for a torture committee.
This is potentially the most comprehensive exposé of torture, and it would be a historical revelation to blow against its widespread practice. It should have been leaked and still could be. But it hasn’t yet.
Do you think journalists have become more cowardly?
They’re just cowards, like most people. It’s funny, I was just looking at the current and former government officials who declare Assange’s trial to be unjust and call for his immediate release. And there’s [former democratic Senator] Mike Gravel, a man who risked prosecution to help release the Pentagon Papers back in 1971. In 2006, just after the Democrats backed off on impeaching George W. Bush, I asked him, “Mike, would you say that the Democrats in Congress are unusually cowardly?” And he said, “No, usually cowardly.”
The fact is that very few people tend to have the moral courage to take any risk whatsoever, be it risking their careers or their relationships. Even when it comes to exposing illegal wars that are undermining the Constitution – even then, you don’t find people willing to take any risks at all. And then there are people like Julian who have the moral courage to face such risks, the legal charges as well as the physical danger. I believe this world will not survive without more people like him, willing to show enough courage to defy their own governments and risk their own lives and freedoms. They will mobilise mass movements that will give us presidents far better than Joe Biden in the next election – although for now it’s essential that Donald Trump be removed from office, and that can only be done by voting for Joe Biden!
What do you make of your experience testifying at the Old Bailey on September 16?
What this trial has brought out for me was how great of an effort was made, as early as the Afghan war logs and even more so with Iraq war logs, to redact the names of confidential sources. It seems to me that the prosecutor was continuously pushing the notion that Julian had been purposefully releasing those names, that he had been “cavalier” – that’s the word they tried to put in the mouths of several witnesses – about the safety of people in the leaked democratic cables, putting them at “great risk,” and that that’s why he was sued.
That notion is clearly contradicted by all of these independent testimonies, which said no, on the contrary, he did what he could to remove them. Julian missed the deadline he had made with The Guardian to release the stuff because he wanted more time to redact. He wanted even more time than they gave him. They were the ones pressing him to get it out. He even turned to the US State Department to warn them to take whatever action was necessary to protect sources and redact names, which they didn’t. So I don’t quite understand why the prosecutor keeps raising this point, since one witness after another contradicts it.
Moreover, the indictment clearly refers to documents that did not have unredacted names in them, including the Collateral Murder video, which the prosecutor keeps insisting is not part of the case. I don’t know how the prosecutor got away with it – he’s been clearly mischaracterising the charges. I would have thought the judge or the defence would raise objections to that. One can only conjecture that what the judge is hearing clearly undermines the prosecution case in a number of ways.
During your testimony, you mentioned that many of the defamatory attacks being made against Assange were also hurled at you. How did you survive those attacks?
Julian, of course, has gone through much worse than having names called at him. I was out of jail for the entire 22 months of my indictment. I was able to lecture, to be interviewed, to resist in every way. That’ a big change compared to what’s happening now. Snowden anticipated the kind of treatment that Chelsea Manning had received, and decided to explain to journalists what he’d done, which he couldn’t do without leaving the country first. In fact, he had to go to a place like Russia, which does not have an extradition treaty with the US.
You were vilified in your time, weren’t you?
That’s true. It was very hard for someone who grew up during the Second World War, a Marine Corps veteran and a patriot, to be called a traitor. For decades I used to say there’s some words you just can’t ever get used to – that turns out not to be true. It’s been 50 years now, and I finally can get used to anything, even that. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Snowden, Assange and Chelsea Manning were all subject to death threats. Joe Biden called Assange a “hi-tech terrorist.”
In my own case, I learned that there was an effort from the Oval Office to bring 12 Cuban Americans up from Miami to “incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally” – those were the words. So when Hillary Clinton joked, “why don’t we drone him?”, referring to Assange, I don’t think that was entirely a joke.
How do you explain the total change of attitude towards you? During cross-examination, the prosecutors were trying to oppose you and Julian Assange, the good Pentagon Papers and the bad WikiLeaks. You were portrayed as a responsible whistleblower, unlike Snowden and Assange.
A lot of people seem to want a foil to say that they aren’t against all leakers, just specifically against Julian. They want to target him, as well as Snowden and Manning, without saying that they are against unauthorised revelations altogether. I was available for people to point to and say, we support ‘good whistleblowers’.
Whatever Julian Assange is guilty of, I’m guilty of. The notion that he’s guilty of something that I, the good guy, wasn’t, is just false.
But that’s just ridiculous. Whatever he’s guilty of, I’m guilty of. The motives were similar. The difference being, I was a source, he was a publisher. He was like the New York Times and the others – more courageous than they are, obviously. But I identify with him totally. The notion that he’s guilty of something that I, the good guy, wasn’t, is just false.
When you broke the Pentagon Papers, there was no such option as WikiLeaks – and you turned to the print media. This is what Snowden did as well. If you were to leak the Pentagon Papers now, what would you do: would you use WikiLeaks, or go to a newspaper?
I think it’s still worthwhile to look for what authority remains, and the widespread distribution of print media. I certainly wouldn’t wait as long as, let’s say, the people who informed the Times about the NSA surveillance, which Snowden ended up revealing. That came out in the Times in 2004, when George W. Bush was up for a second term. They had that information against Bush before the election, but the Times refrained from publishing it because the White House had told them they would have blood on their hands – meaning, “We will accuse you of having caused any deaths that occur after this revelation.”
The Times printed it a year later, just because James Risen was about to bring it out in a book and they didn’t want to be scooped by their own reporter. The delay meant another four years for Bush. I think that should have led to something like impeachment, in journalistic terms, for [then New York Times editor-in-chief] Bill Keller. He should have been forced to resign! They eventually published it and got a Pulitzer Prize, which they deserved. However, they should have been condemned for the previous year.
So I would not encourage anyone to wait a year for the New York Times to publish something like this. But I would say yes, do go to the [traditional] press first, but if the press fails, as they often do, you have the Internet. Go to WikiLeaks.