Echoes of Ellsberg in WikiLeaks Controversy

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Daniel Ellsberg discusses the Wikileaks case, which he sees as analogous to his 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers.

Julian Assange keeps getting compared to Daniel Ellsberg.

The latter's leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which documented US military involvement in Vietnam during the two decades leading up to war, set a sort of gold standard for investigative journalism. But it also earned Ellsberg a great deal of ire, as some argued that his release of government secrets would jeopardize the US and its military operations. Sound familiar? Ellsberg said it's the same thing happening now with Julian Assange and the accused leaker, Army Private Bradley Manning.

People who thought Julian Assange or Bradley Manning are immoral now, people like that certainly thought I was immoral at the time. Manning I see as the first person in 40 years who has been willing, as he said, to go to prison for life or be executed in order to get this information to the American people, and, as he said, to cause worldwide discussion, debate and reform. That's where I was 40 years ago, and I haven't heard anyone say anything like that in the intervening period.

Some of the same people calling Assange and Manning "immoral" are also using another, stronger word to describe their actions: treason. Sarah Palin is one of a handful of political figures calling for Assange to be brought to trial under the Espionage Act. The former governor of Alaska has even called for the WikiLeaks founder to be executed. Ellsberg called this position ridiculous.

These are people who have not read the Constitution, or haven't read it carefully. The use of the word "treason" is off the wall here for an American. Treason is defined very narrowly in the Constitution precisely because the founders knew they were liable to be hanged as traitors. In the Constitution, it's people who levy war against the United States, or give aid and comfort to the enemies while adhering to them. Well, I certainly didn't adhere to the Viet Cong and Bradley Manning doesn't adhere to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. He obviously wants, I would say, nothing but the best for his country, as I did.

According to Ellsberg, one of the factors contributing to anger over Assange is a fundamental misunderstanding of what WikiLeaks has done. He cites the claim repeatedly made by politicians, pundits and journalists that the website is releasing documents "indiscriminately." That's false, and undermines the standards of sensitivity that WikiLeaks has set for itself.

People don't seem to realize in this instance that Assange and WikiLeaks have not put that whole raft of material on the web. They have only released cables that have been referred to or used by the New York Times. So it's those papers that are making the editorial judgment of what to bring out, and if people don't like that they can criticize the Times. But neither of them is putting stuff out indiscriminately now.

What does Ellsberg think of the leaked documents themselves? Are they as revelatory as his Pentagon Papers? At the beginning, his answer was no.

When I looked at the first day's worth of this, I was disconcerted because I thought of lot of that did not need to be put out. It was gossip, inside opinions, as they call the "unvarnished" comments by our diplomats. It's not really the end of the world if our people hear unvarnished comments once every 40 years. They've been fed a diet of varnish for so long that it's not going to end the world...But I think the Times did not serve its own cause or this whole issue well by its initial editorial choices of picking out that gossipy, snarky type of comment because that's all people think there is.

And that's not all there is. Ellsberg may have been skeptical at the outset, but he said that in the last week especially, newly-released documents have turned into a source of real, hard news. Leaked cables have gone from exposing catty comments to bringing to light military and diplomatic operations that the US government has, in some cases, lied about publicly. For instance...

We are now engaging, contrary to what the Pentagon has recently and frequently assured us, in offensive ground operations in Pakistan. We are in a ground war in Pakistan.

Ellsberg said our government lied about that. Julian Assange believes that he is doing the world and the American people a service by making this information public when our government won't. And Ellsberg believes Assange. However, one caller brought up the point that Assange has also been credited with saying that his goal is to "discredit and embarrass" the United States. Ellsberg says that misses a larger point.

The characterization of Assange as wanting primarily to embarrass and discredit the United States is one that I've seen attributed to him, but it's not a direct quote. I don't feel he believes that. If he did, I wouldn't agree with it. But I think it's a mis-characterization...To deny that the US has acted like an empire is a form of denial that, well, you really don't have your feet on the ground, let's say. But many people, as I once did, believe the myth of a benevolent empire, that our intentions are always pure, and that we're always acting for the good and for democracy. I believed that once, but I don't believe it anymore.

Indeed, it has been the government's secrecy, not Assange's leaks, that have been more dangerous for the US in recent history, said Ellsberg.

The Pentagon has revealed that they have no evidence of any individual having been harmed by that release. Meanwhile, the silence that led to these wars has not just risked, it's actually killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis. The risks are not at all only on the side of telling secrets. The much bigger risks are on the side of keeping secrets about wrongful wars and hopeless wars.

Another risk would be allowing the government to exert editorial power over the media, as some officials have been calling for. Shutting down WikiLeaks' cash flow, pressuring Amazon to kick the site off of its servers, prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act...Ellsberg said it's just the tip of the iceberg.

If they go after WikiLeaks, don't imagine that they won't go after the New York Times, or you, with the same charges very shortly.

» Listen to the entire conversation on The Brian Lehrer Show.