Echoes of Ellsberg in WikiLeaks Controversy

Friday, December 10, 2010

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.


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Comments [14]

The game of moral relativism does not justify one's own abhorrent behavior.

Body "scoring" does not make it alright. I don't know who has killed more in "the post-WWII" world, I do know that I am disgusted by the millions my own corporate-owned country is responsible for.

Aug. 19 2011 11:19 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To dboy who wrote:

"FYI: Allende was DEMOCRATICALLY elected."

So was Hitler. Big deal!

One vote; one fair election; one time! How many times has Castro been elected? As for Chavez and Ahmadinejad, both were "fairly" elected too. We'll see how soon they decide to "fairly" leave office :)

Aug. 19 2011 11:10 AM

The socialists... The SOCIALISTS!!!

They're gunna get us!!

Aug. 19 2011 11:08 AM

@ ol' jgarbuz

Wow! Must be prescription grade rose-colored glasses!

FYI: Allende was DEMOCRATICALLY elected.

Aug. 19 2011 11:06 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To dboy

Yeah, I would like to see what Chile would have turned out to be had it gone communist under Allende.

During the Cold War there was a saying, that it was better that OUR bastards were in control then THEIR bastards!

Compare how many were murdered in the USSR, China and Eastern Europe compared to the right wing, fascistic regimes. I'm not holding a candle for Pinochet, but Chile today is the most prosperous country in Latin America. And very democratic today too.

Aug. 19 2011 11:01 AM

@ ol' jgarbuz

Where do you buy your rose-colored glasses?? WalMart?

Gotta get a pair of those!

Aug. 19 2011 10:59 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Tom,

Then should the military report details of every strategy and tactic? Should they report to the people battle tactics? Of course there have to be secrets kept from the enemy, which does mean keeping them out of the public domain. The question is which pieces of information should be withheld from the public. The devil is in the details.

Aug. 19 2011 10:57 AM

@ ol' jgarbuz

What deluded planet do you live on??

Talk to the folks that had "disappeared" family members during the Nixon/Kissinger/Friedman appointed Pinochet regime.

One on a VERY LONG list of FINE examples of... "The undeniable fact is, that the post-WWII "Pax Americana" or "American Empire" probably has spread more freedom, prosperity and democracy than any other previous empire in history."

God bless the United Korporations of Amerika®.

What planet???

Aug. 19 2011 10:54 AM
Tom from NJ

Facts don't have agendas. Facts don't make judgements.

Aug. 19 2011 10:49 AM
Tom from NJ

How can a government for the people by the people keep secrets from the people?

Aug. 19 2011 10:45 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The undeniable fact is, that the post-WWII "Pax Americana" or "American Empire" probably has spread more freedom, prosperity and democracy than any other previous empire in history.

Clearly, our efforts have not always been benign and selfless, or particularly effective. Nonetheless, it is clear that the world is a far, far better and more prosperous place thanks to the "American empire" than it was before.

Aug. 19 2011 10:32 AM
dboy from nyc

The difference is Assange is a megalomaniacal more concerned about the cult of his own personality rather than any true subversive behavior.

I wish the substance of of Assange's "leaks" were as significant as the simple fact he is "leaking" "secrets".

Ellsberg and Assange.

Apples and Oranges.

Aug. 19 2011 10:23 AM
dboy from nyc

Where are the men of similar moral character, today!!

Thank you Mr. Ellsberg for your courage!

Aug. 19 2011 10:16 AM

Mr. Ellsberg offers us not one, but two, chilling facts about the way our government suppresses political dissidents in this piece. though he may not know it.

It's true - the world's lone superpower does have the power (legitimate, or usurped) to go after anyone it chooses to. Superpowers are not nice people, to paraphrase Howard Zinn, and they will protect their interests in whatever ruthless, less-than-honest way they can. The second thing about the world's lone superpower's power that Ellsberg tacitly acknowledges is that they've been doing suppressing their political dissidents fairly successfully for 40 years, which is the real reason he's not heard this type of criticism in that time. One must listen VERY hard to hear it.

I could remind Mr. Ellsberg about the senseless imprisonment of Leonard Peltier and the vendetta against him by the FBI for the past 32 years that is slowly killing this innocent man, but even more astonishing than that is the fact that the FBI used white supremacists against civil rights workers in the 60's, and that everything they illegally did to activists since then has now been legalized - by every Commander-in-Chief since Reagan. I've been a bioslave of this government's (once) openly acknowledged program to develop pathogens to destroy the human immune system, but no AIDS political action group has ever embraced the millions of people like me, which is why AIDS will never be anything other than a weapon of mass destruction from which a few make millions treating.

How do they do it? How do they manage to keep so many people silent, for so long? What techniques and policies and technologies do they use? That information, like the facts about the above assertions, is all public knowledge - just not knowledge WNYC, or Bill Moyers, seems to be interested in.

Dec. 11 2010 10:05 AM

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