One of the most legendary characters in American political history, in 1971, as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg took the brave decision to leak 7,000 pages of top-secret documents to the New York Times and the Washington Post, the so-called Pentagon Papers, exposing the lies of the US administrations about the Vietnam war.
In this interview, Ellsberg, the icon of all whistleblowers, expresses his deep concern over the possible extradition of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, to the United States. Ellsberg stresses that Assange’s arrest comes at an ominous time for the freedom of the press, underlining that the US government intends to punish him because he exposed the war crimes and atrocities of the United States in Iraq and embarrassed the CIA by publishing information about its illegal hacking operations.
Moreover, Daniel Ellsberg affirms that the US President, Donald Trump, is escalating his war on the press. ‘‘The indictment against Julian Assange would have a chilling effect on free speech and would be inimical to our democracy’’, Ellsberg underlines. This indictment poses great threats ‘‘not only to Wikileaks, but also to The Guardian, The New York Times and every newspaper that considers printing classified information’’, Ellsberg adds. He also believes that further charges will be brought against Julian Assange if he is extradited to the United States. With the focus of Assange’s legal team now turning to fight the US extradition request, the man behind one of the greatest revelations of the past century speaks out…
Yorgos Boskos (YB): It has been more than three weeks since Julian Assange was arrested inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He has been sentenced to 50 weeks in prison and still faces US charges. What are your thoughts?
Daniel Ellsberg (DE): It is a very ominous time for the freedom of the press. I think that Donald Trump is escalating his war on the press. First Amendment (freedom of the press and freedom of speech) has always been held to preclude indicting or prosecuting a member of the press for doing his or her job, for truth-telling and informing the public. Actually, previous presidents, starting with my prosecution under president Nixon, have used the Espionage Act against sources like myself.
My prosecution for the Pentagon Papers in 1971 was the first one of an American for giving truthful information to the public, which was a violation of the First Amendment. But Nixon used the Espionage Act – which was intended for spies – against me, who informed the American public. My trial was ended by the revelation of the government’s misconduct against me, which led to the convictions of several administration officials.
Nixon used the Espionage Act – which was intended for spies – against me, who informed the American public.
I remind you that after President Obama, two other sources were indicted. President Obama indicted and prosecuted nine people. The constitutionality of those prosecutions was never addressed by the Supreme Court, on whether the First Amendment permitted such a prosecution as the one against me. Presidents Bush and Obama both considered going further and prosecuting a member of the press directly, Julian Assange. However, the Department of Justice under Obama did not prosecute the very charges that Trump’s administration is now raising against Assange.
YB: How do you look at the indictment against Assange?
DE: The indictment against him would have a chilling effect on free speech, which would be forbidden by the First Amendment and would be inimical to democracy in the United States. Donald Trump has crossed a boundary in challenging the First Amendment, that no other president in our history has done.
We do expect further charges to be brought against Assange if the British extradite him to the United States. The first charge against Assange is obviously intended to make it easier for the British to extradite him, without being accused of violating international norms by doing so. I have no doubt that further charges will be brought against him if he is extradited. Assange faces up to five years in prison. However, I am certain that the intelligence community and the Trump administration will not be content to put Julian Assange away for just five years. In my case, they firstly brought three charges against me with a possible sentence of 35 years, but by the end of the same year I was indicted on twelve charges with a possible sentence of 115 years. I would expect Julian will be facing the same.
So, this is intended to intimidate the freedom of the press by the very indictment. However, whatever happens from here, I am afraid that will have a negative impact on press freedom, which is bad for our democracy, foreign policy, and constitutional freedoms.
YB: Do you think that this indictment poses great threats to other media organizations such as The New York Times?
DE: They have framed his first charge narrowly with the purpose of saying that what Assange has done is not a normal journalistic practice and that other media outlets are not in danger.
However, I am sure that this will be expanded, because they also mentioned other practices in connection with this – as a basis for future charges – which are normal journalistic practices, according to them. For example, using an encrypted communication system, helping a source maintain his or her confidentiality and conspiring allegedly with a source to print classified information. This would apply to the Pentagon Papers’ case, but also to the revelation of classified information that occurs almost daily.
If you use conspiracy on that, you just wipe out unauthorized disclosure. And I have long said that unauthorized disclosure is the lifeblood of a Republic and a free country. So, it does not only apply to Wikileaks, but also to Le Monde, El País, The Guardian, The New York Times and every newspaper that considers printing classified information.
YB: Does the United States have the right to extradite him from the United Kingdom?
DE: There are limitations under International Law on what charges a country can extradite people for. However, the purpose in this case is clearly political; to put behind bars someone who has published information embarrassing for past US administrations and to intimidate others from doing that. Couldn’t be more political. But the British choose not to interpret that as political. So, when you talk about ‘right’, I don’t know how things are enforced. I would say that they would certainly be condemnable, as was Ecuador, which violated his right of asylum that it had granted him. The previous president of Ecuador, who granted him asylum, Correa, is calling Moreno a traitor for having revoked Assange’s asylum.
So, your question of ‘right’ is a question that has already been addressed by the UN bodies, which have claimed that Julian’s detention at the Ecuadorian Embassy arbitrarily violates international rights. But they don’t have the power to hold Britain accountable for that, as far as I know. If the United Kingdom extradites Julian Assange to the United States, he will be charged with facilitating whistleblowing under the Espionage Act – as I was – and will have no chance of a fair trial in a US court. Whether you serve the national interest or not, you cannot get a fair trial under the Espionage Act.
YB: What is the real intention of the US government, according to you?
DE: They desperately want to punish him for exposing war crimes. The Obama administration wanted to convict him. There were members of the Congress and officials who said that Julian Assange should be hanged. At some point, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was embarrassed by the revelations, said – whether jokingly or not – that he might be a subject of a drone attack.
I have little doubt that they would be glad if they could assassinate him and get away with it. On the first hand, they want to punish him and, secondly, make an example out of him to preclude such things in the future. I think they want to put him away for much longer than five years and they would be glad to see the death penalty applying to him. But there is a problem for the law in doing that. Firstly, he cannot be called a traitor to the United States, because he is not a US citizen. Secondly, that would be a violation of the First Amendment. But you know, president Trump couldn’t care less about the First Amendment, the Constitution, International Treaties or anything at all.
YB: Donald Trump stated repeatedly before the US election: ‘‘I love Wikileaks’’. Now, he says he knows nothing about them…
DE: Like every official and administrator. They love leaks that serve their election, agency, budget or administration. That happens all the time. Julian Assange embarrassed the CIA by publishing information about its illegal hacking operations. But this is not what he is charged with. He is actually charged – so far, they might bring more charges later – with actions he took under Obama that revealed war crimes by the United States, such as the drone operations, which I have no doubt have been continued.
Every administration from now on, in terms of its drone operations, wants as much secrecy and silence as can be achieved. They don’t want revelations like Julian’s.
Every administration from now on, in terms of its drone operations, wants as much secrecy and silence as can be achieved. They don’t want revelations like Julian’s. Apart from the period before the election, when Trump was happy to see leaks that would hurt his opponent.
YB: A columnist of the Washington Post has recently claimed that Julian Assange is not a journalist or a Daniel Ellsberg. What’s your opinion?
DE: First of all, he is not a source, like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden or me. Julian Assange is in the same position as Bill Keller or other journalists in The New York Times who publish essential information for the public. So, I appreciate his activities very much. The fact is that Julian Assange has been smeared by the press and the administrations to a degree that has made him unpopular and polarized the public. However, he has some strong supporters. I am a strong supporter of what he did in 2010 rather than his more recent activities. I am not happy about all the judgments he has made in the last couple of years, including during the US election. Of course, he had the right to publish that information. However, I was unhappy about the effects of that information, because I think that they harmed Hillary Clinton’s chances to win the election.
I certainly wanted people in swing states to vote for Clinton. And I will make public my vote; I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. I vote for Bernie Sanders on my Californian ballot. I have great criticisms of Hilary Clinton, as do many on the left. But I didn’t agree with some on the left who claimed that Donald Trump is no worse than Hillary Clinton. I strongly disagree.
So, I don’t endorse every decision he has made. Julian Assange has been in one room for seven years. I don’t know how good my judgment would be after a confinement like that. When he was dragged out of the embassy, that was the first sunlight he saw in seven years.
But Julian Assange had the right to publish the information that harmed Clinton before the election. And it was newsworthy.
YB: Over the past years, the US administrations have accused Wikileaks of putting national security at risk. Do you agree with that?
DE: Absolutely not. Wikileaks has published information that was embarrassing for the US administrations. I agree that there are some secrets that should be kept a secret, but that’s a very small percentage. Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange were charged with having blood on their hands for the releases in 2010-2011, which I approved very much.
Not one single piece of evidence has been brought forward that Wikileaks put national security at risk. If they could show that Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden or Julian Assange had harmed any person or national security in a specific case, we would know that on the covers of our magazines or newspapers. They have not come up with anything.
Most classified information does not deserve secrecy in the national interest, apart from only a small proportion. I would say that a free press is very much in our interest and national security as well because I believe timely revelations could have prevented our aggression against Iraq and the Vietnam war. I also think that if Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden were at a higher level in 2002, we would have not invaded Iraq, which led to the deaths of almost one million civilians.
I also think that if Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden were at a higher level in 2002, we would have not invaded Iraq, which led to the deaths of almost one million civilians.
YB: Over recent decades, the US has been involved in continuous war. How have political elites in this country been able to sell the idea that ‘‘interventions’’ were actually aimed to bring stability in other regions?
DE: People can delude themselves. For instance, there are some people who justify our pressures on Venezuela. Name one example where America’s interventions have benefited the local people over the long run. There is no such an example either in Latin America or elsewhere. The American support for the Greek colonels in 1967 is one more shameful, criminal, and outrageous policy of the United States. It was a US covert operation of support for the Greek Colonels. Don’t forget that Colonel Papadopoulos had been on the CIA payroll. We supported the regime of the colonels in Greece for seven years. We supported torture in Iraq, which Chelsea Manning exposed. Those tortures were kept secret and denied. Don’t forget that the G.W. Bush administration refused even to acknowledge that there was torture and talked in terms of ridiculous euphemisms, like ‘‘enhanced interrogation’’. The torture is illegal under both domestic and international law. The former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing covert torture. The current head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, was involved in running secret torture camps.
Is it in the American interest to torture people? That is not legitimate or necessary for American security. Our military intervention in Syria, which was supposed to benefit the Syrian people, was delusional. In the case of Syria, Hillary Clinton looked even worse than Trump. She was talking about a no-fire-zone, which would have brought us into direct armed conflict with the Russians. This shows a deplorable judgment. The American elites – Republican and Democrats – have been united in favour of America’s covert empire. I say ‘‘covert’’ because it’s based on a plausible denial of the reality, with misleading evidence of our involvement.
YG: Looking back at the past, would you again take the enormous risk of leaking the Pentagon Papers?
DE: I have always regretted that I didn’t do it much earlier. I could have done it in 1964 instead of 1971. I regret postponing that revelation until some years later, because the Vietnam war could have been prevented.
So, I would say to other people not to do what I did, not to wait until the bombs start falling and thousands of people die. If you have the information, put it out whatever the cost might be. Don’t wait until you lose control of the documents and can only speak without documents.
As Chelsea Manning said ‘‘life imprisonment or death’’. When I heard that she had said that, I realized that was what I felt back in 1971. I hadn’t heard anybody saying that for the past 39 years. Three years later, Edward Snowden made the same judgment. Edward Snowden has said repeatedly, ‘‘Without Daniel Ellsberg, no Ed Snowden’’. In 2012, when Snowden was considering what to do, he saw a documentary about me, ‘‘The most dangerous man in America’’. So, he knew that he would be risking 115 years in prison, just like me. That helped him to do it. Because there are truths worth dying for to reveal.