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Truthdigger of the Week: Daniel Ellsberg
Posted on Jan 6, 2012
For our first Truthdigger installment of 2012, we salute Daniel Ellsberg, who has taken a page from his experience with the Pentagon Papers and is still busy serving up a bracing dose of truth to power, most recently with his support of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning.
It’s not like Ellsberg ever hung it up after passing the explosive 7,000-page work of revelations about the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam to the major American news media 40 years ago. In fact, he’s been quite busy, as you can see here and here. He has also composed a few pages of his own, as the author of three books—one of which, “Risk, Ambiguity and Decision,” is his doctoral dissertation. Ellsberg is one of those fortunate few whose major life decisions dovetailed with history in a way that proved beneficial for both the actor and the era in question.
Thus, it’s in keeping with his life’s ongoing legacy that Ellsberg would turn up again in the headlines in relation to Pvt. Bradley Manning, who also risked more than his own career to let the world in on some of America’s less lofty activities on the global stage. Ellsberg paid a visit late last month to the military courtroom at Fort Meade, Md., where Manning’s pretrial hearing was held, and on Friday, he told Truthdig’s Kasia Anderson about the parallels he sees between his story and Manning’s and about their brief, if interrupted, interaction.
Kasia Anderson: So for people who don’t know, tell us about your take on Manning’s case.
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, it’s a pretrial hearing, supposedly to decide whether they had enough evidence to go to a court-martial, which seemed pretty much like a foregone conclusion. The decision hasn’t been handed down yet; it will be within weeks, I guess.
I would have said that the real question is whether they should be in this process at all at this point. If the chat logs that were handed over by Adrian Lamo—the informant—are valid, and the prosecution is relying heavily on those but not entirely, it would seem clear that Bradley Manning violated various military regulations. He’s also accused of violating the Espionage Act. It was passed in 1917, and for over 40 years it was used only as intended against espionage. But my case in 1971 was the first attempt to use it against a leak, a disclosure to the American public. And really, this trial is really the first reenactment of my trial, because like the Pentagon Papers case—not the civil case but the criminal case involving me and Tony Russo —we have here a very large-scale disclosure. In my case, 7,000 pages of top-secret documents, and in his case hundreds and thousands of tables and reports, and it reflects the larger scale that’s possible in the electronic age. In between, for 40 years since my case, there hasn’t been another really large-scale disclosure like this. There’ve been, of course, almost daily leaks, many of which involve documents, and many don’t. Even when they do, it’s usually a matter of a page or two—there hasn’t been such a large-scale disclosure. This is the first one that’s happened since then, and it’s the first leak prosecution that’s involved such a large disclosure. So, they’re sort of retrying my case.
Given the chat logs, and if they are valid, then what amounts to an acknowledgment—if he is the author of those, as the prosecution is claiming—then they have enough evidence to start an indictment. … But that all was started close to two years ago in April when they arrested him. And in the meantime, there were a couple of events that I say should have terminated this proceeding. First, the president publicly pronounced Manning as having broken the law, as being guilty, even before he had been put on trial or before any evidence had been tested in court. Since he’s the commander in chief, that virtually amounts to a directed verdict—what they call improper command influence. The remedy for that should be an end to this court-martial—that won’t happen—but if it had been a general saying that, it almost certainly would have moved the process out of his jurisdiction at least.
But more important, [Manning] was treated abusively—I would say illegally—for over 10.5 months of prolonged isolation, which amounts to torture, during which and after which they have not allowed the United Nations rapporteur to see him or to investigate those conditions. Obviously, they don’t think it merits investigation. It just so happens that your honoree from last week, [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich, also tried to see him and was refused—showing a situation, I would say, in which they can’t allow it to be exposed.
I would say that this trial started the same way mine did, and it should end the same way mine did, which is that the charges were dismissed on the grounds of governmental misconduct. There’s been very clear governmental misconduct of a prolonged kind here. But of course they won’t—that would be admitting their guilt, and the government is not ready to do that.
So we’ll see a trial, and a lot of the same issues will come up, as well as some other ones. [In the military], disobeying or violating practically any rule or order is regarded as a crime for which he can be imprisoned or even executed. So it would be very hard, given what we’ve heard so far, for the defense to argue that he didn’t violate any regulations. I certainly violated regulations of the classification system, but for me as a civilian, that didn’t correspond to a criminal statute. And what the [Nixon] administration first tried to do in my case was to treat the Espionage Act as if it were an official secrets act. In my case it was ended by governmental misconduct, so the legal issues weren’t addressed at any level. And then prior to Obama there were just two other cases, one of which carried over into the Obama administration and was withdrawn by that administration, which was the case of AIPAC that was dismissed.
There’s only been, in the 95 years since the act was passed, exactly one jury conviction for a leak, and that was Samuel Loring Morison, 10 years after my case. That was never reviewed by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has never reviewed whether that would be constitutional, and there are strong arguments from various legal scholars that that act should be regarded as unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment, which is supposed to make it hard for the government to keep information from the public.
Here’s the question: Did I break the law? Most people assume I did, because they assume there was some law—actually, Congress has never passed such a law, but the Espionage Act can be read as a law. The wording of it can easily be read to apply to leaks to the public, but it wasn’t intended for that. And in our system of government, there is a constitutional principle that you might restrict some kinds of communication—speech or press—as espionage, but that can’t be done without a clear intent of Congress to do that. But in this case, you can’t do that. It wasn’t intended to keep information from the American public. Is that not an infringement of the First Amendment? Well, many think yes, it is, but the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on that. In the Nixon case, he did an experiment to see if maybe he could get away with that, test it. Still, it hasn’t been done, and before Obama there were three such cases. Obama has brought five cases in two years … and he’s investigating whether to bring a sixth one against Julian Assange from WikiLeaks.
So, he is involved in a war against leakers, against whistle-blowers.
Anderson: Why is this happening now?
Ellsberg: I’ve asked many people about this, and nobody knows. All presidents have hated leaks and leakers, but they’ve generally concluded that they don’t have a law with which to punish them. Obama is using the Espionage Act with the assumption that it can be read this way. I think he’s assuming that it’s intimidating enough for people to go through this process, that even if they’re vindicated, it’s an intimidating process that’ll deter them. He’s brought five cases. That’s not because there are more leaks now than before, or that he’s the first president to be enraged by them—not because they’re more serious than they used to be. We went through the whole Cold War with the Soviet Union with two cases—mine and one other. What we have is Obama totally violating his promise to run a more transparent government. This is one aspect of that. He is being as opaque and secretive as any administration we’ve ever seen, perhaps more so.
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