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Daniel Ellsberg: Whistle-Blowers Are Good for Democracy

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Posted on Aug 29, 2013
Sara Beladi

Daniel Ellsberg, right, with Robert Scheer.

Truthdig’s Robert Scheer sat down with Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg recently to compare Ellsberg’s story, and the U.S. government’s handling of his case, with those of Edward Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. According to Ellsberg, “whistle-blower” may now carry a more positive charge than it did when he earned the title, but the outcome looks far bleaker for those two who also defied authorities to serve their country. (Click here to listen to audio excerpts from this interview).

Robert Scheer: [According to The Guardian,] Obama was asked: “Nixon tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for the same thing and he is a …” and he was going to say “hero,” and then President Obama said “No, it isn’t the same thing. What Ellsberg released wasn’t classified in the same way.”

Daniel Ellsberg: It’s quite right. Mine was classified top secret … his was classified secret or less. Most of what he released was unclassified, so every page of what I put out—7,000 pages—was top secret, and that was the most you could imagine distributing at that time with a Xerox machine. I couldn’t have put out the 700,000 cables that Manning put out without digital technology.

RS: You are now accepted, even Obama was implying, as a hero. Yet, in a strictly legal sense, what you did involved a much higher degree of classification.

DE: Well, yes, everybody’s saying now that they’re trying to draw some difference; saying, for example, that what Ellsberg put out was history, which is true. The most recent [of the leaked documents] was three years earlier and some of it went back 25 years earlier, but that didn’t affect the charges. I was facing 115-year possible sentence, essentially the same as the life sentence that Manning was facing and that Snowden, I’m sure, will face. ...


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In my case, the initial charges ... were just ... three counts, which would increase to 12 felony counts for 115 years. ... It is interesting that I’m getting more favorable comment, in a way, in the mainstream press than I ever have and certainly not for many years, in order to contrast me with Manning and Snowden. Actually, I’m glad that they perceive that what I did did not harm the country after this and was even the right thing to do. I’m glad to see that “whistle-blower” is now a good term that they’re actually fighting about. Are these people really whistle-blowers or not? And are they whistle-blowers or traitors? Well it used to be in my time that “whistle-blower” was a term synonymous with traitor. So that’s progress, in a way.

Of course people who say that Manning and Snowden are not whistle-blowers, that’s absurd ... and to refuse to see Manning as a patriot is clearly absurd. I was called a traitor, too—and as is Snowden—but with no more basis than Manning or Snowden. It’s clear that we were people who were prepared to take a great risk in our futures, for the good of our country and for the ideals of this country, to help the democratic process change practices by our country that were despicable and criminal.

RS: And just for people who don’t know, you actually had served in the Marines.

DE: Mm-hmm. I’d spent three years in the Marine Corps, but to take that as a measure—well it’s an instance of patriotism, but I don’t like to see that as a definition of patriotism.

RS: No, I was going somewhere else with that. Then you went to work. First you worked for the government in other capacities.

DE: I worked for the Rand Corporation, doing work for the government—research and consulting for the government—and I was in the government.

RS: Right, so what people don’t understand about the Pentagon Papers case is that, in fact, you also had government clearance just like Snowden and Manning. Can you compare your level of clearance?

DE: Yes, actually, again, Manning is described as having been indiscriminate in his releases. That’s totally untrue. The fact is that Manning, like myself and like Snowden, had clearances not only top secret but higher than top-secret communications, intelligence clearances, and others. I had many other intelligence clearances that were much higher than top secret. I released none of that, and neither did Manning. In my case, I didn’t happen to see anything with that classification that seemed to me to require public knowledge and Snowden did, obviously. The material he put out has that classification, higher than top secret, and should not be classified at all, revealing practices by the government that are clearly unconstitutional and should never have been classified; but they were sure to be classified precisely because they had to be hidden from courts and from the public.

Snowden undoubtedly—unquestionably has far more information than has come out or than he will put out because as he says, as I felt myself, there’s information there that deserves to be secret ...The same is true for Manning. He didn’t put out anything over-secret, and he selected, actually, a body of secret cables that he determined did not even include restrictions on distribution, like “no dis” [no distribution] or “lim dis” [limited distribution]. ...I was surprised to see that there was so much incriminating information at that level that was merely secret.
Apparently, it has gotten so routine to report war crimes, like turning people over to be tortured by the Iraqi authorities and so inconsequential that they are in fact keeping a body count of civilian deaths, which the army had denied keeping. That figure was as high as it was for the army’s secret accounts, 60,000, even though that is probably far less than a tenth of the actual civilian casualties. Still, it’s 60,000 more than they had reported to the public. In short, he had reason to believe that there was nothing in there that would be more than embarrassing to the United States government, and so it has proved. They haven’t come up with evidence of a single person being found physically harmed as a result of his disclosures.

RS: That’s interesting because, really, what was involved with the Pentagon Papers was—again, they said you’re endangering the country, and so forth—but what you were revealing was being held back because it was embarrassing. ...

DE: Yeah, which is why most stuff remains classified, or is classified in the first place. I’ve asked myself often, why do they classify virtually everything? And ... the answer I finally came up with was they don’t know what will prove to be embarrassing two and five and 10 years down the road, which predictions, which estimates, which recommendations will look either foolish or criminal ... but especially just embarrassing. So, classify everything, and then just put out at the time, or later, what is favorable to the government.

RS: Let me ask you about this question of war crimes, your obligation and the different oaths people take. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, you did show evidence of war crimes.

DE: ... What I had were high-level decision papers, estimates by the joint chiefs, recommendations by the joint chiefs, decisions by the president.  So, high-level decision-making [about] the way that Congress ... had been deceived about the reasons for getting into the war and reasons for escalating. ... [W]hat it showed was a crime against the peace, basically, the supreme crime of the aggressive war ...

We didn’t have, say, rapes, individual killings of civilians, and so forth ... In the case of Manning ... he does have vast amounts of war crimes ... murdering of a dozen or so Iraqis at a time, women and children, shooting them in the head with their arms handcuffed behind them, calling it an airstrike to cover up the atrocity. That was one particular atrocity revealed by Manning that lead to Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, being unable to allow Obama to keep 10,000 or more troops in Iraq past the deadline that had been set with immunity from Iraqi prosecution, because what Manning showed was that this had not been prosecuted by the United States and had been lied about. It’s clear we weren’t going to prosecute, so he couldn’t give immunity under political pressure in Iraq. ... [[Manning’s] prosecutors were not able to come up with a single example of an American or any other person being harmed physically by Manning’s revelations. Not one.

Another aspect of Manning’s revelation ... was that ... his goes into the current Obama administration. I don’t doubt that one of the reasons that Obama pursued him so relentlessly here ... is that he was accused in those documents, in effect, of war crimes himself and could be brought before the international court in the Hague for a policy of systematically handing over prisoners, no matter how innocent, to Iraqis to be tortured—that’s illegal. [He could be accused] of a policy of refusing further investigation when reports were made of this, which is an illegal order. Manning actually is the one person who correctly disobeyed that order and revealed it and, of course, revealed the wanton destruction of civilians. ...

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