Daniel Ellsberg on WikiLeaks

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Juvenal, ca 100 CE (also, Alan Moore, 1985)

Things are moving fast in the story of large government and financial interests’ moves against WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. First came the unprecedented international arrest warrant for sorta-unspecified sex crimes charges in Sweden. Then came news Assange had turned himself in to the British bobbies. Then came the news that PayPal, VISA and MasterCard had voluntarily suspended WikiLeaks’ account so they could no longer receive donations, followed closely by the news that Assange’s supporters and advocates of free speech in the Internet at large had launched a series of ddos (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks against the websites of the companies who had cut off WikiLeaks’ accounts.

Whatever one thinks of Assange the man, or the charges against him, it’s clear that the actions of the big payment processing companies weren’t based upon those charges. Visa and the others do not, as a rule, suspend the accounts of organizations whose leaders have personal sex crimes charges pending against them who have not even gone to trial yet. When even Barack Obama’s execrable back-room deal with the GOP on taxes had to compete for front-page space with the ongoing story of WikiLeaks, it was clear to everyone that this was one of the biggest stories of the year. And, like most large, public, political stories, controversy swirled around it. People chose up sides, and a great debate was begun between (mostly) those who think Assange is a modern-day terrorist (albeit of the nonviolent, cyber sort), and those who think he is performing a valuable service in an age of increasing, near-reflexive governmental secrecy and control.

If it’s not already clear, I fall distinctly in the second camp. As I said at the end of a previous post on the WikiLeaks topic:

…any nation which, from the halls of power to the guy on the street, allows itself to be bullied into needless war based upon iffy lies (especially when those doing the pushing claim that some of the information justifying it is “secret” and therefore can’t be shared) & which then refuses to prosecute perpetrators afterwards, desperately needs a corrective mechanism, since the ones it supposedly already has in operation are quite clearly no longer functioning.

However, I’m just a DFH blogger. And, unusually for a case such as this, the contrary opinions regarding WikiLeaks are coming not just from the usual sources (though there’s been plenty of that, too), but to some degree from fellow liberals. On Twitter in particular, there’s been a genuine divergence of opinion about the value, advisability and legality of what Assange is doing. So I began to wonder: what do the people who might have the most relevant experience in similar matters think? And that’s when I arrived, pretty much at the same time everyone else did, at Daniel Ellsberg. I suspect I hardly need introduce him, but just in case, Ellsberg was the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which showed the trail of consistent lies upon which the Vietnam war had been built for years. What’s less well known about Ellsberg is that he has the dubious distinction of being the first person in American history to be prosecuted for the somewhat vague crime of leaking.

Ellsberg’s hardly the first person to engage in leaking, just the first person who the government went after vigorously for having done so. In fact, Washington virtually runs on leaks. Each administration has a behind-the-scenes, carefully-orchestrated plan for strategically leaking various bits of information about their plans to the press. In newspapers, the phrase “high-ranking administration sources who spoke on condition of anonymity” is almost a cliché, it’s so often seen. But except for when an administration is taking on water badly (as the Bush administration was towards the end), such leaks are usually carefully and strategically planned to help advance a political or policy goal. Only when an administration is truly in trouble or has several disgruntled employees are leaks done to expose the administration (see: McClellan, Scott). When people start to leak serious information without at least tacit back-channel approval, that’s when administrations start to throw their weight around. That’s when charges of disloyalty (at best) or endangering American security or (sometimes) even treason get thrown around. Those are the charges that began flying around when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers.

History has been mostly kind to Daniel Ellsberg. In the American public imagination, Ellsberg is today regarded in virtually all quarters as a heroic truth teller, who at considerable personal risk, gave us a vital trove of information that is viewed in hindsight as critical to our national understanding of what our government did during one of the most turbulent periods in our history. Ellsberg isn’t entirely universally canonized (older conservatives, who remember the Vietnam years, still consider him a traitor; some of those – like Pat Buchanan – still haunt the national scene), but the public narrative on Ellsberg has cemented into being far more positive than negative, with the benefit of hindsight. Ever since the most recent release of documents from WikiLeaks (the State Department “cables”), there have been comparisons between what Ellsberg did and what WikiLeaks is doing. Some have said the parallels are nearly exact, others have said Assange is no Ellsberg. The latter usually say so in pursuit of the larger point that Assange ought to be tried for crimes, assassinated or even more barbaric methods of frontier justice.

But what does Daniel Ellsberg think about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?

Wouldn’t the experience and insight of the only man to have truly trod some of the same ground as Assange be worth listening to? So I went looking for it. And what I found reinforces what I’d already been thinking on my own (love it when that happens!). Ellsberg, as it happens, also has his own blog. He doesn’t post often (in fact, his son Michael Ellsberg does most of the actual clerical work of posting his dad’s thoughts), but as you might imagine, the ramifications and relevance of this particular topic haven’t escaped him, either. In a joint statement released by the Institute for Public Accuracy, and co-authored by Ellsberg, Ray McGovern (founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), Larry Wilkerson (chief of staff to Colin Powell for many years), and others, they write:

As part of their attempt to blacken WikiLeaks and Assange, pundit commentary over the weekend has tried to portray Assange’s exposure of classified materials as very different from — and far less laudable than — what Daniel Ellsberg did in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg strongly rejects the mantra “Pentagon Papers good; WikiLeaks material bad.” He continues: “T

hat’s just a cover for people who don’t want to admit that they oppose any and all exposure of even the most misguided, secretive foreign policy. The truth is that EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.” (emphasis mine)

It doesn’t get much more clear than that. The group goes on to quote the probable source for Assange’s trove of diplomatic cables, Army Private Bradley Manning: “I want people to see the truth … because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public”, agreeing with that sentiment by noting:

The big question is not whether Americans can “handle the truth.” We believe they can. The challenge is to make the truth available to them in a straightforward way so they can draw their own conclusions — an uphill battle given the dominance of the mainstream media, most of which have mounted a hateful campaign to discredit Assange and WikiLeaks…Most of our own media are demanding that WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange be hunted down — with some of the more bloodthirsty politicians calling for his murder. The corporate-and-government dominated media are apprehensive over the challenge that WikiLeaks presents. Perhaps deep down they know, as Dickens put it, “There is nothing so strong … as the simple truth.”


Oh, PS – apparently, the Colbert Report people had the same thought that I did regarding Ellsberg: from last night.