Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, castigated President Obama Friday for the government's reported "hunting" of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and the administration's strident anti-whistleblower policy more generally.
In light of Obama's apparent crusade against those who reveal government corruption and wrongdoing, Ellsberg told Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC, Assange ought to keep his head down. But the press and the other two branches of government, Ellsberg said, need to challenge Obama on this policy.
"Now as I look at Assange's case, they're worried that he will reveal current threats. I would have to say puts his well-being, his physical life, in some danger now. and I say that with anguish," Ellsberg told Ratigan via Skype. "I think it's astonishing that an American president should have put out that policy and he's not getting these resistance from it, from Congress, the press, the courts or anything. It's an amazing development that I think Assange would do well to keep his whereabouts unknown."
Speaking on Obama's record-setting pace of prosecuting whistleblowers, Ellsberg said, "That's really not the kind of change I voted for when I voted for him." The former military analyst said he sees an "immediate parallel" between the Vietnam-era suppression of negative information about the war and the current U.S. restrictions on news coming out of the Middle East.
READ the transcript of Ellsberg's appearance (mostly unedited, courtesy MSNBC):
RATIGAN: Do you see direct parallels between what's developing here and what you went through?
ELLSBERG: Yes, there does seem to be an immediate parallel between me and whoever leaked the video on the assault on the 19 or 20 Iraqis. Someone -- allegedly, it was Bradley Manning -- did feel that that deserved to be out. Reuters, whose newspapermen were killed in the course of that, had been trying to get that through the freedom of information act for two years, as I understand it and had been refused. Let's say whoever did it, hypothetically, Bradley Manning, showed better judgment in putting it out than the people who kept is secret from the American people and from the Iraqis.
RATIGAN: What is your sense of disclosure of information to the American people today, compared to the period of time that you lived through, where there was similar issues with, with the perception of reality of information being withheld from the public?
ELLSBERG: Look, there's no doubt at all, that enormous amounts of energy that should be made public are being withheld and that hundreds, probably thousands of people, I'm speaking now of the run-up to the Iraq war, which has a very great similarity to the lying and the secrecy that got us into Vietnam. I think if many people had recognized that their oath of office, which called them in to support the Constitution, really contradicted their promise to keep certain secrets, when those secrets concealed lies, concealed deception to the American public and getting us into a hopeless war, they should have given priority to the oath of office and they should have put that information out to Congress and the public. They should have done what I wish I had done much earlier than I did I had been in that position, too. I knew years before the Pentagon Papers came out that the Americans were being lied into an essentially hopeless war. I'm not proud of the fact that it didn't occur to me that my oath of office, which was to support the Constitution, called on me to put that information out and say, '64, when the war might have been avoided. But I certainly am glad that I finally came aware of what my real responsibilities were there. And I did put it out years later. At times, at that time, which published it, the "Times," and the 18 other newspapers, which defied President Nixon's injunctions and did put it out, were in the position of Julian Assange is in now. I'm very happy that he put it out and I congratulate him for it.
RATIGAN: What was your conclusion as to the direct liability for you? I know that at one point you faced life imprisonment. What do you perceive to be the liability for whoever the leak may be to asange, Mr. Manning or anybody else?
ELLSBERG: I didn't understand that we don't have an official secrets act in this country, criminalizing the disclosure of certain information. Except with certain narrow forms of information which is not involved in the pentagon papers or in this. The nuclear weapons data. The identities of covert agents, those things are subject to law. The classification system as a whole is an administrative system that doesn't have legal force in this country. We're almost alone among countries in that. I didn't know that at the time. I assumed I must be breaking some law, that we had some equivalent. And so i didn't know to start with, that I was the first person ever prosecuted for a leak. The first person to have the Espionage Act provisions used not for espionage, but for revealing information to the American public. There have only been a couple of people who have been indicted since then. Samuel Loring Morrison. And the APEC under George W. Bush. The only cases and conviction was for Morrison. President Obama, who came in promising transparency in government, and an end to the excessive secrecy has totally violated that pledge. and it so happens that he's not only brought two indictments, more than any other president for leaking before any other president had done. but with now, with Bradley Manning, under arrest, if he's under prosecution, that will be three. A new, a new record for President Obama. That's really not the kind of change I voted for when I voted for him.
RATIGAN: Phillip, what is your understand of where Mr. Assange is right now and how highly desired he is as a target, of either state department or pentagon investigators?
SHENON: We in the press corps would like to know where he is, we have no idea. He was supposed to speak at a panel in Las Vegas, but he apparently canceled on them at the last minute. He was supposed to appear in New York last week at a separate conference you made reference to. He chose not to attend and was apparently in his native Australia.
RATIGAN: His absence is one thing, an understanding of the degree of interest is one thing, and federal government is the other. Do you have a sense of whether his absence correlates to avoiding the American authorities in any way?
SHENON: Yeah, he said last week, at this New York gathering that he had been instructed by his lawyers not to return to the United States.
ELLSBERG: You know, may I say, the expression he used, I was supposed to do a dialogue with him at that conference, that's why I went to New York. And he explained, the explanation he used was that he was understood that it was not safe for him to come to this country. And then later he explained now when the Bradley Manning arrest was announced, he said now you understand why I didn't come. I think it's worth mentioning a very new and ominous development in our country. I think he would not be safe, even physically entirely, wherever he is. We have after all for the first time, that I ever perhaps in any Democratic country, we have a president who has announced that he feels he has the right to use special operations operatives against anyone abroad, that he thinks is associated with terrorism. That he suspects of it. And that includes American citizens. One American citizen has even been named. Now Assange is not an American citizen. But I listen to that with a special interest. Because I was in fact the subject of a White House hit squad in November on May 3rd, 1972. A dozen Cuban assets were brought up from Miami with orders, quote, quoting the prosecutor, to incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally. on the steps of the capital, it so happens when i was in a rally during the vietnam war. And I asked the prosecutor, what does that mean, kill me? And he said, the words were "to incapacitate you totally." But you should understand, these guides, meaning these CIA operatives never use the word "kill." I actually think it was to silence me at that particular time. For worries they had that I would leak president Nixon's nuclear threats, which he was making at that precise time in 1972. Now as I look at Assange's case, they're worried that he will reveal current threats. I would have to say puts his well-being, his physical life, in some danger now. and I say that with anguish. I think it's astonishing that an American president should have put out that policy and he's not getting these resistance from it, from congress, the press, the courts or anything. it's an amazing development that I think Assange would do well to keep his whereabouts unknown.