The whistleblowing group WikiLeaks is preparing to release up to 400,000 US intelligence reports on the Iraq War. The disclosure would comprise the biggest leak in US history, far more than the 91,000 Afghanistan war logs WikiLeaks released this summer. We speak to the nation’s most famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the secret history of the Vietnam War in 1971, just before he heads to London to participate in the WikiLeak press conference. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The whistleblowing group WikiLeaks plans to release the largest cache of classified US documents in history tomorrow. The group is expected to post up to 400,000 intelligence reports on the Iraq war. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is holding a press conference in London on Saturday morning to make the announcement.
The disclosure of the documents would comprise the biggest leak in US history, far more than the 91,000 Afghanistan war logs WikiLeaks released this summer.
The US government is racing to prepare for the fallout. A team of more than a hundred analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency have been combing through classified Iraq documents they think will be released.
AMY GOODMAN: WikiLeaks sparked condemnation from the US government when it released the 91,000 Afghan war logs in July. The White House and the Pentagon accused the website of irresponsibility. They claimed they were putting people’s lives in danger. But the Associated Press recently obtained a Pentagon letter reporting that no US intelligence sources or practices were compromised by the leak.
Nevertheless, WikiLeaks says it’s been targeted by the US government. In the aftermath of the Afghan war logs leak, the US reportedly asked Britain, Germany, Australia and other Western governments to open criminal investigations into Julian Assange and severely restrict his international travel. Most recently, WikiLeaks accused the US of targeting it with financial warfare. Last week, Julian Assange said the company responsible for collecting the WikiLeaks’ donations terminated its account after the US and Australia placed the group on blacklists. Meanwhile, Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning has been in prison since May, when he was arrested on charges of leaking a video of a US military helicopter killing a group of innocent Iraqis in Baghdad.
For more, we’re joined here in our New York studio by Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the country’s most famous whistleblower. He leaked the secret history of the Vietnam War in 1971. He’s flying to London tonight. He’ll take part in the WikiLeaks news conference on Saturday.
Dan Ellsberg, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about this 400,000 pages or documents that are expected to be released?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Four hundred thousand documents, allegedly. It is, of course, a leak on a scale that I couldn’t have done forty years ago without scanners and digital capability. I used the most advanced technology at that time, Xerox, and I couldn’t have done what I did ten years before that.
AMY GOODMAN: You xeroxed 7,000 pages?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes. It took a long time, one page at a time. So I’m quite jealous of the current capabilities. But I’m glad to express my support of what WikiLeaks is doing and its sources, in particular. Whoever gave this information to WikiLeaks obviously understood that they were at risk of being where Bradley Manning is now: accused, in prison. We don’t know — I don’t know who the source was. And if Bradley Manning is shown by Army, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have been the source, he’ll have my admiration and thanks for doing that. I’ve faced that kind of risk myself forty years ago, and it always seemed worthwhile to me to be willing to risk one’s life in prison, even, to help shorten a war, like Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s what we were suffering then in Vietnam. And it was really a secrecy — it’s the secrecy, the wrongful secrecy, of information like this that got us into Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, or has kept the war going in Afghanistan. So if there’s any chance of shortening that, it’s certainly worth a person’s life.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the extent of damage control that the military is apparently — the mode that it’s in, in preparation for the release of these documents, does it surprise you at all?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, they know what — they think they know what’s coming out. They’re crying alarm over this, as they always do in the case of every case of a leak. Certainly they did with the Pentagon Papers. In fact, in that case, they said that the damage to national security was so great that they had to stop the presses for the first time in our history, that the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, having heard testimony on that. And the seventeen — in fact, nineteen newspapers, altogether, decided otherwise and did print the papers, in what amounted to civil disobedience against the warnings of the attorney general. In no case was there any harm discovered in that case. And as for the releases in July, with all the warnings we heard passed on by the media, quite uncritically, no damage has been reported. So I think that one should take their warnings now with a lot of salt.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, at a Pentagon news conference in August, Defense Secretary Robert Gates denounced the leaking of the Afghan war logs.
DEFENSE SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world. Intelligence sources and methods, as well as military tactics, techniques and procedures, will become known to our adversaries. This department is conducting a thorough, aggressive investigation to determine how this leak occurred, to identify the person or persons responsible, and to assess the content of the information compromised.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking at the same news conference, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused WikiLeaks of having blood on its hands.
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is, they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family. Disagree with the war all you want, take issue with the policy, challenge me or our ground commanders on the decisions we make to accomplish the mission we’ve been given, but don’t put those who willingly go into harm’s way even further in harm’s way just to satisfy your need to make a point.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the Associated Press obtained this Pentagon letter reporting no US intelligence sources or practices were compromised by the leaks. Dan Ellsberg?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: You know, for all that the admiral, Mullen, or for that matter Presidents Bush or Barack Obama, tell us of the good that they hoped to accomplish, we haven’t seen any evidence of that, I would say. And in terms of blood on their hands, I’m sorry to say, a lot of actual blood has been spilled, as opposed to this hypothetical possible blood, of which none has been reported, from the WikiLeaks.
Actually, the demands they’re making of the press to stay away from this story, or even readers not to read it — and they’re talking about returning the material — seems absurd on its face. Returning released material, released into cyberspace, seems rather absurd. They’re obviously threatening prosecution, because they’re using the words of the charges that were first used against me, the Espionage Act, which was not intended as an Official Secrets Act, but it uses language like "returning the information," "18 USC, 793(d) and (e)." I was the first person to have the experience of having those charges made. In this case, there have some credibility of prosecution, because President Barack Obama has already brought as many prosecutions for leaks to the American public as all previous presidents put together. It’s a small number: it’s three. But since he didn’t have a really law intended to do that, no other president has brought one — more than one prosecution. He’s brought three. And clearly what he’s threatening here with the press, including you and even your readers, for not returning the information that they’re not authorized to receive, is a clear warning, I’d say, of prosecution, which means that I think this administration is moving toward really aggressively using the Espionage Act as an Official Secrets Act, in which case we’ll know even less than we do about the lies that prolong wars and get us into wrongful wars.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But what about that policy, given the fact that President Obama came into office talking about a more transparent and open government and appears to be going in the opposite direction?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, that promise has gone the way of his promise to close Guantánamo and a number of other promises. In no way, in the general defense and homeland security area, is he less opaque, more transparent, than Bush. And as I say, he’s being even more aggressive in pursuing prosecution.
One other aspect of that is that — my understanding — is that the impression he’s giving that he’s ending the war in Iraq, or that it has ended even, the war described by these 400,000 documents, is, I think, a conscious lie. I think it’s as much of a lie as Lyndon Johnson’s, when I was working for him and he underestimated for the public the scale and the duration of the war we were getting into. I’ll predict, without having seen these documents — I will make a bet here, I’ll stick my neck out — that there’s no hint in those 400,000 documents, which go up into this year, that President Barack Obama intends to remove our bases from Iraq, next year or the year after or any time in his term. I’ll bet there isn’t even a contingency plan for turning over those bases to Iraqis. And that means that rather than doing what he’s promised, which is to get all American troops out by the end of next year, I think there will be tens of thousands there whenever he leaves office, whether it’s in 2013 or four years after that.
AMY GOODMAN: And we should say you were a high-level — you were a high-level Pentagon official working for the RAND Corporation.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: That’s right. I spent years keeping — I worked for the Pentagon and the State Department. I spent years keeping my mouth shut as presidents lied to us and kept these secrets. I shouldn’t have done that. And that’s why I admire someone even who’s accused, like Bradley Manning, if he is the source, or whoever the source was, of actually risking their own personal freedom in order to tell the truth. I think they’re being better citizens and showing their patriotism in a better way than when they keep their mouths shut.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, can you go back to the language of 793, the law that goes after whistleblowers —
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — and how it can go after journalists, as well?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: It actually can apply — the words are so broad, because they really were intended for espionage, for people who are secretly giving information to an enemy, so they weren’t designed to protect, let’s say, First Amendment or freedom of speech when it comes to giving information to the public. So they talk about wrongfully receiving or holding information that is not authorized for release or giving it to people who are not authorized to receive it. And the people who get it are subject to charge under that.
It often has been said that the AIPAC case, the case of the Israeli lobby here, people who were accused of receiving information, were for the first — who did not have clearances — who were being charged under this law. Barack Obama, by the way, dropped that case, which was brought under Bush. Actually, that was not the first case. In my case, my co-defendant, Anthony Russo, was in exactly the same position. He didn’t have a clearance at that time. He was just receiving the material. He held it; he didn’t return it. At least at that time they had paper he could have returned, in principle, as did the New York Times.
But the wording of the law could apply to readers of the New York Times, which I believe is coming out with this information. They’re not authorized to receive this classified information, even though they may very well have a need, as citizens, to have it. It’s being wrongfully withheld from them, but they’re not authorized to receive. Unless they return it, they are subject — now, that’s not going to happen. But the journalists, indeed, are being put on warning that they may be subject to this.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue of the government raising the specter of attempting to prosecute Julian Assange, when the reality is he is not doing this in the United States? He is releasing documents in another country. And —
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, they’re trying to get the other countries to prosecute him under their laws, which are, in many cases, of course, more stringent than ours. Even Britain, where I’ll be going tomorrow, has an Official Secrets Act, which we don’t. We had a revolution and a war of independence and a First Amendment, which they don’t. But if these prosecutions proceed and if they’re successful, if they’re carried — if they’re held up, if they’re supported by this Supreme Court, which might well not have been the case forty years ago, then we’ll have an Official Secrets Act, and the effect of — in effect.
And the effect of that will be that they won’t have to conduct investigations of leakers, after all, or who did it; they’ll just have to pull in the person whose byline is on that story, the journalist, and say, "Who committed the crime? We’re not after you. We’re just after the person who violated this law." And if the reporter doesn’t give the name up, they’ll go to jail, like Judith Miller for ninety days, before she did in fact cooperate. Some will go to jail, and many will not. And I think the sources, from then on, will have no basis, other than WikiLeaks, to — which protects their anonymity, to get this information out that we need. So I think WikiLeaks is actually becoming more indispensable even than it was in the past.
It occurred to me that if Bob Woodward, who really gives us a lot of information in his new book, based on classified documents that he was shown in the administration — I would urge him to put those documents into WikiLeaks anonymously. Put them on the line. Let us all read the documents and form our own opinion. Then we’d have something like the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan, which these documents will not be. It remains, really, to come out, the higher-level documents. And I hope people who have access to those in the White House, in the Pentagon, but — in the CIA, in the State Department, will take advantage of WikiLeaks, as a matter of fact, and give us the information we need in order to end these wars.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the last release of documents, there were 91,000 documents, but —
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Of which they’ve withheld so far one out of five, 15,000, for damage control. WikiLeaks has not yet released those. They’re working over them to redact.
AMY GOODMAN: Which is the point I wanted to make, released around 75,000 —
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- that WikiLeaks is withholding documents, concerned about issues of -—
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes. And moreover, they let the Pentagon know what they were releasing. They gave them the files in code to them and asked them actually to identify people that they hoped to be redacted from those. Now, the Pentagon refused, meaning they prefer to bring charges into — both in court and in the press, of — endanger, rather than actually to protect these people, showing the usual amount of concern they have over other humans.
AMY GOODMAN: Has the same been done with these 400,000 documents?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes. That’s why they’re going over them now. They know what’s coming out. And they have every ability, if people are endangered — which actually is in question to this point. The fact that there’s been no damage up ’til now really strongly questions the claims that were made earlier and, as I say, passed on by most of the mainstream press, very uncritically, that there was danger. But if there was, it may well have been in those 15,000 which WikiLeaks is properly going over still.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So, what you’re saying is that WikiLeaks has let the Pentagon know precisely what it is about to release?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: To my understanding, they have. I’m not in the process. But I understand that they’ve said that they did make them aware of what it is and have invited them to cooperate in protecting those names. But as I say, the Pentagon, if there are such names, has preferred to make charges.
AMY GOODMAN: And are they releasing them with other papers, as they did last time — the New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, yes. And I must say, I give credit to the Times, as I understand it, and Der Spiegel and The Guardian, who are resisting, as did the Times forty years ago, the demand or the request that they desist and that they return and that they stop serving their function: to protect the public.
AMY GOODMAN: So they’re doing it again on this 400,000-document leak?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: They’re doing it again, and it’s much to their credit, and I appreciate it. I’ve waited forty years for a release on this scale. I think there should have been something on the scale of the Pentagon Papers every year. How often do we need this kind of thing? We haven’t seen it. So I’m very glad that someone is taking the risk and the initiative to inform us better now.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I mean, it would seem to me — I think this is an important point to make. As a journalist who has many times not provided the subject of the articles I’m going to write a complete view of what I have, this is — it seems to me that WikiLeaks has gone to extraordinary lengths to allow the Pentagon to respond and to signal to it, look, if there’s anything in particular here that you think endangers an individual that — or an operation, let us know.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: They haven’t given a veto to the administration, as far as I’m concerned, of anything that they might raise an alarm about, but they have said, "Bring it to our attention, and we’ll responsibly look at that." And they are redacting names, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Dan Ellsberg. And I guess you could compliment the New York Times for something else, as well, because now they no longer say, after decades, "the man who claimed he gave us the Pentagon Papers," but they actually admit you did.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, they’ve actually acknowledged at last that I was the source. They’re very reluctant to tell their sources, but since I was the one who was prosecuted, I claim special relation to them on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Ellsberg was a high-level official in the Pentagon and was — is the country’s most famous whistleblower. He released the Pentagon Papers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Dan Ellsberg now heads to London. He’ll be at the WikiLeaks news conference that releases, well, what we believe is something like 400,000 documents on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Iraq, essentially. Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Iraq, in particular. Iraq war. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, another Dan. We’ll be joined by Lt. Dan Choi. We’ll be talking about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and have a debate over where Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell fits into the antiwar movement. Stay with us.