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Pentagon Papers Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to Government Insiders: Risk Prison to Leak Information Exposing Illegal Government Actions

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As we focus on the government crackdown against leakers, we speak with perhaps the most famous government whistleblower of the twentieth century, Daniel Ellsberg. In 1969 he leaked the Pentagon Papers, setting in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam War. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue our look at the crackdown against government leakers, we speak with perhaps the most famous government whistleblower of the twentieth century–Daniel Ellsberg.

In October of 1969 he began smuggling out of his office and xeroxing the 7,000 page top-secret study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers. He did so with the intent of revealing these secrets to Congress and the American public and in so doing, he set in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam war. He was once described by Henry Kissinger as “the world’s most dangerous man.”

  • Daniel Ellsberg, he joins us in our firehouse studio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Dan Ellsberg, talking to one of the most famous government whistleblowers of the 20th century. In October of 1969, he began smuggling out of his office and xeroxing the 7,000-page top secret study of the U.S. decision-making in Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. He did so with the intent of revealing these secrets to Congress and the American public, and in so doing he set in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam War. He was once described by Henry Kissinger as the world’s most dangerous man. He joins us in our Firehouse studio today. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dan Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, from the Jack Anderson case to the story of the C.I.A. analyst being fired, because supposedly, allegedly she leaked information to the Washington Post about secret prisons overseas. What are your thoughts today?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I noticed that the House committee spokesman person has said that we have a great problem with illegal leaks, in commenting on these cases. I would say the problem for us in the United States is the illegal actions that only these leaks will expose and possibly stop. After all, the lie detector tests given to Mary McCarthy and to others in the C.I.A. are, after all, designed to find out who leaked the fact that the C.I.A. is indulging in criminal activity, violating the Geneva Conventions, probably violating the U.S Anti-Torture Act of 1996. They’re acting really like the Mafia, cracking down on somebody who is squealing to the press. Now, the Mafia doesn’t use lie detectors, they use the torture that the C.I.A. is using. It’s not as though there’s a great distinction between the Mafia approach and the C.I.A. approach, though the C.I.A. isn’t yet torturing its own people.

But Jack Anderson, for example, was one of the few journalists who very strongly publicly supported me at the time of the Pentagon Papers, which I appreciated, but much more than that, he got a Pulitzer Prize for receiving and publishing documents from the National Security Council showing our tilt toward Pakistan in a war in which Pakistan was committing genocide, and we were supporting genocide, in fact, in Bangladesh. He got a Pulitzer Prize for that. During that crisis, as a matter of fact, the U.S., as part of its threats, its tilt toward Pakistan, sent the U.S. nuclear carrier Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal which was a crucial aspect in India’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons, so they weren’t subject to nuclear blackmail like that.

Jack Anderson, in a little known expose which is in one of his memoirs, also revealed that President Carter was making nuclear threats over a possible intervention by Russia into Iran in 1980. I’ll bet even you don’t know about that, Amy. It’s really very little known, but there’s a good deal in print about it now, nobody remarks. Carter was threatening to use nuclear weapons in connection with a possible second raid, amounting to an invasion into Iran, which is part of a very long pattern of U.S. making nuclear threats over Iran, as it is doing this week. We’re using our nuclear — we’re using our nuclear weapons in Iran right now. We’re using them by pointing the nuclear gun at these people, whether we pull the trigger or not.

Harry Truman claims, in a number of times, that he got the Russians out of northern Iran, Azerbaijan, in 1946, by threatening to use an atomic bomb on it. They didn’t. If correct — and he said it four times — that would be the first use of our using nuclear weapons since Nagasaki, and that was in Iran, which is on the border of Russia and has oil fields. We don’t — we never wanted to go to Russia, and now we don’t want to be under the control of Iranians who are not friendly to us.

So, I’m saying that right now we need leaks of documents on these threats and these plans. I think the sources to Sy Hersh in his April 17th New Yorker article should be considering going beyond the oral testimony they gave and anonymous testimony they gave to Sy Hersh and risk their clearances and their careers and risk going to prison to prevent the U.S. from initiating nuclear war over Iran. The people who spoke to Hersh said, some of them said — or reported about others, they are considering resigning. Resigning is not an effective action here. Revealing what they know would be a catastrophic move to the American public and to the Congress, and not only to the Congress, because Congress is — I wasted 22 months on that. Congress is now — even when the Democrats were in the majority. Now, the investigative committees don’t exist. They’re not pursuing any investigation. They should be giving documents to the press and to Congress right now, revealing their reasons for resigning, and they should show the civil courage to be — consider at least to go beyond losing their jobs and going to prison, if necessary. An enormous number of lives are at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: In your response to Congress cracking down on U.S. leaks, the headline of a piece in the Baltimore Sun yesterday, “Amid intense debate over how far the government can go to keep its secrets secret, Congress is taking up an expansive intelligence measure that proposes tougher steps in cracking down on leaks of classified information, authorized as broad arrest powers for security officers, intelligence agencies. Provisions tucked into the legislation which the House is expected to vote on as early as,” well, it would be today now, “represent a major departure from traditional intelligence agency roles in plugging leaks and conducting domestic law enforcement. If the measure is approved by Congress, the nation’s spy chief would be ordered to consider a plan for evoking the pensions of intelligence agency employees who make unauthorized disclosures, also would permit security forces at the N.S.A. and C.I.A. to make warrantless arrests outside the gates of their top secret campuses.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I wonder if President Bush and Vice President Cheney, even, certainly intervened directly in C.I.A. in shaping their intelligence systems, counts as an intelligence officer under that act. If so, they would have to worry about their pensions, as well as a conviction. They were involved in what I would consider a very bad leak — and there are bad leaks — of the identity of Valerie Plame, along with Libby and apparently Rove. There are such bad leaks. Shelby, who has pushed the notion for an Official Secrets Act right along, appears to have been the person who revealed to Osama bin Laden that we were revealing his cell phones. Now, that’s certainly stupid, certainly a dangerous leak — and he stopped using his cell phones at that point — and criminal under Congress’s attitude.

But I have a suggestion for Congress, if they’re considering this leak problem — or the general problem of classified information. For a long time, I thought that Congress should legislate that the following paragraph should be in every secrecy oath and secrecy agreement, of which I signed dozens in the course of my career in the Marines and the Defense Department, State Department. There should be a paragraph in there saying, by order of Congress, “I understand that nothing in this agreement permits me or obliges me to lie to Congress under oath.” That’s a very narrow form. You could say, “mislead Congress on matters of great importance or criminal matters.” You know, just limit it. “Lie under oath,” the way Richard Helms, director of the C.I.A. did, or Elliott Abrams did, who’s back in the government again, having lied to Congress about the Contra aid. They’d still lie to keep their jobs or perhaps to please their bosses or perhaps because it served national security, but they wouldn’t do it after reading that oath, my amendment to it, in the belief, which is now justified, that they have to do it, that Congress has obliged them to do it.

Now, the administration will never allow that in. That would gut our secrecy system. You couldn’t do things like the criminal detention camps. You couldn’t do the N.S.A. wiretaps, which people in N.S.A. know are perfectly illegal. Some people would obey the Nuremburg principles, that it’s your duty in the presence of war crimes or crimes against the peace to reveal or to do what you can effectively, and whoever revealed the N.S.A. wiretaps, on the one hand, and on the other hand, whoever, whether it was Mary McCarthy or someone else, who did reveal to Dana Priest the secret detention centers where we were torturing, upheld their oath to the Constitution in a way that none of their colleagues were doing and are now doing. They’re all disobeying that oath in favor of their secrecy agreement and perhaps in the agreement, the belief that they’ve promised to lie. I think Congress should tell them they haven’t promised to lie.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Feldstein, your response, director of the journalism program at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, having worked in the corporate media for decades.

MARK FELDSTEIN: Well, I agree wholeheartedly with what Daniel Ellsberg has to say, and let me just say it’s an honor to share — be on this program with him, because he’s a patriot in the true sense of that word. You know, Jack Anderson, the columnist who I’m writing about and whose records are now under scrutiny by the F.B.I., one of the points he used to make time and again to his whistle-blowing sources to get them to leak these documents was that they don’t work for their boss in the bureaucracy, they don’t work even for the President of the United States; they work for the American people, and their job, their obligation, their moral duty is to the American people. And when the politicians above them or the bureaucrats above them withhold these secrets and deceive the public and deceive the Congress, they have a moral duty to share this with the American people. If the F.B.I. is so interested in dusting off historical records and going into the past, why don’t they look at the Nixon administration’s attempt and plot to assassinate Jack Anderson, a murder conspiracy? They never investigated that with any thoroughness. Go back and look at those crimes. Don’t be harassing the whistleblowers who are trying to get the truth out now about the crimes our government is committing.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I have a thought on that, actually. First of all, when Feldstein — and thank you for the stand he’s taking and for what he’s saying — but when he says there are no classified documents in there, let’s keep in mind the new policy of this government, their position that they have a right to go into those files and reclassify stuff that is not classified, that’s declassified, and say that it was classified and remove it, having nothing to do with the AIPAC case. They can take your whole 200 boxes back and say this is all now classified. That’s their position.

So you’re very right to refuse, and the family is very right, and I want to congratulate the family of Jack Anderson for honoring their parent and their family member and his tradition, by doing what he would have gone to jail to uphold, the rights he would uphold.

It occurs to me that Jack Anderson said something to me very significant that I would like to pass on to people. He told me once in 1972, I think it was, while I was still on trial, he said, “You know, I owe part of my Pulitzer Prize to you.” I said, “Oh, I would love to hear it. Why is that?” He said, “You know, the man who gave me information on the Pakistan tilt,” which Kissinger lied about, by the way — he said there was no such thing, and then Jack Anderson, then, came up in a later column with the documents, quoting Kissinger. So he said, “You know, that man had given me information a lot in the past, but never documents,” which looks more dangerous, more easy to trace to the person. And he said, “Because of the Pentagon Papers, he saw the difference that documents made, and he gave me documents, and that was what made that story.” Now, I was very glad to hear that, and I want to pass that on.

I’ve said to a journalist friend of mine, let’s say, a very — a top investigative journalist, “Do you realize how much difference it makes to get documents, and have you pressed your sources to give you documents that you can publish?” And he said, “Dan, I can’t tell somebody to risk their clearance, their career, their children’s education, their freedom. I can’t tell somebody to risk prison with me.” I said, “I can, and that’s what I would like to do to people who are in this position.” That’s the choice I faced, I’m sorry that I did not go to Congress and the press in 1964, 1965. I would tell those people, “Don’t do what I did. Do what I wish I had done years earlier in 1964 or 1965. Don’t wait, as I did, ’til the bombs are falling on Iran or elsewhere or a nuclear weapon is used before you go to Congress and the press with information that might avert what you see as an illegal dangerous action that endangers America.”

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Ellsberg, what eventually made you do it?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, actually, at that time I thought we were in a — there was a situation where I knew that the President was planning continued war, which I knew would end in escalation, as it did. This was in 1969 under President Nixon. So it was a question of doing what I could to stop that. I thought there was a very little chance that putting out history, which was all I had at that point, the Pentagon Papers, would affect Nixon’s policy.

But I was meeting people who were on their way to prison to do what they could, and they didn’t think that sending back their draft card and refusing to cooperate with the draft, which put them in prison, was going to end the war. They thought it might help, and it did help. It affected me and, no doubt, other people. So that put the question in my mind: What could I do to avert this disastrous escalation if I’m willing to go to prison or now that I’m willing to go to prison? And then I thought of a number of things, but one of them was exposing these documents, which might help and which I thought would put me in prison for the rest of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the protests have an effect on you, the antiwar protests outside?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: You know, the biggest effect actually was this meeting people face-to-face that I could identify with and see I shared their background to a large extent. They were like me, and they were finding that the best thing they could do was to go to prison for years.

AMY GOODMAN: And who were you working for at the time?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I was working for the Rand Corporation, and I was probably one of the few people in the government at all, a government consultant, who ever met somebody on their way to prison. They didn’t have other — my colleagues, I let them off the hook a little, because they didn’t have that benefit. They hadn’t done — I sought these people out, which was unusual, but I met them.

AMY GOODMAN: And for young people who don’t know what the Rand Corporation is or was?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, they did — it’s a nonprofit corporation that does research for the government, in those days mostly for the Secretary of Defense and the Air Force. Now it does a broader range of unclassified stuff, but at that time it was almost entirely classified government work. And I had authorized access to a 7,000-page — it was in my safe in my office — study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. Now, this was now 1969, but I knew that the same lies and the same crimes and the same dangerous foolish judgments were being made as before, and I hoped that perhaps putting out this history might lead people to see the pattern.

By the way, it didn’t particularly. People’s desire to believe that the current president, even if they didn’t vote for him, is protecting them and is showing the best judgment and the best information is so strong that on the whole people didn’t infer that Nixon was lying to them about the war, just from the fact that four previous presidents could be proven to have done that. I failed on that one. Nixon was right. He felt, 'They won't attribute that to me, just because it’s true of Johnson and Kennedy and Truman, F.D.R.’ He was basically right on that.

What was needed was documents on him, and when Nixon feared, with reason, that I had documents on him that went beyond the Pentagon Papers, even though I was already on trial, then he took criminal measures to stop me from putting out those documents. And, actually, unfortunate I didn’t have what he feared, though I could have, but the crimes that he committed were revealed by John Dean and by others, and eventually by Howard Hunt under oath, and were crucial in the impeachment proceedings that led to his resignation, and that helped shorten the war. So there was this indirect effect that could happen right now.

There’s no question, for instance, that the White House, starting with Libby, we know so far, committed what was a criminal leak in this case, and I would say a bad leak, as I’ve said — Valerie Plame’s identity. She was protecting American security by looking at — investigating proliferation efforts that needed to be kept secret and should have been kept secret, but to punish her husband, Joe Wilson, who was a truth teller, in effect who had made disclosures they didn’t want about the administration lies. They tried to warn him and intimidate him by leaking his wife’s job in the C.I.A. and destroying her career. That was a crime. And just — by the way, most leaks are not criminal, clearly. This one was. And they committed that crime, just as Nixon sent plumbers to commit crimes against me and — in other words, the White House plumbers are at it again.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Anderson, this isn’t the first time the Anderson family has been harassed by the F.B.I. Jack Anderson, your father, feuded with the former F.B.I. chief, J. Edgar Hoover, in the 1950s when he exposed the scope of the Mafia threat Hoover had long downplayed. Hoover’s retaliation and continued harassment lasted for decades.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, that’s absolutely correct, even to the point, and Mark knows about this, that one of dad’s reporters was arrested by the F.B.I. In fact, I think they were hoping to arrest my dad after the American Indian Movement took over the B.I.A., and they were actually in the process of returning some of those government documents, but a case very similar to what’s happening now with the F.B.I. trying to arrest people, journalists, for possessing government documents.

AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of leaking, Murray Waas has a very interesting piece that came out yesterday, the great investigative reporter, called “Prewar Intelligence: Is There a Double Standard on Leak Probes?” He says, “When the C.I.A. announced Friday it had fired an employee who the agency claims knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence with a newspaper reporter, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Pat Roberts immediately praised the agency’s actions, saying 'Unauthorized disclosures of classified information can significantly harm our ability to protect the American people.' Roberts, one of the staunchest defenders of the Bush administration’s effort to stop the flow of sensitive information to the press, said in a statement, 'Those who leak classified information not only risk the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods, but also expose the brave men and women of the intelligence community to greater danger. Clearly, those guilty of improperly disclosing classified information should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,' he said. But three years ago, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Roberts himself was involved in disclosing sensitive intelligence information that, according to four former senior intelligence officers,” writes Waas, “impaired efforts to capture Saddam Hussein and potentially threatened the lives of Iraqis who were spying for the United States.” Your response, Dan Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, that’s in line with what I said about Shelby, who did that. Another example would be Condi Rice, confirming that we had a mole inside al-Qaeda, that we had turned somebody who was handling the emails for al-Qaeda and in contact with all their members, and to show that the administration was on top of things and that we were making progress, she actually confirmed a report that someone had stupidly or wrongly leaked to the press, and she confirmed that, yes, that we did have a mole — 'Look at us! We're really on top of this — which, of course, presumably led to that mole’s being exterminated. There’s another example of a bad leak.

Of course, we now know that the President violated the rules, for sure, by giving information on the N.I.E. to selected journalists. He claims he declassified it. That’s ridiculous. You don’t declassify something you leak directly. By that standard, I declassified 7,000 pages. No, no, no. Days later, people who were asking for that information were told by Condi Rice, we’re considering whether to let it out or not. Now, in that case, of course, he was putting out what he knew at the time was a false judgment about the aluminum tubes and by the attempts to get information from — uranium from Niger. By the time he leaked that, the President already knew that the dissents from that opinion by State Department and others were correct and that the judgment he was selectively leaking was false. So he was leaking a falsehood to defend and prolong a war — and exculpate himself — that was a disaster at this point. So that’s an example, I would say, of another bad leak.

But is he subject to prosecution, by the way? I would say not President Bush on this one. He would say yes, except that it involves him. His Justice Department would say yes. When you mention the AIPAC case, the people there are being tried under charges for which I was the first American to be charged ever, under the Espionage Act, using it as it was not intended to be, like an Official Secrets Act, as in Britain. It was intended for espionage. But they experimented with that use, and they’re using that against the AIPAC people right now. That’s only the third time that’s ever been done. After me, and Tony Russo was indicted with me on those charges, Samuel Elliot Morrison was indicted in the 1980s.

Congress actually passed a law that would criminalize that — what the President did, what various other people have done, what all these people did — in 2000, but Clinton vetoed it on the grounds that it was too great an — we shouldn’t have an Official Secrets Act. It too much went against the First Amendment and the basis for our whole government here, our ability to hold our officials accountable.

Roberts is talking about renewing that act and, of course, Bush won’t veto it, and, as I say, then his pension, as well as his freedom, may be in some jeopardy — not really — because it’s his Justice Department and his Senate Intelligence Committee, when you come down to it. So, he is in a lot of danger, but we are in danger of not getting unauthorized disclosures that are the lifeblood of a republic. Can they lead to some danger, as the President said? Sure, any statement can somehow — could possibly have some risk.

But the greater risks are a government by handout where secrecy is even greater. It’s a great, great risk to have the amount of secrecy we do have right now that enabled the President to lie us into this war and is heading us toward a war that will be even more disastrous in Iran. And this is the time for unauthorized disclosures, which are the only kind that are going to tell us the truth about what’s happening, and they should be done, in my opinion, on a scale that will indeed risk or even ensure that the person doing it will be identified. And that person might as well do what I did when I was indicted, say, “Yes, I did this. I take responsibility for it. I did it, because public needed this.” And take your chances in a trial, where you’re on trial for revealing dangerous criminal activities, and let a jury decide whether that was in the public interest or not.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, though we won’t end this discussion. It will be one we carry on in all different ways in the months to come. Daniel Ellsberg, thank you very much for being with us. Among other things, he is author of the book Secrets. Mark Feldstein, thank you for joining us, from George Washington University, a former intern for Jack Anderson. And thank you very much to Kevin Anderson, the son of Jack Anderson, an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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