As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have virtually disappeared from mainstream media coverage, Democracy Now!’s Juan Gonzalez has a wide-ranging conversation with Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader about the ongoing U.S. military occupation of these countries, the treatment of WikiLeaks accused whistleblower Bradley Manning, and how this connects to the attack on worker rights in Wisconsin and beyond.
“More than a $120 billion a year [is] being wasted, hurting the welfare, really, of the people of Afghanistan and of Iraq,” Ellsberg says. “It’s outrageous that this is continuing and that these events are not linked, that people don’t realize that it’s simply outrageous to be talking about removing fuel from elderly during the winter here, fuel aid and health aid and education aid, while we’re spending this money on the wars, these totally wrongful and unnecessary wars.”
Protests against the occupations and the treatment of Manning are planned for this weekend.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re continuing our conversation with Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower, and Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate.
Dan Ellsberg, your decision to participate in the protest this weekend on the eighth anniversary of the Iraq invasion and to participate in civil disobedience, why are you doing it?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, actions of this sort, of course, changed my life. If it weren’t for people who had chosen to go to jail, rather than to go to Canada or Sweden or the National Guard, to protest the Vietnam War — really impressed me with the question: Am I doing enough? What more can I do to help end this Vietnam War? Which I felt as strongly about as they did. And very specifically, what could I do to end it, if I were willing to risk prison? Which I did by taking actions of truth telling, of the same sort that Bradley Manning is charged with right now and is sitting in jail right now for Quantico.
By the way, the action is not only on the 19th at the White House, but there will be a march to Quantico in support of Bradley Manning on the 20th. And people can get all the information on where and when and how to join in these by looking at the website stopthesewars, one word, stopthesewars.org. They have all the timing on that. I’ll be at both of those events.
As of now, one of the parts of the Quantico event is to, especially for those of us who are vets — I was in the Marine Corps; in fact, I spent nine months at Quantico myself, in basic school — plan to lay some flowers in recognition of American war dead on the Iwo Jima Memorial at the entrance to Quantico. And as of now, we’re being told that that will be forbidden. That’s a public park that is normally open seven days a week, but on this particular Sunday, we are not going to be allowed to do that. I think we will challenge that, if that absurd condition remains.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Dan, you’ve expressed not only concern about Bradley Manning, but also about the safety of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder. Could you give us your sense of the latest in the developments of Assange’s case?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, as of now, he’s appealing a decision to extradite him to Sweden, with the rather clear subtext here that the U.S. hopes, or might find it easier even, to extradite him from Sweden, with its current relatively right-wing government, than from England, which has stronger restrictions on extraditing for political motives. He is concerned about that.
I think earlier I expressed the fear that, before these legal proceedings started, that he could be subject to the kind of special forces operation that the WikiLeaks revelations show they were doing on a very wide scale in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now, it turns out, in Pakistan, that one of the major revelations of WikiLeaks that I found from the Afghan war logs was that we are already doing offensive ground operations of a special forces nature in Pakistan, which seems to be one of the most dangerous possible operations we could be doing, since it might destabilize the government there and lead to a government in which nuclear weapons were in the hands of allies, literal allies, of al-Qaeda and of the Taliban, so an extremely reckless operation by the U.S. government and one, so far as we know, without the — a new war against another country, a so-called ally, without the authorization of Congress, so far as we know.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ralph Nader, I’d like to ask you about a completely different topic: the continuing assault on labor unions and on public employees across the country. Obviously, the huge public uprising, in essence, in Wisconsin against the new draconian legislation passed there, but also in other states throughout the Midwest. Your assessment of this new assault on the public employee unions?
RALPH NADER: Well, it’s a very concerted one, not only by governors, but by the Republican Party, in particular, and the corporatists that run it. And the idea is, after the Wall Street collapse drove us into a deep recession, which reduced tax revenues everywhere, especially with the Republican insistence that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy be continued, it was the stage for saying, “Well, there are a lot of deficits in the state government in Wisconsin and Indiana and Ohio and elsewhere.” Therefore, they have to go after the public employee unions, not only to make them concede on their salaries and benefits, x percentages, but also to break their human right to collectively bargain.
And let’s not be fuzzy about this. The right of collective bargaining is part of the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights. Whenever we analyze the level of democracy in other countries, one of the signal yardsticks is: are the workers able to form independent labor unions? They are not in Mexico. They are not in China. They are not in many other countries that U.S. corporations are shipping jobs and entire industries to, day by day.
So, the response has been unexpected but necessary. There were 100,000 people rallying last Saturday in Madison. There are other rallies in other states.
The question is whether the AFL-CIO is going to put money, and whether the United Auto Workers and others, who have a lot of money in their strike fund reserves, into mobilizing workers, union and non-union, all over the country into a major political movement that refuses to go for the least worst between the Republican and Democrat and that demands that Obama fulfill his campaign pledge in 2008 to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 — it’s now $7.25 — and also to push openly and transformingly for the card check and for repeal of Taft-Hartley, so workers can have the same rights to organize as they do in Western Europe and Canada.
So I hope this will continue. The issue we’re all wondering about is: do these rallies have stamina? Will they replicate themselves throughout the country? Will they be supported with full-time organizers? And that’s up to Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, who’s been far too congenial with President Obama, and he’s got to stand firm, as he knows how to, and get his member unions to put more resources into these drives.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ralph, a particular target of the Republican efforts have been these public employee pensions. They keep claiming in many states, not just in the Midwest, that local governments can no longer afford providing pensions, especially at the level of benefits that some of the pension systems have, for these veteran government workers. Your response?
RALPH NADER: Well, many of these pensions are funded. Others have gaps in their funding. There are a few abuses, Juan, in some of these areas — early retirement, full pensions, age 50, for example. But by and large, public employee unions represent the kind of middle-class standard of living that most Americans aspire to. And they negotiated these, obviously.
But what’s important to remember is, how can they say that the public employees’ claim on the treasury has to be cut back — firefighters, police, teachers, civil servants — when there’s hundreds of billions of dollars of corporate welfare in these states — tax abatements in New York City, for example, subsidies, handouts, giveaways? I mean, it’s insinuated into the structure of state, local and national government. Those are the ones that should go first. Corporate welfare should go first, before you start cutting back on people’s standard of living.
And the Governor of Wisconsin, he had, current year, a $137 million deficit — that’s pretty small, by other states — and he provided $140 million in corporate tax welfare, for starters, added on to all the other corporate welfare systems in Wisconsin. So, this is — we’ve got the thing turned around: workers take the brunt, but not these corporate supremacists, not these corporate freeloaders that we have to guarantee and support, just like nuclear power has to be guaranteed by the taxpayer because Wall Street won’t finance them.
So we have to get over this idea of making the least powerful pay the price for the corporate criminality that started, in the latest stage, from the Wall Street crooks and speculators who looted and drained trillions of dollars of pension funds and mutual fund savings, while they enriched themselves, tanked their companies, their banks, and sent them to Washington to be bailed out by the same workers in their role as taxpayers. It’s really time to raise our level of informed indignation, break our routine, and get involved as voters and citizens at the local, state and national level.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Dan Ellsberg, I’d like to go back to a question I asked Ralph Nader about this astonishing virtual disappearance of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan from the daily commercial news reports and the media coverage of these two ongoing occupations and certainly continuing of violence in both countries, as well as the expanding U.S. involvement in covert actions in other countries in the Middle East. The public gets very little of this understanding of what is actually going on.
DAN ELLSBERG: Well, I would say, just as the President is unwarrantedly accepting assurances from the Defense Department that there are no human rights violations — and as Ralph was saying, we’re talking in this area, as well, about fundamental human rights of prisoners here. To be sure, Bradley Manning doesn’t have all the protections that I, as a civilian, had when I was facing exactly the same kinds of charges that he’s facing, but he does have human rights, and they do prevent the kind of torture that he’s undergoing, the prolonged isolation, which does amount to torture. Other connections between what we’re talking about here arise in many respects.
Just as the President, as I say, is unwarrantedly accepting those assurances from the Defense Department, the media and the public have been accepting unwarrantedly assurances for years now that the President’s policy is to get out of Afghanistan and to get out of Iraq even sooner. I’ve been saying for several years that I think those assurances are almost worthless, that there is essentially no chance that the President means to get us all out of our bases in Iraq by the end of this year, no matter what they say. And indeed, I think that we’ll have tens of thousands of troops there, if Pentagon plans proceed as they’re expecting right now in Iraq, indefinitely. And the same in Afghanistan, that the idea that we’re going to be out of there even by 2014, under current plans, I think has no basis. So people, as they did under Nixon, when they thought the war is ending, turned their attention away from it at a time when in fact almost half of American casualties had yet to be suffered. This is quite unwarranted. These wars are on, and, as WikiLeaks shows, they’re actually expanding into Pakistan and, we know now, Yemen.
Really, I was very struck by Ralph’s earlier strong, very strong statement about war crimes, something that we in America just don’t think of as associated with American operations, as we should, and I was glad to hear him make that very strong statement. In this area, in the area of human rights, in general, and the surveillance that he’s talking about, I was really thinking that it’s been several years — for several years, we’ve understood that President Obama is a former community organizer, that that’s very far beyond — behind him, just as I’m a former Cold Warrior. And really, what we see in connection with the expansion of these wars and with — but especially with the human rights, in general, the detention and the state secrets, the rendition and the torture, the torture in Iraq and the torture of an American citizen here in Virginia, we see that President Obama is a former constitutional scholar. In fact, the man who wrote the torture memos and all the other memos on presidential power, John Yoo, Y-O-O, of University of California, Berkeley Law School, I think would be very comfortable in this administration. I see no real difference in his perspective on presidential powers — unlimited, essentially monarchical presidential powers — from this administration. They do say in Washington here that where you stand depends on where you sit. Well, the man who sits in the Oval Office — or woman, some day — seems to believe very quickly that they’re sitting on a throne. And we see the effects of that in these unnecessary wars.
One last thought there. When I hear Ralph talk about the deficits that are being put on the shoulders of the workers and the union people instead of the corporate people who — and the people who get the high-level tax breaks, we should never forget the role here of the hundreds of billions of dollars, more than $120 billion a year, being wasted, hurting the welfare, really, of the people of Afghanistan and of Iraq. It’s outrageous that this is continuing and that these events are not linked, that people don’t realize that it’s simply outrageous to be talking about removing fuel from elderly during the winter here, fuel aid and health aid and education aid, while we’re spending this money on the wars, these totally wrongful and unnecessary wars.
So, final link, the rallies that we’re seeing in Wisconsin show a very clear resonance from the rallies in Egypt and in Tunisia, which in turn, by the way, were directly linked to revelations by WikiLeaks. Whoever was the source to WikiLeaks of the evidence of the extreme corruption in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere, which led in part, in large part, to these rallies, along with the self-sacrifice of people like Mohamed Bouazizi, who actually burned himself to death in protest — but the revelations of the corruption were critical. And that alone, I would say, would be enough to thank the source of those documents very much. There will probably be a statue for them in those countries, if — as they turn to democracy. Well, those rallies were then seen in Wisconsin, in new ways, and I think we’re going to have to see a lot more of that, of direct protest, possibly amounting to general strikes at some point. The fact is that the divergence between what this country needs and deserves, and in the way both of rights and of a reorientation of priorities and of spending, is as great here as in the Middle East. And we need to see courage and mobilization here, as well as what we’re seeing sparked by WikiLeaks in the Middle East.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re going to have to end it there. Thanks very much to both — two of the legends of democratic dissent and protest in America: Ralph Nader, a longtime consumer advocate, and the country’s most famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Could I remind people one last time? Stopthesewars.org for the actions on Saturday and Sunday.
RALPH NADER: And I’d like to pay attention to — this is the newspaper for Veterans for Peace, which is veteransforpeace.org. You see the emphasis? The Veterans have got it right: war crimes must be stopped.