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Daniel Ellsberg on Pardoning War Criminals, Impeachment, Whistleblowing, Julian Assange & More

Web ExclusiveNovember 25, 2019
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U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, whose ouster came a week after President Trump overruled military leaders and cleared three U.S. servicemembers who have been accused or convicted of war crimes. The men included Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who has been accused of multiple war crimes, including shooting two Iraqi civilians and fatally stabbing a captive teenager in the neck. We speak to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg about this and other issues.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with perhaps the most famous whistleblower in the world, Dan Ellsberg, as we continue to talk about what just took place in this country, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper firing the Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer. His ouster came a week after President Trump overruled military leaders and pardoned three U.S. servicemembers who have been accused or convicted of war crimes. The men include Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who’s been accused of multiple war crimes, including shooting two Iraqi civilians and fatally stabbing a captive teenager in the neck. Gallagher was convicted of posing with the teenage corpse, but acquitted on premeditated murder. Trump also pardoned Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant who was serving a 19-year sentence for the murder of two civilians. And he pardoned Major Matthew Golsteyn, an Army Special Forces officer who faced murder charges for killing an unarmed Afghan.

On Thursday, Trump criticized the Navy for moving forward with holding a review hearing to decide if Eddie Gallagher should be ousted from the elite SEAL commando unit. Trump tweeted, “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” The New York Times reported Navy Secretary Spencer then threatened to resign after Trump’s tweet, but there are also reports that Spencer attempted to go outside the chain of command, outside his boss, the Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and reach a backroom deal with President Trump that would have allowed Gallagher to keep his Trident pin. In a statement on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was, quote, “deeply troubled by this conduct.” Esper went on to state, “Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position.”

So, we continue our discussion with Dan Ellsberg, the famous whistleblower, in 1971 a high-level defense analyst when he leaked a top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and played a key role in ending the Vietnam War and really played a key role in the resignation of President Nixon.

This issue of Eddie Gallagher, in fact, it was other Navy SEALs who turned — who revealed what Gallagher had done. Dan Ellsberg, if you can talk about this group kind of pardoning, exoneration, that Trump has done, the significance of it? And go back in history to what this means to you.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: You know, I respect the jury process. I’ve been in front of juries more times than I can count exactly, dozens of times, actually. And I found them to be very effective, for example, in detecting lies among witnesses in my own trial, for example. Nevertheless, they can be mistaken. And I think the trial of Eddie Gallagher does represent a malfeasance, or a justice was not done. I am disappointed to find that the jury of troops, including, I’m sorry to say, marines, chose to believe the absurd theory of the prosecutor that the seven SEALs who had risked their careers, and risk worse than that, actually, under threats they had received, in order to hold their boss, their superior, whom they otherwise respected as a major soldier, but to hold him accountable for clear-cut crimes — instead of believing them, they chose to believe the prosecutor that these people were framing Gallagher and had made up those stories. I followed the case closely. I think that’s absurd. And the Navy, I’m certain, knows who to believe in that one. So, when they’re pursuing and putting to his fellow SEALs the question of whether he deserves to be regarded as a member of that family, the SEAL family, they have in mind, I’m certain, not merely the crime of which he was convicted, but the testimony of his subordinates to very serious, much greater crimes — murder, crimes of murder. And that’s true of the others, as well, one of them convicted of murder, essentially, another one facing trial, very credible charges of murder.

So, the president is showing his contempt for the very idea of war crimes by Americans. He’s, in effect, saying, especially if you have good connections, which Eddie Gallagher did have through acquaintances of Giuliani and the president, The Washington Post has shown, and in general, you can do what you want under this commander-in-chief, because he doesn’t understand the very nature of military discipline or pride or honor. He doesn’t have any sense of it, military or civilian. And that’s very, very dangerous.

I have said earlier, and I believe, a whole raft of high-level military advisers, including the secretary of defense, should regard this as a breaking point, a tipping point, as I regarded it when I saw the president doing exactly the same thing in 1969, with, at that time, uncanny resemblances. The Army secretary, who wanted a trial of the Special Forces to continue, then lied and said, no, he had decided to end it. That was a lie. The president had decided, as in this case. Esper said he had decided. I am certain — well, Defense Department officials have privately said, “No, it was the president who did this.”

And what they had was lying, of course, by the lower-level people who did the murders in the first place, one of them having been convicted, I think, and acknowledged what he had done. Gallagher — I will make my own judgment, not being on the jury — was lying throughout this and warning others and threatening them to get them to lie. I think the subordinates who testified against him were not lying. But in any case, so they were showing honor. They were obeying their oath of office to support and defend the Constitution and to obey the Universal Code of Military Justice. But so many were not.

What I considered in 1969 in exactly similar circumstances was that I recognized that I was living in a system for 15 years — three in the Marine Corps, 12 working as a consultant or employee of the Defense Department and the State Department. I had been working in a system that lied reflexively, from the very bottom to the very top, to the commander-in-chief, to conceal murder. And when I recognized that, my life changed. I said, “I’m not going to be part of that anymore.” I had 7,000 pages of proof of betrayal of treaties, betrayal of our servicemen and of the people of Vietnam, lies, mass murder, in effect, unjustified homicide, and I decided I would put that out, even if it had very little chance of changing things. Miraculously almost, it did change things in the end. But I didn’t count on that. I had reached a point where I was ready to go to prison to hold this process accountable and change it — change it — so that the public could make the decision, with information, to get out. And I was ready to go to prison for life for that. And Nixon wanted to give me that.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now in the midst of this impeachment inquiry in Congress. And I’m wondering if you can talk about the parallels to what you saw and your own involvement, your — the case, the involvement of what Nixon did to you —

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — breaking into your psychiatrist’s office, overseeing that process. There were a number of different things. We were just recently speaking with Liz Holtzman, who at the time was the youngest woman elected to Congress. She served on the Judiciary Committee. And she’s the one who wrote up the article of impeachment around Nixon’s involvement in the secret bombing of Cambodia. That did not get approved, but the charge of abuse of power did.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: They wanted a bipartisan indictment, impeachment, and the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee refused to accept the notion that a presidential aggressive invasion of a neutral country could be judged by Congress to be a high crime or misdemeanor — which it was. And effectively, that wrote out of the Constitution Article II, Section 8, which gives the power of war, deciding whether you should go to war — for example, against Cambodia — to Congress, not shared with the president. He did it without even informing Congress that — he should have been impeached for that; he was impeachable. And for that matter, before him, my boss, Lyndon Johnson, should have been impeached, except — for lying us into war, as George W. Bush did in Iraq. Both of them should have been impeached to establish the precedent that the Constitution means what it says, that Congress makes the decision to go to war. We’re paying very dearly for having written that out of the Constitution by passively, without holding them accountable, accepting presidential wars, regime change wars, presidential wars.

Now, in that case, I think few people in Congress really understood at the time that he was committing crimes against me and others, because, as a whistleblower, I did threaten to undermine his secret war. He planned to continue the war and keep Thieu, General Nguyen Van Thieu, in power throughout his second term. And everyone expected — everyone expected, after his landslide election in '72, that he would serve out his present term. That meant to me, from my inside knowledge, that the war would continue to at least 1977. When I've said kind of a miraculous set of events kept me from being sent to prison, for one reason, because a fix was in from the White House to my judge, who was being offered the head of the FBI, his childhood ambition, if he got this trial finished in an appropriate way, which meant with me behind bars.

I was directing, I was on my way to prison there, until some whistleblowers, including John Dean and then others, revealed that the president had done criminal actions against me, domestic crimes, in order to shut up my whistleblowing, to keep me from revealing what I might know about his nuclear threats and about his plans to extend the war. And I did know about the plans, but I didn’t have the documents he feared. People who had those documents didn’t give them to me. And one of them, Roger Morris, said later it was the greatest shame of his life that he did not open the safes and call bloody murder, because, he said, that’s exactly what it was.

That’s what I’m calling on the high levels of the Defense Department to do right now. Our support of Yemen, an aggressive war by Saudi Arabia against Yemen, fully supported by us. We’re complicit. We’re accomplices in that aggressive war, war crime, which Congress has actually acted, for the first time since Vietnam, first time since 1973, when Congress cut off the money for Vietnam, Congress acted to cut off the money, led by Bernie Sanders, with majorities in both houses, even Republicans in the Senate, to cut off the funding for that illegal war and unconstitutional war. And Trump vetoed it. As I say, Trump is a domestic enemy of the Constitution. And that’s what this impeachment is about, at last doing what the Constitution called for, holding executives, officials accountable, or members of Congress, when they transgress and abuse their powers, as he, Trump, is doing every day of the week right now.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could explain, especially for young people, and also for old who might have not [sic] forgotten — in 1971, it was before the Watergate break-in, it was September of 1971, when the very people who were involved with the Watergate break-in in 1972 — who was it? The former CIA agent, E. Howard Hunt and two others broke into the office and crowbarred the drawers of your psychiatrist. What were they trying to do at the time? What did they get? And why did you end up going on trial? And then explain to us what happened to you in that trial. You faced the rest of your life in prison. But start with the psychiatrist break-in —

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, remember, I was —

AMY GOODMAN: — and how you knew this started with Nixon in the White House.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah. I was on trial at that time. What they were looking for, as Egil Krogh, their boss in the White House, has testified, actually — and he’s one of the very few participants in this process who really did regret what he had done, reformed. He’s the only one who apologized to me in this process. But we’ve become friends. He realized that, as he’s put it, he had been acting without integrity earlier, as before — he confessed that long before he met me, and acted, after that, very admirably. But he revealed that the purpose was, in particular, to find out whatever else I might have, who might have helped me and who might still be helping me in the White House. There weren’t anybody, unfortunately. As some of them have said, they should have, but they didn’t. But they could have. In fact, Roger Morris, that I mentioned earlier, who was a deputy to Henry Kissinger, said it was the greatest shame of his life that he had resigned with others over Cambodia, the invasion of Cambodia, which was as — a very comparable crime as what we’re doing in Yemen right now or what we did in Iraq on a larger scale. So, four people did resign at that point, but they did not take documents. And that was a mistake.

That’s why I’m making the point right now. Resigning does not do the job, passes over very quickly. What needs to be — and threatening to resign is just a way to get fired, as Spencer seems to have experienced just now. Any boss is going to fire somebody who goes around threatening or leaking that he might fire — leave. That’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is to reveal documents through testimony and leaking and actually giving documents.

For example, Rear Admiral Green, the head of the Special Forces, has been trying to get them into shape in terms of a number of transgressions they have committed in the last year. There’s a suggestion by some that their Hollywood celebration has gone to their heads a bit, and discipline has gotten lax. So he actually called for a large study of transgressions by the Special Forces. I’m sure that’s classified. He classified it. It hasn’t been released. Green, who I think should be submitting his resignation today or tomorrow in this situation, should, in my opinion, be offering — telling Congress that he is prepared to testify immediately to Congress with documents. He classified that report; he can declassify it. And even if he doesn’t, he can give it to Congress on a classified basis, like the 6,000 pages of the Senate report on torture, described in the new movie, The Report, and the cover-up is described very interestingly, but a very little note is made at the end that 6,000 pages are still classified. If I were in the government right now, let me tell you, I would believe that worth going to prison for, to put that out and reveal to people just how many people participated in a clearly criminal process, as in the surveillance, which Ed Snowden revealed.

In fact, thinking about what these men are charged with and the need for discipline, I know from my Marine experience as, as I’ve said, a platoon leader, a company commander, and from watching people act in combat — I used my Marine experience to walk in combat with troops and observe a great deal of courage, a great deal of battlefield courage. And in every instance I saw, that I actually saw, with one exception, people observing the rules of war, even when there was quite a strong human temptation to break them. I could get specific at that. And there was one person in particular who I would have court-martialed if he had been in my command. Well, likewise, I’ve seen people obeying those rules.

What we have not seen is moral courage among civilians, until this week. I’m very proud of the Americans, as an American, who have unprecedentedly been telling the truth against the wishes of their commander-in-chief, or their boss — most of them are civilians; he is not their commander-in-chief, but he is their president and their boss — and to tell the truth against a president, when he doesn’t want you to do it, and has illegally forbidden you to do it, forbidden you to observe a subpoena from Congress. That’s an illegal order, it seems to me. I would have regarded it so if I were subject to such an order. And I’m glad to see that a number of Americans now, like Colonel Vindman and others, Fiona and a number of others —

AMY GOODMAN: Fiona Hill.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Fiona Hill and others are disobeying that illegal order, defying the president and telling the truth. I would like them to be an example to the military officials I’ve described, including Secretary of Defense Esper, and realize that they can act honorably and support their oath, just as he did.

But I was about to say that from being actually in the field, as well as having earlier trained people, I know, as Green has said, Admiral Green, leadership is the key here. I can put it very simply. I witnessed this in Vietnam. Otherwise very good troops will commit atrocities if they are ordered to. That’s what we saw — if a leader orders them to. That’s what we saw in My Lai. Didn’t mean that the people who did that were unnatural monsters. That’s what troops do, very disciplined troops, if they’re ordered. And if they are ordered not to by a better leader, they do not. That’s the difference. So, as Green said, what we have been seeing here is a very great breakdown of leadership at all levels. We have a president who thinks that what he is training men and now women to be is indiscriminate, random killing machines. So they shouldn’t be punished, whoever they kill and whenever they kill. With those beliefs, Donald Trump has not been trained to be and is not fit to be a leader of troops at any level, from top to bottom, to be a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant. a colonel or commander-in-chief. He is not fit, unless he learns better. And that would require evidently a good deal of training.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, I wanted to talk about another whistleblower, a publisher, Julian Assange.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Dozens of doctors have written an open letter to the British home secretary warning that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s health is so bad that he could die inside London’s high-security Belmarsh prison. The more than 60 doctors are calling on the British government to move Assange to a teaching hospital. If you can talk about the significance of what Julian Assange did, the documents that he released around the war in Iraq, around the war in Afghanistan, and the fact that he faces this rarely invoked World War I-era espionage law, for which, in the United States, if he’s extradited here, he would face something like 175 years in prison?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: There are very many virtually unique aspects to this case, as well as ominous, unprecedented aspects, very, very significant and consequential, of this particular case. This is not, after all, the first use of the Espionage Act against journalism. It’s been used against sources, starting with me. I was the first person indicted under under the Espionage Act or any act. I was also indicted for conversion and conspiracy, like some of the others. And there have been actually three — three, including me, before Obama, cases. One of the cases involved two people. And then nine cases, of which eight involved the Espionage Act under Obama. That was in eight years. Trump has now brought six cases under the Espionage Act, two involving other structures. So he’s filed eight people in two years, a little more than two years. But the new ominous thing is this is the first indictment against the journalist. The other indictments have all been against sources. And I make the distinction since we’re talking about Assange. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment, referring to freedom of the press. The others, the uses — the use of the law against sources could also be seen that way.

And it’s never been addressed by the Supreme Court. There are major lawyer — legal scholars who have said that the charges against me as a source were unconstitutional in two ways: first of all, that they interfered with the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but also that the Espionage Act was a strict liability act which did not and does not allow a defendant to say why he did what he did. I was not allowed to answer the question by my lawyer, “Why did you copy the Pentagon Papers?” And that has been true of every case so far. And it would be true of Julian Assange if he would be brought here, or Ed Snowden if he were brought here. He would not be allowed to say what the impact was, what he was aiming to do, whether that was achieved, whether there was any harm or no harm, whether there were benefits to the public. None of that could be brought up. So, it would not be a fair trial in any way. And it would be really an unconstitutional trial. As I’ve said, the constitutionality of that has never been addressed by the Supreme Court. They’ve pushed it away; they didn’t want to get into it.

The best thing would be to change the law to make it very clear, as many lawyers have asked, like Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law professor, that there should be a public accountability defense or, in other terms, necessity defense, a public interest defense — all terms that would allow a defendant to argue — wouldn’t necessarily succeed with a jury, any of them, but to argue and present testimony that he not only intended, but perhaps achieved, benefit to the national security by informing the public.

So, Assange right now has no prospect of getting that. Ed Snowden, by the way, I heard him say on Skype to an audience just days ago what he’s said before, that he would come back in a sentence — in a second, he said, to face such a trial. That would require changing the law, but that’s no — the law should be changed as soon as possible. It should have been changed long ago along those lines. So, I know that he wants that to happen, and he has said over and over that he is willing to face trial under those circumstances, where he can say why he did.

But meanwhile, Assange is being — there is not a reason in the world for his being held in what amounts to solitary confinement, in a cell 22 or 23 hours a day, again, without real access to facilities in the jail, after seven years in a room in Ecuador. I personally question various things he did in 2016, which have made many people very angry, in that they did in fact help the Trump administration. They were journalism, but they were timed in such a way that they helped Trump and they hurt Hillary Clinton. But two things, I’ve always said I — in judging my friend Julian Assange, I give a person a lot of slack in judging them, when they’ve been in one room for seven years, now added by being without even a computer, which he did have in the Ecuadorian Embassy, in much tighter confinement than he was before. There’s every reason to believe that not only his health, but his mental abilities have been affected by this. And so he’s been treated very badly throughout this time.

Moreover, the charges against him are not for 2016 or for various releases he’s made of CIA materials. They are for 2010, when he revealed what Chelsea Manning had given him. Manning is now in jail herself for refusing to testify to a grand jury in the case against — or any grand jury, that’s her principle — a secret grand jury. But in any case, what he put out in the way of “Collateral Murder,” a film of American helicopter gunship members committing war crimes, committing murder, which I recognized immediately when I saw that film, of their using .50-caliber machine guns and other rockets on clearly unarmed civilians and gunning them down, when there were people in the area who could have taken them prisoner. Murder.

Not all killing in war is murder. I am not a total pacifist. I do not, never have thought that British anti-aircraft gunners who were firing at German bombers over London were doing anything but what they ought to do, the best thing for them to do. Or Russian soldiers who prevented the permanent occupation and depopulation by the Germans of Russia, they were doing the right thing. It wasn’t just tolerable. That was a just cause and just means that I’ve described there.

But some killing in war is murder. And that is the nature of the charges against the three people who have just been pardoned by the president, and who is denying that there is such a thing as a war crime or — and that won’t change. You know, if the rules are observed, and they are mostly observed — they’re mostly observed — that doesn’t hide the fact that a great deal of murder is done from the air, by Americans and by other people, by the Germans, by the Japanese, certainly. The firebombing of Germany and Japan in a just cause was an unjust means, in my opinion, an unjustifiable war crime, as much as the Nazi bombing of Britain and the [inaudible].

So, Americans can take criminal acts, and without accountability and leadership, or if it’s in the wrong direction, that will happen. Chelsea Manning revealed a lot of that, torture, assassination squads. That was the right thing for her to do. It was the right thing for Assange as a journalist to put that out. And it just conceivably may have saved a lot of lives.

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