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Daniel Ellsberg on Whistleblowers Julian Assange, Daniel Hale, Reality Winner, Ed Snowden & Others

Web ExclusiveJune 14, 2021
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This week marks 50 years since The New York Times published the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by our guest, the legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. He describes why he has been a prominent advocate for other whistleblowers over the past five decades. He spoke just shortly before the family of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner announced she had been released to a halfway house.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with the legendary whistleblower Dan Ellsberg. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers, published by The New York Times. Dan Ellsberg turned 90 years old in April. Over the past five decades, he’s been a leading critic of U.S. militarism and U.S. nuclear weapons policy, as well as a prominent advocate for other whistleblowers to come forward and release documents they have access to.

I want to ask you, Dan, about the U.S. State Department still pushing to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Britain, where he’s been locked up for over two years. That’s after being dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was taking refuge. He had been granted political asylum and was there for many years before that. A British judge blocked Assange’s extradition in January, citing serious mental health concerns — concerns, for example, of suicide. Julian Assange was indicted here in the United States for violations of the Espionage Act related to the publication of classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes. He faces up to 175 years in prison if brought to the United States. I’m going to ask you about Daniel Hale and also Edward Snowden. But let’s begin with Julian Assange. Some have said, as the years went by and you were more accepted as a whistleblower by those who condemned you in the past, “Well, Julian Assange is no Dan Ellsberg.” What’s your response?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I recognized Julian Assange as a different background, a different personality, a different age. I identified with him very much, even though his role had not been that, literally, of source or whistleblower, but a publisher, but a publisher much more committed than others than I had dealt with. I identify with Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden, who, again, are very different people and different from me. I identify with them more than virtually anyone. We’ve gone through the same process of disillusion and the same decision as to what to do, and I feel very, very close to them.

But I also liked Assange when I met him, and admired what he was doing, which was then putting out the Afghan and the war logs, Iraq War Logs and the “Collateral Murder” video. And I very much admired what he was doing. He was taking on, in effect, all of the governments, all of whom keep secrets, many, many more than they should, from their own people and from the world. And it was predictable that the powers of the world would combine in a way to come down on him. The same is true of Snowden, in particular, and even to Chelsea with the broad-scale revelations she made. So, if Kissinger regarded me as the most dangerous man in the world — in America, rather, I’m sure that many people regarded Snowden and Assange as the most dangerous men in the world. So, the —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, we don’t have to talk about Henry Kissinger; we could talk about the president of the United States right now, Joe Biden.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re not talking about Trump here; we’re talking about Biden. When he was vice president, he called Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist.” Now Julian has been denied bail, so he can’t get out. The only reason he’s in prison right now, in the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison in London, is because of the request for him to be brought to the United States and be tried under the same law that you were tried under, the treason act.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It’s not a treason act. It’s a law designed for — treason is defined in the Constitution. It’s the only felony that’s actually defined in the Constitution. And none of us have been charged with treason, which would be actually absurd, because one of the requirements, which were deliberately made very narrow in our country since our country was founded by traitors — every single signatory to the Declaration of Independence was subject to being indicted and hanged by their previous authority, British Empire. And —

AMY GOODMAN: I should say, the Espionage Act.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah, the Espionage Act. Again, that was designed for Espionage Act. It doesn’t provide for any explanation to the jury as to why you did what you did or what the impact. It just taken for granted that — it’s what they call a strict liability law, that merely doing it is ipso facto criminal. And the way they’re using it is indistinguishable now, with the indictment of Assange, from a British-type Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes any and all release of information the government has chosen to stamp secret. We’ve never had such a law. Congress has often proposed it and never gotten a vote on it, with one exception. They did pass, by voice vote, such an act as an amendment in 2000. And Clinton vetoed it on constitutional grounds.

So it’s never gone to the Supreme Court at all, never been tested. And that’s why I’m saying that if they choose to indict me — and they have as good, exactly as good, grounds to indict me as any of the ones they have actually indicted — and if they choose to do that, there will be no plea bargaining on my case. And I will make every effort to take it to the Supreme Court, which could deny it, as they have in the past, but, at any rate, force them to face the fact whether such a law, so used, could possibly be regarded as compatible with the First Amendment, which says no law shall be passed abridging freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Now, Assange is the first journalist to be tried. And that’s why I think that journalists have never really paid attention to this loaded pistol that was pointing at them for the last 50 years. The plain language does permit them to be indicted. And as I say, the question that hasn’t been settled is: How could that be compatible with the First Amendment? The answer is it can’t.

As you say, Biden was one who did regard him as a criminal right from the beginning, back in 2010, when Chelsea Manning was his major source for that material. But then, the Trump — the Obama administration, in which Biden was a part as vice president, considered indicting Assange and chose not to do it, on the grounds that — the ostensible grounds were that you’d have to indict The New York Times, which had printed his material, just as much as him. That would be embarrassing. But it would be more than embarrassing; it would hold up the absurdity and the intolerability of using that plain language to indict someone who is publishing such material.

Biden should and could have simply dropped that appeal. But when the judge, as you say, Judge Baraitser, refused to indict him, on grounds actually of the health risk that he would face if he were sent over — they do, after all, have an Official Secrets Act. He would clearly have violated that. I would have clearly violated that, if we had been over there. So she probably wasn’t so impressed by the difference in the American constitutional system. But she did refuse to indict him — to extradite him.

Trump, on virtually his last day in office, I think on July — June — January 17th, he actually appealed for Assange to be extradited. And Trump — when Trump left office then — and physically still claims that he’s president — but Biden then could have dropped that appeal. He could still do it, and he should still do it. But a lower-level officer in the Justice Department, a holdover from the Trump administration, simply renewed the appeal. That was the wrong thing to do, unconstitutional,, and Biden could and should drop that. However, it’s far from certain — it’s not even likely — that he will do that, given his untoward attitude back in 2010, when he called him a “high-tech terrorist.” The same thing would apply, by the way, to the pursuit of Daniel Hale and Reality Winner, who’s in prison now also.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about both Daniel Hale and Reality Winner, first Daniel Hale. The former U.S. intelligence analyst Daniel Hale was unexpectedly arrested and jailed ahead of his sentencing, which is scheduled for July 13th. In March, he pleaded guilty to one count of violating the World War I-era Espionage Act for leaking classified documents about the secretive U.S. drone and targeted assassination programs. Last month, I interviewed National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and asked him about Daniel Hale.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Daniel Hale is one of the most consequential whistleblowers. He sacrificed everything — an incredibly courageous person — to tell us that the drone war, that, you know, is so obviously occurring to everyone else, but the government was still officially denying in so many ways, is here, it is happening, and 90% of the casualties in one five-month period were innocents or bystanders or not the target of the drone strike. We could not establish that, we could not prove that, without Daniel Hale’s voice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Edward Snowden. And we were speaking — I was interviewing him and you for a virtual panel that I moderated. Your take on Daniel Hale, what he did?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I think what he did was very admirable. And it was not only simply passing on some documents or some information, but really carrying on, as he should, a campaign against the murderous aspect of this campaign. He acted very admirably, in a way that very, very few officials have ever done in showing the moral courage to separate themselves from criminal activities and wrongful activities of their own administration, and resist them, as well as exposing them. So, I would say he’s a particularly admirable person, especially one that should not be put in prison for this.

We also mentioned Reality Winner, who put out a leak for which she should not be in prison. And this is — actually, this is true of all the people who have been prosecuted. None of them have had the occasion for a fair trial, since they’re not even able to tell the court or the jury why they did what they did. I wasn’t allowed to do that myself, going back to the first of these prosecutions. But in other words, the jury is not allowed to be in a position at all fairly to judge the nature of the act that was taken and why it was done. But even beyond that, they shouldn’t be prosecuted for these activities in the first place and have to justify themselves to that extent, since they were revealing activities that were clearly wrongfully being concealed [inaudible] from the public.

AMY GOODMAN: The family of Reality Winner — she was arrested in 2017, held in custody for over a year, then, in June 2018, pleaded guilty to a count of unauthorized transmission of national defense information for releasing to The Intercept information about Russian interference in the 2016 election. She was sentenced to five years in prison. She told The New York Times — prosecutors told The New York Times that Reality Winner got the longest sentence ever given by a federal court for unauthorized disclosure of government information to the press. She was sentenced also under the Espionage Act, Dan.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, also, by the way, of course, Chelsea Manning got a longer sentence, but that was from a military court-martial. So I think the difference is this is a civilian court here. Chelsea spent seven-and-a-half years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. But —

AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, it was President Biden — I mean, it was President Obama, with, you know, Biden as vice president, who actually commuted that sentence and had her released.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Admitting that he should have done it years earlier. But, by the way, one thing that makes it easier for me to kind of break this process is the fact that I am 90, and glad to be alive this long. But these extraordinary long sentences don’t have the same meaning for me that they do for the younger people. In their cases, the coercion on them to accept a lower sentence and to plead a bargain, which cuts off the appeal on the thing, is very strong. The likelihood that without being able to tell the jury their public interest defense, they will simply spend more money and get a longer sentence if they go to trial, impels many of them to cut the thing off well before it goes to any appeal in the Supreme Court. In my case, I don’t have the incentive to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Back on Julian Assange, the Biden Justice Department and Biden himself just made a pledge not to go after journalists. This is after the revelations that the Trump administration was seeking the email and other communications of a number of journalists — Barbara Starr at CNN, reporters at The New York Times, also at The Washington Post. But at the same time, you have Merrick Garland, attorney general, saying he’s going to go after the person who leaked information to ProPublica about the taxes of the wealthiest, the fact that they don’t pay taxes in this country. Can you talk about what you think should happen, how you think those in government — you were in government; you worked in the Pentagon — the effect of pressure on those in the highest levels in government? And this is where I want to begin to end this discussion, I mean, how you were affected by the protests outside the Pentagon, when you were inside, seeing those that were willing to be dragged off to jail, the kind of impact movements make on those in power, right up until the president of the United States.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do something that would do either one of two things, that would lose me my contact as a president’s man, as somebody could think of myself as working for national security in the person of the president and helping him to — or, someday, her — do exactly what she wanted to do, whatever it was. And that’s what Egil Krogh, the man who was to neutralize me for the Plumbers, said in his guilty plea, his change of mind, how he had been thinking that to help the president free — free to do whatever he thought was in the interest of national security was, to him, the essence of national security. Now, that should not be the case in a democracy. It is true in other countries where the oath of loyalty is to the Führer, is to the leader, to the president, totally, as so many people in this country really do, without recognizing how lucky they are that their oath in this country is to the Constitution of the United States, which has an amendment calling for freedom of the press. [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to interrupt for one second, because in Part 1 you referred to this neutralization of you by mercenaries hired to go after the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, to invade Cuba. What do you mean by “neutralize”? What was the scenario that ultimately was revealed?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It can include anything, of course, including simply stigmatize so that the person will not be listened to because he’s so flaky or so corrupt or so untrustworthy, but it definitely extended to incapacitating me totally, which, as their prosecutor felt, meant killing me. I’m actually not sure it did mean that. I think the president was very anxious for me to shut up that particular weekend, when he intended to mine Haiphong, which I was predicting, and which I thought would engage him in direct conflict with Soviet ships and would lead to B-52 bombing over Hanoi, both of which it did do. And he wanted me to be quiet during that weekend. I think their real intent was to bust my jaw or put me in the hospital, in such a way that I wouldn’t interfere. As one of them admitted, Bernie Barker, he said, “My job was to break both his legs.” This was it. The order is now in the Oval Office of the president.

And that’s the one thing that hasn’t been legally justified. All the other criminal acts that were taken against me, like warrantless wiretaps or breaking into the psychoanalyst’s office, have now, since 9/11, been legitimized in law, though they haven’t been tested constitutionally. I’m going to question all of them. But one that hasn’t actually been in the law is for the president to simply attack, incapacitate, kill other people, as President Obama did, for example, with U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, a couple of weeks later, in drone attacks of the kind that Daniel Hale has been revealing, exposing. Again, killing an American citizen without due process, without any judge, jury, witness testimony, anything else, as a routine activity of presidents, the fact that that hasn’t been challenged, really, even though it hasn’t been embodied in a law, like the warrantless wiretapping or the surveillance, can’t make it either constitutional or legal or moral. And yet it is going on without challenge. And that makes it part of who we are and what we do. That should change back.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what message do you have to people in this country? You have just revealed new information about what could have led to a nuclear attack between the United States and China around Taiwan. But you’ve often called, over the years, for people to release information about Iran and plans, nuclear plans of the United States and Iran and others. Who should — who should be whistleblowers? And what are you asking them exactly to do?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Anyone in the government, if they’re in for months or years, is aware of the great, great amount of lying that is done to one audience or another about what our policy is or where it’s going, what the costs are, what the real intention is, what the real interests that are bearing on them are. Nearly everything the government says, says I.F. Stone, is misleading to some extent on those relevant factors. And that’s the way it’s always been in government and every government, and probably always will be. The penalties for telling truths that your boss doesn’t want to told, or your agency or your president doesn’t want told, is likely to be very great. And so, you can’t just decide, “I will tell the truth. I will expose every lie.” If you can’t stand being part of a lying process, you can’t stand being in the government, or probably any other big organization, very long.

But the question is what the lies are about. And when — that was true with the Pentagon Papers and with this new information about possible nuclear war. When the question is that many lives are at stake, as they are in this, then people should summon up their potential for moral courage, which really means their willingness to be punished, to risk punishment, by people who don’t want them to tell that, or to be ostracized by others who regard them as traitors, even if they’re not called that in America.

So, what I’m telling them is to do not what I did. Don’t do what I did in '71, waiting until bombs have fallen or many more people have been killed. When you have information that reveals that this is in the works, that it's likely to happen, and might not happen if you reveal the truth about it, in those cases, I would tell them: Consider doing what I wish I had done in 1964 rather than '69 or ’71, and go to the press, and go and also, by the secret means that are now becoming increasingly available, maintain your anonymity, if possible, go to the Congress also, same way, and reveal what may do this, at whatever cost to yourself, consider doing it, because a war's worth of lives may be at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Edward Snowden, who we just did a public forum on, a virtual public forum, with you in California, him in Russia, where he has political asylum, not because he wanted it there, but because the U.S. pulled his passport after he revealed information about what the NSA was doing, about the government spying on the American people. What do you advise President Biden to do when it comes to Ed Snowden, who says if he came back to this country, he could not get a fair trial, but wants to come back?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It’s absolutely true that he could not get a fair trial, just as I didn’t get one. I was freed by an almost miraculous set of circumstances, from a judge who had been bribed by the president to convict me some way or other. Others can’t count on my miraculous escape from prison as applying to them. So this is not something you do lightly, is to follow in this path.

The others, Ed Snowden, currently condemned a lifetime in exile; Chelsea Manning, seven-and-a-half years in prison; Mordechai Vanunu in Israel, with 11-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, out of 17 years he was in for revealing their nuclear program. In all these cases — first of all, this should not be happening. They should be free. But second, there is the possibility for Congress to change the law, which should happen.

Actually, Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna both put in bills that would amend the — before Tulsi left Congress, that would amend the Espionage Act and allow for a public interest defense. And those should certainly be repassed, be reintroduced into Congress, so that people will have the opportunity for a fair trial. Snowden has said that if that were to happen, he would come back and face a jury and explain himself to the trial. He would be very foolish, it would be meaningless and a useless cause, for him to do it now. He’s much better able to speak wisely to the world where he is, until it’s possible for him to face a true accounting for his actions in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg we want to thank you so much for spending this time with us, the legendary Pentagon Papers whistleblower. And a belated Happy 90th Birthday, Dan.


AMY GOODMAN: With many, many more to come.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Like your grandmother.

AMY GOODMAN: Author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner and Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

To see Part 1 of our extended discussion on the history of the Pentagon Papers and also the latest leak that he just engaged in, go to

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