As supporters of Julian Assange fear his extradition to the United States could be just weeks away, and President Biden faces growing pressure to drop espionage charges against Assange, we are joined for an exclusive joint interview with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and John Young, the founder of Cryptome.org, who have both asked the Department of Justice to indict them for possessing or publishing the same documents as the WikiLeaks founder. The Biden administration is asking the U.K. government to extradite Assange to the U.S., where he faces up to 175 years in prison on espionage and hacking charges for the release of documents that exposed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Ellsberg has revealed that he was in possession of confidential documents leaked by former military analyst Chelsea Manning and given to him as backup by WikiLeaks, and Young says he published some of the same documents days before WikiLeaks did. “If they succeed with Julian Assange, … we will not have a First Amendment,” says Ellsberg. “This accusation against Assange would be illegal against an American citizen, so we think it’s selective prosecution and it should cease,” adds Young.
AMY GOODMAN: Pressure is growing on President Biden to drop charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who’s been jailed in Britain since his arrest in April of 2019. The Biden administration is asking the U.K. government to extradite him to the U.S., where he faces up to 175 years in prison on espionage and hacking charges if he’s found guilty at trial. WikiLeaks says Assange could be extradited within weeks. Assange was first arrested 12 years ago this month, on December 7th, 2010. After a period under house arrest, he lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had political asylum, from 2012 to 2019.
Five major news organizations, including The New York Times, which once partnered with WikiLeaks, recently called on the Biden administration to drop charges against Assange, writing, quote, “This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” unquote. The letter goes on to say, “Publishing is not a crime.” The letter was signed by The New York Times, The Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany and El País in Spain.
Meanwhile, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg recently revealed he was in possession of confidential documents containing evidence of U.S. war crimes leaked by former military analyst Chelsea Manning and given to him as backup by WikiLeaks. In a recent message to President Biden and the Justice Department, Ellsberg wrote on Twitter, quote, “I am as indictable as he is on the exact same charges,” unquote.
The founder of the website Cryptome.org has also written to the Justice Department asking to be indicted, as well. Cryptome’s founder, John Young, says he should be added as a co-defendant in the prosecution of Assange because he published some of the same leaked government documents at the center of the U.S. case against Assange. Cryptome is a website that began in 1996 and is seen by many as a precursor to WikiLeaks. Young also helped Assange start WikiLeaks in 2006. While Assange faces 175 years in U.S. prison if he’s extradited and convicted, the U.S. government has never moved to prosecute Young, who says he published the unredacted State Department cables two days prior to WikiLeaks. The U.S. government has never even asked Young to remove the documents.
Well, today, in a Democracy Now! exclusive, we’re joined by both Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg in Berkeley, California, and Cryptome’s John Young here in New York.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dan Ellsberg, let’s begin with you. Why don’t you lay out what you’re asking the Justice Department to do?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I’m asking them to look closely at the charges they have brought against, actually, past whistleblowers, all past, and Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, potentially against me and John Young, because, as lawyers said at the time of my first trial back in 1971 — Melville Nimmer, the leading scholar of law of information at that point, said that if the Espionage Act were used against someone who had done what I had admittedly done — copy and distribute 7,000 pages of top-secret documents — that law was unconstitutional. And that’s been true ever since. It’s unconstitutional use against sources, as it has been done several dozen times, especially in this century under Presidents Obama and Trump, and now Biden. It’s also unconstitutional use against journalists. That’s blatantly unconstitutional. They never tried it, even under President Obama, when President Biden was vice president. They backed off because of the clear unconstitutionality under the First Amendment, which says no law should be passed abridging freedom of the press.
And finally, by raising this constitutional issue, that I focus on in particular, I’m showing that the law can be used absurdly — at least absurdly, broadly — against someone like me, who admittedly retained and failed to deliver — these are the words of 18 USC 793 paragraph e. And I know that so well, as a nonlawyer — I’m a defendant — because I was the first person charged with that for giving information to the public. So, I am as guilty, in their eyes, as Assange. How come they haven’t come after me for this? I did much the same a year ago and raised this challenge. If the — at last, the media, who have been derelict in informing themselves on a law which was always potentially there to indict them, if they do this and really raise the issue of the necessity to abandon or strongly amend the Espionage Act so as to exclude journalists and exclude whistleblowers who are trying to inform the American public, they can — if they want to continue as they are, they can come after me, which means anyone who retains a copy of The New York Times which has the word “classified” in it, and who fails to turn over that copy to authorities authorized to receive it — mail it in to the Justice Department, I guess — is as guilty as I am under the plain language of that act.
A British-type Official Secrets Act is barred from America after our Revolution by the First Amendment of the United States, freedom of the press. They don’t have that. Since my prosecution, the Justice Department has been using the Espionage Act, intended obviously for entirely different reasons — spies who secretly give information to America’s enemies, especially in wartime — they’ve been using it as if it were an Official Secrets Act. If they succeed with Julian Assange, in extraditing him — which Biden could stop tomorrow, and should — if they succeed in that, prosecute him and convict him, we will not have a First Amendment. It’s as if we didn’t fight a War of Independence, actually, with respect to anything they regarded as related to national defense. Free speech is pretty much out the door.
And I want to raise the issue that the act even promotes the possibility of prosecuting people like me, who do not even publish — I was a backup for Julian Assange, didn’t have to publish — but can get anybody who handles that material, any secretary at the newspaper and any reader of The New York Times.
AMY GOODMAN: John Young, Dan Ellsberg is perhaps the most famous whistleblower in the world in releasing the Pentagon Papers. You are not as well known. You founded Cryptome.org back in the ’90s. Explain why you are saying, if Julian Assange is guilty, you should be jailed, as well.
JOHN YOUNG: Well, it’s pretty clear, looking at the indictment of Julian Assange and the 18 citations that he’s charged, as far as I could tell, all those apply to me and Cryptome, that we’ve been doing this now since 1996. We publish classified information, secret information from other countries, within the United States, and so that I’m unclear why, if they’re charging him, why they’ve never charged someone like us. By the way, we’re only one of dozens of people who are putting out this kind of information, from the Federation of American Scientists to the National Security Archive. This has been going on for quite a long while. So our sense is that they’re trying to use Assange as an example to frighten people. That, to me, is selective vindication against him, and he should not face this alone.
I think all of those of us who are doing similar kind of work to serve the public rather than the government should do more than just protest. I think we’ve got to raise more hell and take more legal action and publish more, and as our obligation as citizens, that I think the intelligence agencies are completely out of control. The national security people are completely out of control. They’re actually trying to use Assange as a threat against everyone else, not only in the U.S. but around the world. And this, to us, seems to be anti-democratic. And we’d like to help combat that by sharing the responsibility that Mr. Ellsberg and Julian Assange is facing. And we hope others will step up, as well.
By the way, we’re not publishers. We’re private citizens, practicing architects. And so we are not doing anything more than exerting our constitutional rights under the First Amendment. So, this accusation against Assange would be illegal against an American citizen. So we think it’s selective prosecution, and it should cease.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, you filed this motion against the U.S. government for violating your constitutional rights to provide unlimited documents to the public. Now, specifically in the case of Julian Assange, you say you published at Cryptome.org, two days before WikiLeaks did, State Department cables. Explain. You’re saying the same thing that WikiLeaks revealed, and so you are guilty of the same crime.
JOHN YOUNG: Yes, except we don’t see it as a crime. It’s just revelation of privileged information. We don’t see it as criminal; we see it as free speech. And it’s all a citizen has to work with if they’re not part of the press, is to speak up and take responsibility for their views. So that’s why we did it, is that it was available, thought it worthwhile for the public to know. It’s been there now for 12 years, hundreds of downloads. No complaint from the U.S. government against us.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, John Young, the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service responded to your request to be included as a co-defendant. What did they say?
JOHN YOUNG: They said that the Prosecution Service is not the one to take this up, as they said. It’s the U.S. government which is handling this, and they are just a minor party to it. So they basically disavowed responsibility for this vindictive attack on Julian Assange, which I thought was interesting. So they’re actually acting as a handservant to the U.S. government, is what they’re saying.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, if Julian Assange were extradited, he would go to trial here. If convicted, he faces up to 175 years in prison. Talk about what you think that trial would look like.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I presume that his lawyers would begin — would raise the constitutional issue right at the beginning. Here’s something that I think has never gone public, but I’ve been well aware of it. The legal aide to my judge, facing these same charges 50 years ago, told me many years later, decades later, that his recommendation was, to Judge Byrne, that — he’s now a law professor, or even retired, I believe — that his recommendation was that our defense brief, that this prosecution was manifestly unconstitutional and that the Espionage Act should be rescinded as unconstitutional right at that, should be followed. And it was his understanding that Matthew Byrne, my judge, agreed with that. But it was Byrne’s first case, and to rule a major piece of legislation like the Espionage Act unconstitutional in the first days of his first case was something he didn’t want to take on. So he took that under advisement, to judge on it at the end of the trial.
And since the trial ended before, just before, it went to the jury or he made his closing comments, because of governmental crimes against me that had just been revealed — crimes, by the way, that have been now revealed to be committed exactly against Julian Assange. These were crimes that led to dismissal of all charges against me, as they should have. He was — Assange, like me, was illegally surveilled. In his case, even his lawyers’ and his doctors’ discussions were surveilled. And efforts — discussions were made of kidnapping and killing him or poisoning, just as a dozen CIA assets were brought up from Miami on May 3rd, 1973, by President Nixon with orders to “incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally,” whatever that means. But, obviously, Assange should be let out for that. The lawyers will undoubtedly move to introduce that evidence, as well, if their constitutional argument is still being under advisement.
That argument has, by the way, never been addressed by the Supreme Court. The classification system rests on no legislation. It’s an executive branch set of regulations, like the nondisclosure agreements in any corporation or union or whatever private group. No legislation backs it, but — as a government regulation. But the First Amendment does keep the government from enacting acts that would limit speech to that extreme extent. Then, while all — perhaps this is pending. Maybe they have that under advisement.
And the acts that should end his prosecution, of listening in in his bathroom, in case he went into there for private discussions with his lawyers, and all that went to the CIA — that should end the trial. If it continues, then, I presume, he will very strong — I am certain he will plead not guilty, not with respect to the facts, which I stipulated entirely I did what I did, but to the very point that John Young made a moment ago, if I may say, correcting you, Amy, we were not admitting to — and Julian would not be admitting to any crime, and would not feel that he made any crime, any more than I did. He had violated regulations which, put into criminal law, constitute a constitutional violation of his rights and of the possibility of democracy. So, it would be pleading not guilty on the grounds that we had violated no constitutional law.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to —
DANIEL ELLSBERG: There would be a lot of discussion of the facts.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan, I wanted to read from the joint open letter from The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde of France, Der Spiegel of Germany and El País of Spain, who wrote against the prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, saying it, quote, “sets a dangerous precedent, [and] threatens to undermine [America’s] First Amendment and the freedom of the press.” Quote, “Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.” It continues, “Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press [in] a democracy.”
Can you talk about having the Pentagon Papers published by The New York Times decades ago, Dan Ellsberg, what it means to have the Times and these other major papers in the world demanding the Biden administration drop this case, and whether you’ve heard from the Biden administration?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, I am very happy that the Times, El País, Le Monde, The Guardian and the other — El País, Le Monde, The Guardian, Times — I’m missing somebody there.
AMY GOODMAN: Spiegel.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Spiegel, Der Spiegel — have all finally realized, the foreign ones, that they can be extradited just like Julian, an Australian, who happened to be in England, and he’s being extradited for this, meaning that any one of those editors is as indictable as he is on exactly the same charges, and their secretaries, on the charges that could be brought against me, of holding this material, not delivering it up, not telling the FBI, etc. So they finally realized what I’ve been telling them for 50 years, literally, since my trial, without success. And that is that the plain language of this act applies to them, as well as to their sources and to their readers, as a matter of fact, or to anybody who handles this information. They paid no attention for 50 years. To my knowledge, none of those papers ever lifted a finger for any of their sources, their legal processes or anything. They don’t seem to regard sources as any responsibility of theirs, even if they’ve gotten a Pulitzer Prize for those efforts. So, no, no effort to their defense, no nothing, nor have they informed themselves about the law. Well, for decades, they probably saw me as crying wolf. There hadn’t yet been a case against a journalist, although the language was right there to do it, if a president came along and a Justice Department that was prepared to experiment with using it more broadly against a journalist. Well, finally, that happened under Trump, and they have suddenly come to realize that he’s right against now extradition and a court case which will raise these issues.
And I am trying to point out to them that it can go even further. I had all of the material that Julian Assange had from Chelsea Manning. I did not publish it, because I was a backup and the newspapers ended up publishing it — except, by the way, Amy, for a particularly atrocious attack, a video and report on Granai in the Middle East war that killed over a hundred women and children. And although it was known that it happened, the report and the video of that, like the “Collateral Murder” video of the killing of the civilians in Iraq, was held. It may not even have been classified, as the “Collateral Murder” wasn’t classified, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t held closely. Chelsea got it only under — and she saw it, initially, and was very moved by it, as she says in her wonderful book, README — I just read that — and describes the impact of seeing that, [inaudible] says, much more than just reading words about it. But I had that at the time, but I didn’t know it. It was among 100,000 documents, and I was merely retaining, and any discussion of what to do about them would await if it was brought otherwise. I didn’t realize — I didn’t know about the Granai video. We’ve been trying to get now — there’s a Freedom of Information Act request for 12 years that hasn’t gotten anywhere. But you and I discussed that when we heard about the attack and that it had not been released for reasons we didn’t know. Turns out it’s still too enciphered. By the way, President Biden has no problem disclosing it any day, and he should have done that — Trump, the same; Obama, the same. It’s been 12 years, and we discussed it here on Democracy Now! But the questions all still remain.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we end the segment, we just have 30 seconds, but, John Young, founder of Cryptome.org, you still have these documents up on Cryptome.org that Julian Assange has been charged for at WikiLeaks?
JOHN YOUNG: Yes, I do.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to take them down?
JOHN YOUNG: No. In fact, I’d just like to —
AMY GOODMAN: Has the government asked you to?
JOHN YOUNG: I’d just like to make a comment quick here that I think that this whole thing just might be called espionage theater. I think the intelligence agencies are looking for a spectacle. In the field of cybersecurity, there’s something called cybersecurity theater, which is fake threats. I think that they’re — if you read these charges, they are repetitious. They cited just a few paragraphs of Title 18. And I think that they want this trial for their own purposes. There was a hearing a few days ago in which all these intelligence people were patting each other on the back at Assange’s expense. So I think the intelligence people want this spectacle to feather their own nest, and it’s an unfair treatment of Assange for this purpose.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, John Young, for joining us, founder of Cryptome.org. And, Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower, if you could stay with us, I want to ask you a question about the growing threat of nuclear war. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Cyndi Lauper singing “True Colors” at the White House Tuesday during the celebration of President Biden signing into law the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects same-sex and interracial marriage rights at the federal level. Lauper founded the nonprofit True Colors Fund to expand education on LGBTQ issues and help to end homelessness for LGBTQ youth.