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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Daniel Ellsberg On The Republic We Couldn’t Keep

Brianna Sacks, Will Federman |
April 9, 2014 | 10:31 a.m. PDT

News Editors

(Daniel Ellsberg at USC Annenberg/Alan Mittelstaedt, Neon Tommy)
(Daniel Ellsberg at USC Annenberg/Alan Mittelstaedt, Neon Tommy)

Forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg lived in a different America. An America, he says, where whistleblowers were not tried as spies or traitors by their own country for releasing documents unveiling government secrets tied to failing policies.

“A lot of foolish people who use the term traitor are no more traitors than I am, and I am not a traitor,” he said. “And I am sorry 40 years later to be in a talk where the question is whether I was a traitor or not, it’s absurd.”

Ellsberg, who shook the foundation of the Nixon Administration and fanned the flames of the anti-Vietnam War movement in 1971 when he released the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” rests his lean, hunched, 83-year-old frame against a desk in an empty classroom as he prepares for an event titled, “Patriot Or Traitor: Whistleblowing And Journalism,” at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

That term, “traitor,” which so “disgusts” Ellsberg, has been recently tossed around in the news after the disclosure of the National Security Agency's PRISM surveillance program.

SEE ALSO: NSA Whistleblower Warns USC Students Of Government's Power

There’s nothing reserved about Ellsberg. One day after his 83rd birthday, Ellsberg is well aware of his status as a piece of living history. He stands in stark contrast to some of his contemporaries – confrontational, but far less aggressive.

Ellsberg is unwavering in his belief that a new generation of whistleblowers, including Pf. Chelsea Manning, convicted of providing classified documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, who blew open the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, are the true patriots. Ellsberg says that he identifies with both whistleblowers, despite different backgrounds and political climates.

The nightmare that haunts what he calls the “developing monarchy” of the U.S. government is just how many other whistleblowers are lurking in the halls of power.

America is a democracy in decline, he says. It’s one that turns its back on those who do a “public service.” He rails off the pillars of decline: the system of checks and balances has eroded, our government can legally spy and keep mountains of secrets from its own people, the executive branch has become an empire and a culture of secrecy has become normalized.

In short, he says, “The government has failed the constitution.”

“There is culpable ignorance,” he said flatly about the public’s knowledge of the current government. “Obama doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt at this point. Behind the veil of secrecy, extremely bad, disastrous policy-making goes on. It’s criminal, stupid, ignorant, and not subjected to larger debate even within government or the public.”

Ellsberg was an American military analyst, and a protégé of Henry Kissinger in 1971, when he handed thousands of classified documents to a New York Times reporter that painted a harsh, realistic and unflattering picture of the government’s role in the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg was the first whistleblower to be tried under the Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. It marked the first time in American history that a citizen was tried under the antiquated law for non-spying activity. But fortunately for Ellsberg, his case was thrown out. After a judge learned that his claims were true, that the government had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg and other citizens, all charges were dropped.

“The government stigmatizes whistleblowers but they provide a degree of realism,” he said in an exclusive Neon Tommy interview. “The government is able to keep secrets very well and they had been lying to the public about Vietnam and the prospects were as bad as they actually were.”

Ellsberg doesn’t know what to make of President Obama’s America. He passionately cautions against Obama’s “monarchy” that has prosecuted eight individuals under the Espionage Act for releasing classified information.

Ellsberg compared the President’s wielding of the Espionage Act to the British Official Secrets Act.

“We didn’t have this kind of prosecution of leaking in World War II, Vietnam or Korea, but Obama is doing what Bush couldn’t have come close to doing,” he said.

In a post 9/11 World, the U.S. government allowed sweeping surveillance powers of constitutional questionability that were unimaginable decades ago, he explained.

Ellsberg argues that if a government official publicly came forward and had told the public about the executive branch’s real plans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might have not had happened.

“We might have had the ability to avert the disastrous, bloody war. If any one of the thousands of government officials who knew what we were getting into in Iraq blew the whistle, we could have gotten out of it,” he said, eyes widening.

And history has a way of repeating itself. Ellsberg often wonders what the country would have looked like had he released his “safe full of documents,” known as the Pentagon Papers, years earlier.

“Had that information been made available in ’65, it’s hard to believe things would have gotten as bad,” said Ellsberg. “Had I put the documents out at immediately, I find it hard to believe that Johnson could have escalated the way he did.”

SEE ALSO: Snowden's Lawyer, Whistleblowers Converge At USC

Even then, in the darkest days of Nixonian dishonesty, Ellsberg said he lived in a country where Congress still operated independently from the executive branch. Where the Supreme Court upheld the first amendment and the right of free speech. Where there was still some semblance of democratic checks and balances, and a higher degree of accountability.

“Independent branches of government?” Ellsberg asks. “Right now it’s a mockery of independent branches of government. We’ve had an Executive Branch coup since Sept. 11.”

Ellsberg has been a staunch supporter of Snowden, who has been charged by Federal prosecutors in absentia, but not yet prosecuted under the Espionage Act. The same goes for Chelsea Manning, who was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to 35 years in a military court under the Espionage Act.

Both men, he says, acted in an era where hole-ridden government justifications for monitoring American citizens – ordering communication companies to turn over information and collecting thousands of bytes of digital data – was waved through by a "submissive Congress" and met by an “apathetic press” that does not have the courage to serve as a government oversight agency.

His one regret of leaking the Pentagon Papers was not doing it sooner.

“My colleagues and I violated the constitutional oath we had taken, as did thousands of others,” he said of waiting years to disseminate the documents to the public to show the government’s dubious legal policies. “And reporters in Washington failed across the board on Iraq in exactly the same way they had failed in Vietnam.”

Craning forward, Ellsberg, asks for one question to be repeated: Is it too late to rein in the ever-expanding executive branch?

“Perhaps if we went back to the ‘70s,” he chuckled.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal and the debacle of the Vietnam War, the Senate established the Church Committee in 1975 to study government intelligence programs. It eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, tasked with the oversight of the CIA, NSA and other intelligence arms of the Executive Branch.

For a very short time after the Vietnam War, Ellsberg says, people were more fervently aware of how their government was lying to them, and the utter lack of accountability that enabled those operations.

Ellsberg now lives in an era of hacktivists and technology that act as intermediaries between whistleblowers and the press. And the power of a free Internet is not lost on Ellsberg. He has his own Twitter account, was participant on Reddit's AMA, and has found an ally in WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Ellsberg's Freedom of the Press Foundation, of which Edward Snowden is a board member, helped fund Assange's operations after banks began to turn a cold shoulder to WikiLeaks.

“You have to have a WikiLeaks in this age,” he said. “If WikiLeaks had existed back then, I would have turned to them before the New York Times, which let months go by.”

Ellsberg's foundation also helps journalists use technology against government agencies that subvert Big Data against its citizenry, offering encryption advice and tools for practicing journalists and activists.

Later in the evening, Ellsberg finally realized why the title of his USC talk struck such a nerve. It recalled a time in his life where he had to defend himself against public allegations of treason, a period he says should have ended with Nixon.

It was also a time where Ellsberg was often called another term synonymous with traitor: leaker.

“My wife hated that term because it made me sound incontinent,” Ellsberg recalled.

“But I guess it's better than traitor.”


Reach Editor-in-Chief Brianna Sacks here.

Reach Editor Will Federman here. And follow him on Twitter.



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