He is a legend. A man of exceptional moral courage, who risked his life to expose the truth. Fifty-one years ago, Daniel Ellsberg spent night after night at a Xerox machine to photocopy the Pentagon Papers. 7,000 pages of top-secret documents revealing how the U.S. government lied to its citizens about the war in Vietnam and sent thousands of young Americans to die for a war which was hopeless. The publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post unleashed a legendary fight for press freedom that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, after Nixon’s administration tried to block those top-secret revelations, and Daniel Ellsberg was charged with violating a draconian law: the Espionage Act of 1917. He risked life in prison. But the press won. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers, because the press enjoys constitutional protection under the First Amendment. As for Daniel Ellsberg, the Espionage Act case against him collapsed. Half a century later, the United States has charged a journalist, the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, with violating the same law. He too risks life in prison. It is the first time in U.S. history that a journalist – rather than a source, like Ellsberg – has been charged with such Espionage Act violations. Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down for an in-depth interview with Daniel Ellsberg.
I want to go back to 1971, precisely to those nights you spent photocopying the Pentagon Papers. Weren’t you terrified by the possibility of spending your life in prison?
I didn’t want to spend my life in prison, but when it came to risking that to have a chance to shorten a war that was killing hundreds of thousands, ultimately several million people, then the price for one person of losing his freedom or even dying seemed a very natural step to take. I had been trained after all in the military, essentially during peacetime, as a marine, but then in Vietnam I used that training to walk with troops, and see the war up close. You see physical courage on all hands, it’s routine. But in peacetime, civilians aim not to take any risk at all, to their career, to their access, to their livelihood. Often the same people who risked their lives and bodies in combat. The example of young Americans who were going to prison to make the strongest protest they could against the war, and spent years in prison to say that the war was wrong – without their example, I must say, I probably would not have thought of doing what I did, which did expose me to prison. But with their example, it was easy.
It was the courage of people who objected to war…
The people who went to prison were not, on the whole, total pacifists, in the sense that they objected to all wars. They objected to this wrongful, imperial war. And really there’s not a category for that, in conscientious objection, in most countries, and not in the United States: selective objection to war. So, they went to prison for it.
When the New York Times published the first article based on your documents, did you hide in order to avoid being arrested?
When The Times was enjoined – there was an injunction for the first time in our history – to stop publication, then I felt I had to get it to other newspapers, and I gave it to the Washington Post, and then they were enjoined. To get the copies that we had to others, it was necessary for us not to be in the hands of the FBI, so for 13 days we eluded the FBI, with the help of friends, who have never been identified publicly and who don’t want to be identified. But with their help, we got it to 17 other newspapers, and there were two more injunctions, until the government gave up, and realised they couldn’t stop it. When I had got rid of all the papers I had, I surrendered to the authorities after 13 days, and I was indicted.
You didn’t go to prison, but Chelsea Manning spent eight years in prison, and tried to commit suicide three times, Edward Snowden was forced to escape to Russia, and Julian Assange was charged with Espionage Act violations. Did you expect that the United States, for the first time in its history, would charge a journalist for publishing truthful information in the public interest?
The lawyers who were following this at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), were predicting that Donald Trump would prosecute journalists. No president had done that yet, it’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment. It’s obviously unconstitutional, which of course doesn’t slow down Trump, and it is outrageous that Biden has continued to pursue that prosecution. He should have withdrawn the appeal Trump made for extradition of Julian, for prosecution. Biden could just drop it any time, he could do it the next hour. It was very arguably unconstitutional even in my case: I was the first to be indicted under those charges, for leaking, but I had been a former official. I was a source, not a journalist – they don’t regard sources as journalists. You could argue either side in my case, as to whether it was constitutional. In Julian’s [case] there is no argument on the other side: it’s obviously unconstitutional, in America, under our First Amendment. Obama had considered indicting Julian, but had backed off for that very reason, that if they went after Julian on those grounds, they would have no excuse for not going after the New York Times. And they didn’t want to take that on, in part because the New York Times is extremely useful to them, to successive administrations. It basically supports the empire, and doesn’t object to endless amounts of money for so-called defense. It’s a very useful outlet for them, even though it occasionally prints things they would rather not have out.
Why do you think the Biden administration doesn’t drop the case?
Biden, when he was vice president, at the very beginning, in 2010, called Julian Assange a high-tech terrorist, which is absurd. He is very much against leaks, and actually all presidents get very angry at leaks that they don’t want out, but they recoil from the prospect of clearly unconstitutional action. Trump didn’t, and Biden should have, but he hasn’t so far. It’s still not too late for him to correct that, but I don’t expect that he will. He shows so much animus toward Julian, that I don’t expect it. I don’t know why entirely, by the way. In general, in foreign policy, he has not shown anything progressive or favorable. In domestic policy, in many ways he has acted better than almost anyone expected, but on foreign policy, there is nothing to be said for him: it’s the same as Obama’s, which was not good, and pretty much the same as Trump’s.
According to Yahoo! News, the CIA tried to poison Julian Assange or kidnap him. If the United States can extradite him, do you expect a fair trial?
A fair trial? Oh, there’s no chance for him to have a fair trial, any more than any of the other people charged and convicted under the Espionage Act, or even me. I am the only one who, in a way, ‘got away with it’, in the sense of not being put in prison for life or for a long time by the administration, and that was because of a very unusual set of events, but they’re the same as we’ve learned about Julian. Just as they were considering kidnapping him from the Ecuadorian embassy, possibly killing him, possibly poisoning, but also even considering shoot-outs of various kinds that would get him, I [too] had thirteen men, twelve or thirteen, brought from Miami, CIA assets, one of them at least a CIA agent right at that time, but they had all worked for the CIA in the Bay of Pigs. They were brought up with orders to ‘incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg, totally’. When I asked the prosecutor: ‘What did that mean? Kill me?’, he said: ‘Well, the words were ‘incapacitate you totally’, but you know, those who work for the CIA never use the word ‘kill’. But they were killers, those people had been involved in efforts to assassinate Castro, and even Trujillo. They didn’t [kill me]. Again, I escaped that fate, because at the last moment they thought they were being set up to be caught, so I was lucky, over and over again. None of the other people indicted have been lucky, they all have been convicted essentially, in many cases by plea bargains, because they have been threatened with much greater sentences. Life [sentences] for treason or espionage, and they have accepted smaller charges, but that still kept them in prison for years, in many cases. It’s like my friend Mordechai Vanunu, in Israel, who revealed the Israeli nuclear program. He was in jail for 17 years, of which 11 and a half were in solitary confinement, mostly in a cell six feet by nine feet, two metres by three metres, if you can imagine that. So these governments are extremely vindictive about the idea of their guilty secrets [coming out], evidence of their crimes, their lies, their breaking treaties. They don’t want those to come out, because the public might make a fuss about it. Actually when it does get out, very unhappily, I have to say, nothing much does usually happen. I can’t say that it does have the effect that I wish it did, revealing the truth. People kind of accept it and go along. Nevertheless, there is a chance that it will help, and where enormous numbers of lives are involved, it’s worth the price, and the risk.
So you think there is no chance at all of a fair trial for Julian Assange…
Because under the Espionage Act, the defendant has no chance to tell the Jury why they did what they did, or what they were hoping to achieve, what the benefits to the public were hoped to be and in some cases were realised, and what harm there really was, which was usually nothing, to the national security. That is aside from the fact, as you mentioned, that in his case, as in mine, there were crimes against him: conspiracies to harm him, totally, criminally, as was true in my case. But in my case, when it came out, the case was dropped.
In your case the Espionage Act case collapsed because of Nixon’s Plumbers, who broke into your doctor’s office, basically…
That was one of the things. That alone did not lead the judge to dismiss the case. That was one of the first things revealed, that they had burglarised my former psychoanalyst’s office to get information to blackmail me into silence. Not to smear me, but to threaten to smear me, so I would no longer reveal secrets of the Nixon administration. But there were other things: warrantless wiretaps, which were clearly illegal at that time, use of the CIA to do a psychological profile on me, to see how they could manipulate me or blackmail me, what my vulnerabilities might be, and as I said, this effort to incapacitate me. All those things led the judge to say: these bizarre circumstances offend the sense of justice, and the charges should be dismissed with prejudice, meaning I couldn’t be tried again on those charges.
Whereas in the case of Julian Assange, the revelations that the CIA tried, had plans to kill him didn’t make the judge drop the case…
She didn’t really consider them, seriously, which seems shocking. I mean, British law is different from American, in the sense: they don’t have a First Amendment. We had a revolution, and we got a First Amendment, [we had] a war of independence, they didn’t, and they don’t have a First Amendment, a freedom of the press provision. In theory, Julian or I would almost surely be regarded as having violated the British Official Secrets Act, if we had done this in Britain – their Act is much tougher against free speech and against the press there. So maybe the judge couldn’t take that seriously, being British. But the idea of illegally overhearing a defendant’s discussions with his attorneys, and with his doctors, and everything he said with every visitor – I visited him twice in the Ecuadorian embassy, and I am sure it was recorded – that, obviously, even in Britain [he smiles], or anywhere else, should lead to the dropping of the case, except in a clear-cut police society, let’s say, like East Germany used to be, for example.
When you revealed the Pentagon Papers, the Papers unleashed a legendary press freedom case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the United States can extradite Julian Assange, do you think the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favour of press freedom in his case?
You remember, I was tried half a century ago, exactly, 51 years now. At that time, the Supreme Court almost certainly would have thrown out a case involving journalists. As I said, they probably, but not as certainly, would have thrown my case out as a source, but in the case of a journalist, definitely. And no president has been willing to do that since, until Trump, and now Biden. Biden is now doing it. If Julian Assange is extradited and prosecuted in America, I would say, with the mood now, since 9/11, with these last twenty years, he might well be convicted, although he shouldn’t be. The First Amendment would then be eliminated. What that means is: not only sources, but journalists would then have to fear being prosecuted and convicted for doing their job in questioning the government, putting out information the top government doesn’t want. This is a government that we know conducts aggressive wars, criminal aggressive wars, as in Iraq, absolutely, clear-cut aggression, and has very, very little concern for the people of those areas, as they are showing in Afghanistan, right now. It’s shocking that they are subjecting the Afghans now, punitively, to a regime of hunger and cold, in keeping their funds frozen, showing how little concern they have ever had for the Afghan people, as they showed for 20 years, bombing them, with drones and raids and all that. In short: it’s a government that needs to be exposed, and it won’t be very much if…if Julian’s case is a real turning point here, then we will essentially have a press like that of Stalin’s Russia.