Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers while working at RAND, returns to Santa Monica in defense of government whistleblowers

Daniel Ellsberg believes the First Amendment should protect those who expose government wrongdoing  Photo by the Tully Center for Free Speech

Daniel Ellsberg believes the First Amendment should protect those who expose government wrongdoing
Photo by the Tully Center for Free Speech

Daniel Ellsberg was the original Edward Snowden.

While working in 1971 as a U.S. military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Ellsberg leaked to the press a top-secret Pentagon study exposing that the White House had lied to Congress about the Vietnam War.

For leaking the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison under the Espionage Act of 1917, the same law used to execute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, turn Snowden into a fugitive and send former U.S Army Sgt. Chelsea Manning to prison for decades.

Under the Espionage Act, Ellsberg was not allowed to discuss his whistleblower motivation. The case against Ellsberg was dismissed, however, after the revelation of government misconduct that included attempts to discredit him by stealing medical records and even plans to cause him physical harm.

Ellsberg speaks Sunday at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club about the increasingly harsh treatment of government whistleblowers in the digital age. Organized by KPFK 90.7-FM, the panel discussion is moderated by “Uprising!” host Sonali Kolhatkar and includes media critic Norman Solomon and Freedom of the Press Foundation co-founder Trevor Timm.

There’s one local demographic in particular Ellsberg said he hopes to engage: employees of the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg has some unfinished business.

“I’ve never been allowed in the building to explain why I did what I did and subject myself to critical questioning. I don’t regard them as foes or opponents and would be delighted to answer any questions they have,” Ellsberg said. “I’ll waive the [event] fee for any RAND employee, and they don’t have to be friendly.”

— Joe Piasecki

Manning is facing 35 years in prison and it is doubtful Snowden would fare much better. Former CIA chief David Petraeus gives classified information to his girlfriend/biographer and pleads guilty to a misdemeanor. What gives?

No amount of public pressure would get Snowden out of an isolation cell. He’d be in it for the rest of his life, I believe. Really for punishment, but on the excuse that he has secrets they don’t want him to impart to anybody.

I don’t think Petraeus should go to jail. I don’t think Snowden should go to jail. In Snowden’s case they have the excuse that he did publish it in the newspapers and to the world. You know, the law doesn’t make a distinction about who you disclose it to. I don’t think Snowden should face a charge of anything more than what Petraeus faced, which was one year on a misdemeanor, whereas with the Espionage Act charges that Snowden is facing, each count carries a 10-year sentence. That was the case in my trial. I faced 11 charges, each with a 10-year possibility, and one conspiracy charge for five years — a total of 115 years.

I think, from talking to him [in Moscow last December], that Snowden would actually return for a plea bargain with no more than a year or two. He says he doesn’t want to submit to a longer sentence because he doesn’t want to discourage other people from being whistleblowers. And I agree with him.

The really surprising thing about Petraeus’ indictment and plea bargain was that he was indicted at all. Such senior people leak every day somewhere in the government, the national security apparatus. Every day some self-serving official is putting out a leak of highly classified information, rarely as highly classified as Petraeus exposed to his biographer, but such people are never indicted for that.

People like Snowden who do it for non-selfish reasons — whistleblowers who are trying to reveal government wrongdoing or a crime, a violation of the Constitution — those people, under Obama, are now indicted regularly. [Not counting Petraeus] there have been nine such prosecutions under Obama, compared to three under all previous presidents put together. My prosecution under Nixon was the first.

Why do you think the American people accept such treatment of whistleblowers?

We don’t have a lot to say about it. Snowden and Manning in particular have a lot of support. Millions of people admire them and are grateful for what they did and don’t think they should face prison, but that hasn’t had a lot of influence so far.

It’s really not easy to explain why Obama has had such a vendetta against whistleblowers and leakers. Other presidents were very angry at them too because it exposes policy that’s questionable at best, actually incriminating them in some cases. But they haven’t felt they had a law with constitutionality that would stand up in the Supreme Court. That’s why there were no prosecutions before mine. Mine was dismissed on governmental misconduct, so it didn’t get to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has never reviewed the constitutionality of one of these cases. It has never ruled on the issue of whether it can be illegal to expose government illegality that is covered by classification. I believe the First Amendment should protect the true revelation of criminal or other wrongful action by the government; Obama is choosing to interpret it as not protecting that. But when you expose unconstitutional behavior — criminal behavior — you shouldn’t go to prison for it.

Considering what’s happening with WikiLeaks, do you feel the release of something like the Pentagon Papers would be handled differently today?

There’s no question that Obama would prosecute me as tenaciously as Nixon did. And most of the things Nixon did against me and for which he faced impeachment — the crimes that led to the end of the trial — those have all been legalized now. CIA assets working for the White House going into my former doctor’s office in L.A, that’s been legalized under the PATRIOT Act. The attempt by some of these same people to assault me or kill me in May 1972 hasn’t been formally legalized by Congress, but President Obama has asserted the right over and over now to decide who should be killed by special forces, drones or the CIA — a kill list.

That’s an amazing assertion of presidential power that can’t be within the rights of a president of a republic, can’t be fitted into the Constitution as written. It’s a king-like, dictatorial power. Where’s the protest against that? Where are Congress and the courts and the public? When you hold up the threat of terrorism, most people seem to agree that there is no restraint on the president in pursuit of national security.

“The Current War on Whistleblowers” event begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club, 1210 4th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20. Visit kpfk.org for details.