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WikiLeaks Q&A with Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers

Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the most significant leak in Pentagon history – the 1971 Pentagon Papers – spoke to the Monitor about how important the WikiLeaks documents are and whether WikiLeaks is the Afghanistan war's Pentagon Papers.

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One of the most important messages or conclusions to be drawn from the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago is what they didn’t reveal, and that was: In some 7,000 pages of high-level discussions, they didn’t reveal a single compelling or even remotely realistic basis for continuing the war. Nor did they answer the question of: Why are we there? And that’s the conclusion: that there wasn’t an answer to be given. It couldn’t be inferred from a very small release of papers, say 10 pages or 20 pages. You really had to see that, year after year, nobody was coming up with or reporting any kind of success.

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And the same is true with this six-year compilation to show that, year after year, the process really isn’t changing, and that the more we increased our presence in Afghanistan, the stronger the Taliban was growing. I’m sure, by the way, that this is still the case. A leak I would like to see right now is what the change in Taliban strength has been over these past seven months of President Obama’s new strategy. Don’t wait for the administration to release that because I’m sure it would be very embarrassing to the strategy. I’m sure that their official estimates of Taliban strength as of July are greater than the estimate in December when Obama initiated that strategy.

Now, why does that have to be leaked? Because that undercuts the demand by the administration for more money. It indicates that the more money we put over there, and the more troops we put over there, and the more airplane missions we fly killing civilians as reported in these reports, the stronger the Taliban gets. In effect, we are recruiting for the Taliban, and we are recruiting much faster and broader than we are killing or depleting or discouraging them. That was true in Vietnam.

But what these documents do show with all their limitations as field reports is that’s what has been happening for six years, and there is no reason for that to change. So, the money that Congress just voted yesterday [Tuesday], there is every reason to believe that that will recruit more Taliban, and we should ask ourselves: Can we afford this? Can we afford to strengthen the Taliban over there? At this vast expense, and at the cost of the lives of our soldiers and many more civilians and Afghans? That’s a rhetorical question. And yet Congress – the majority, at least – seem determined to ignore it....

On where to draw the line on protecting secrets in the interest of national security

We do have laws against revelations about communications intelligence. There were leaks of things under [President George W.] Bush that should not have been released. Things like Condoleeza Rice confirming that we did have a mole high in Osama bin Laden’s outfit – that shouldn’t have been confirmed. Sen. [Richard] Shelby [(R) of Alabama] should not have confirmed that we were listening in on bin Laden’s communications. That was covered by that law and of course, that didn’t lead to any prosecution in either of those cases. We have a law against revelation of covert, CIA-type intelligence operations. Valerie Plame, for instance – the White House should not have released that, and her role was necessarily secret as she was investigating proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that had and should have been kept secret. There was where the line should have been drawn. Those are laws that should have been obeyed. We have a law against the revelation of nuclear-weapons data, and I’ve always supported that law. For instance, when the Progressive magazine was accused under that law – of revealing how to build a hydrogen bomb – I refused to support that revelation, and, on the contrary, condemned them for doing it.... So, in general, it’s not that hard to decide what should be kept secret.