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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    Daniel Ellsberg and Patricia Ellsberg, subjects of the best documentary feature, 'The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,' arrived for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 7. The WikiLeaks documents, Mr. Ellsberg says, 'look very familiar to me' as 'describing a war that is as thoroughly stalemated.'
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Before WikiLeaks, before the Afghanistan war, before the Internet, a defense analyst named Daniel Ellsberg rocked America in 1971 when he leaked to the newspapers of the day a top-secret study of US decisionmaking in Vietnam. The documents came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.”

Some 7,000 pages in all, the Pentagon Papers have long been considered the most important leak in Pentagon history, showing that senior Pentagon and administration officials were misleading Americans about the course of the Vietnam War. They recast perceptions of the war and and charted new legal ground, with President Nixon going to the courts in a failed attempt to try and stop The New York Times from publishing later installments.

Now, as WikiLeaks releases 91,000 classified documents about US military involvement in Afghanistan, the Pentagon Papers are once again entering the American lexicon. Are the WikiLeaks documents the most important Pentagon leak since the Pentagon Papers?

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The Monitor's Gloria Goodale talked to Mr. Ellsberg, who now lives in Kensington, Calif., for his unique perspective.

On the size and nature of the leak

This is the first really large-scale, unauthorized disclosure leak since the Pentagon papers. There has been nothing like it in the 40 years in between. So, I’m glad to see that new technology being exploited here. I couldn’t have released on this scale 40 years ago. In fact, I couldn’t have done what I did do without Xerox at that time. Ten years earlier I couldn’t have put out the Pentagon Papers. But this is much larger in volume and it’s more current....

On the similarities between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks documents

[The documents] look very familiar to me. Different places and names, but they are describing a war that is as thoroughly stalemated as was the case 40 years ago and more in Vietnam.

On the differences

The Pentagon Papers were high-level, top-secret documents of decisionmaking estimates. They were alternative strategies. They were being debated, and they were presidential decisions of various kinds. It was a more revealing set of documents about the way in which the country was being deceived into continuing a hopeless war. So, you could say that the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan remain to be revealed, and I hope someone does that. And, for that matter, the Pentagon Papers of Iraq we have yet to see. But this is a very good start. The drama of such a huge volume being released is giving the public media attention and the public attention that President Nixon’s injunctions gave to the Pentagon Papers. So, I’m glad to see the press really is taking the content of these documents seriously so far and not focusing solely on the question of the leak itself or the process.

On why is it important that this kind of information gets out

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.

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.

If Bradley Manning [who is charged with leaking a video of an incident in the Iraq war to WikiLeaks, and is a suspect in the new Afghanistan leaks] is quoted correctly by the person who informed on him, he said he was willing to go to prison to tell the American people the truth about things that had sickened him to learn, and that he felt were criminal in a war that he felt should be ended. When I read that, I recognized the first person I had read of in 40 years that was in the same state of mind that I was in in 1969 and '71. I expected to go to prison for the rest of my life, and I thought the risk was worth taking....

On whether he ever regretted what he did

No, I have regretted that I waited. I wish very much I had put it out before we escalated in Vietnam – that I had put it out in '64. In '69, I gave it to the Senate, and I do regret that I didn’t give it to press right away, because another year and a half was wasted waiting for them to take the political risks of holding hearings, which they initially promised and which they backed off from because of the charges they thought they would face. They would be accused of risking lives by putting out this information – as The Times was accused by Nixon, falsely, as it turned out....

When I hear these charges that it is irresponsible to have done this by [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange ... I don’t think that charge comes very well from from people who are so irresponsible as to put our troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. The charge we hear – that his release is risking lives – is almost ludicrous....

On whether the Internet would have changed the Pentagon Papers

No, because they were published in their scale by newspapers and Beacon press, which paid a very heavy price economically for publishing them, although it survived. So they did get out. But information on this scale couldn’t have been available then. In a way, it was good that they didn’t all come out at once, because the president was tempted to enjoin them – which was unconstitutional and was rejected by the Supreme Court, but it gave the whole process a drama it wouldn’t have had otherwise. So it was good that Nixon tried to enjoin them, because it attracted the attention of the public to what the papers were saying in a way that might not have happened otherwise.

In this case, there are questions that can be raised by such a large-scale disclosure. It’s not something I would advise in general – to put out information they haven’t had the opportunity to read entirely and judge themselves as I was able to do with the Pentagon Papers. But the volume has had the effect of dramatizing those and drawing attention to what is not there to be revealed, which is: a good reason for staying [in Afghanistan]....

On what questions the WikiLeaks documents raise

Two are beginning to be asked and deserve consideration by congress. One: Is our presence not continuing to strengthen the Taliban, and has anything changed in last six months? Second: [Sen. John] Kerry [(D) of Massachusetts] seems to show some willingness to investigate the real role of Pakistan.

What really needs to be investigated is not whether Pakistan has a separate foreign policy from the US. They are a separate country and are entitled to see their interests differently from the United States. But exactly what are they doing? We know apparently they are supporting the Afghan Taliban, which they created with our encouragement, even while they have been opposing the Pakistan Taliban, which is a separate entity. They are taking credit for opposing [the Pakistan Taliban] because they threaten [Pakistan]. They are opposing the people who threaten regime change in Pakistan. We’ve been trying to encourage them as seeing Afghan Taliban as their enemy, but they don’t see them as their enemy.

So the question is: What does that say about our chances of suppressing the Afghan Taliban? With Pakistan supporting them, we will not be able to do it. The winnability of this war is zero. So what do we do then? Should we be giving Pakistan money to oppose our own efforts in Afghanistan? That isn’t too hard to answer, but it seems to be too hard for our Congress to answer. Congress should investigate. What should our policy be in light of the fact that we are at odds with our ally? It deserves investigation, and it hasn’t happened. Apparently, the leak here to the Times has stimulated new interest in investigating that in the Senate.

On whether he is optimistic about the power of raw information in a democracy

I still put my hopes in it, and in democracy – our democracy. A democracy requires this information. Unauthorized disclosures are the lifeblood of a republic. That remains true. We can’t rely only on the authorized handouts from the government any more now than we could under [British King] George III. The First Amendment was a marvelous invention, one of our best contributions to human society. And it deserves to be instituted in every country. Not many have a First Amendment, we are very lucky in that....

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