Political secrets that could lead to illegal or catastrophic actions must be revealed, no matter the personal cost, Daniel Ellsberg told a capacity audience in Dodds Auditorium March 8.
Ellsberg, who in 1971 released the top-secret Pentagon Papers detailing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, was interviewed by Bart Gellman ’82, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School. Together, they discussed the implications of leaking political secrets and the parallels between the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks.
“I identify very much with Bradley Manning,” said Ellsberg of the Army intelligence analyst who faces a court-martial on charges of obtaining secret war logs and State Department cables about Afghanistan and Iraq that subsequently were released by WikiLeaks. “Despite the stress of his position, he did the right thing.”
Ellsberg emphasized the importance of public employees leaking such information, highlighting situations in which it is necessary, such as government misrepresentations of the truth.
“[If] the effect of the lies is to get us into not just a war but a disastrous, unjust war,” he said, “that’s when they should consider giving up their job, clearance, career, and perhaps their marriage and their children’s education.”
Ellsberg said that such sacrifice is rare, and may become even more so. He noted that the Obama administration has cracked down on leaks, invoking the Espionage Act six times, and predicted that Congress would pass an official secrets act if the Supreme Court overturns recent prosecutions.
As a result of these prosecutions, he said, releasing information anonymously through an organization such as WikiLeaks “is probably the future of leaking.”
Gellman pointed out that WikiLeaks has been criticized for indiscriminately providing information that endangered covert operatives and fueled terrorist operations, but Ellsberg defended Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, as merely playing the role of a publisher. Ellsberg said there is no evidence that any individuals have been harmed as a result of the documents’ release.
“All this talk of ‘indiscriminate’ was the opposite of the truth,” he said. “I am confident that he does not have an intent to harm the United States.”
And although Ellsberg does not agree with everything that Assange did – for example, failing to sufficiently redact names – he maintained the importance of transparency, citing a sense of obligation as his own motivation in 1971.
“I wasn’t making decisions about policy in general or secrecy in general. I was confronting what I thought my options were, what my obligations and responsibilities were,” he said. “If it’s criminal, it should not be illegal to reveal it.”