Following Pfc. Bradley Manning’s statement in court, Daniel Ellsberg, who blew the whistle on the Pentagon Papers, shares his reaction to the statement and thoughts on his case. He draws comparisons between his case forty years ago and Manning’s today.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: What was your initial reaction to hearing Bradley Manning’s statement read in court?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: There were differences in our circumstances, which made for differences in what we did, but the basic situation was simply identical. Bradley and I were both involved in ongoing wars, which we’d entered by a virtue of government executive deception and was continuing deception. In his case, he was looking at field level material, which revealed a great pattern of war crimes, domestic crimes, international crimes, torture, primarily, assassination and coercion of other states, which is not necessarily criminal but as he put it great power behavior toward other states, which was through almost every page of the Pentagon Papers in terms of our relations with the so-called government of South Vietnam, which we regarded contemptuously as a corrupt puppet of ours.
And it was information that would prolong the war if it remained secret. It was information that clearly the government intended to remain covered up. It was not secret by mistake or inadvertence. It was information that revealed crimes, lies, dereliction of duty in many ways. It would at the very least be embarrassing to the party in power if it didn’t lead to impeachment or prosecution.
So, it was information that called for investigation by Congress and the public and change. But change was not possible without information and information which resided in desks or in his case computer networks was being carefully protected by them and there was no way for Congress to do its function or the public to be the sovereign public in influencing policy unless someone took the personal risks of violating administrative regulations and putting out truths the administration didn’t want told.
Now, in this administration, it’s unusually clear that there is a campaign going on against whistleblowing, which is to say a campaign against truth-telling. It’s a war on truth-telling or a war on truth. Specifically, the truth that the government doesn’t want told because it’s embarrassing or incriminating and undermines the policies, which are being carried out, which policies are greatly invalid at best, ruthless and hopeless. So, we faced exactly the same situation together, as did thousands and thousands of others.
When Bradley says in his statement I was actively participating in something I was totally against, he was in the position I’m sure of thousands if not tens of thousands of others. There were even more millions perhaps who didn’t think of what they were doing and didn’t ask the question of whether it was right or wrong or legal or illegal. They just did what they were told. But there were tens of thousands at least who would recognize as did Bradley and as did I that they were looking at documentation of wrongful behavior that they should not be part of and specifically that they should really expose and resist and no resistance by anyone was possible unless someone exposed it. And, from experience, if I didn’t do it or if he didn’t do it, it was clear it wasn’t going to be done.
It was up to us to do it and the reason that so many would withdraw from it were the very obvious risks. In his case, not in his statement but in his earlier three years ago statements, he said I am ready to go to prison or even being executed for putting these out and that I recognize as the same mood I was in in 1969 and 1971. In his case, he came to that realization at 22. I was twice his age, forty, when I really realized that and I am giving credit for being more experienced. Well, I give him credit for coming to the same right judgment at such an early age. But, in both cases, it took a war to make us see the light and to see that our duty was not primarily to our boss or even to the president but rather to the Constitution and to the country.
We had not just in concept but in our very oaths, highest oath was to the Constitution of the United States. Both of us, and everybody else, had been violating that, day after day. After all, all the people who watched with him the video in his SCIF [intelligence facility where he worked] – the video that was later called “Collateral Murder” – knew that there was something wrong there. That was the burden of their discussion with his boss and everybody else. He was the one person, who investigated it, and acted on what he saw.
I was not only an infantry officer, but I had been the battalion training officer of the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines in peacetime, 1956, so I was in charge of training. I knew about the laws of war. I knew what I trained my own Marines at that time. WikiLeaks was criticized for calling the video “Collateral Murder” rather than simply the euphemistic “collateral damage.” What he reports in his statement is that he thought clearly as a specialist what I knew well as an infantry commander; that what we were looking at in that video was not only horrible as most things are in combat but was illegal. He particularly noted the wounded man unarmed in civilian clothes crawling to find help at a time when the people in the helicopter knew there was a ground squad very close on its way to take prisoners or help the wounded. Instead, they first joked, “Pick up the gun so I can kill you,” but since there was no gun around, they killed him anyways. He was a Reuters journalist who was killed. A wounded unarmed man. Wounded, no threat to anyone. I knew looking at that I was looking at murder. Not all killing in war is murder. In fact, not all killing of civilians in war inadvertently is murder. But a lot of it killing is murder and deliberate killing of a man under those circumstances is simply murder.
No one was prosecuted for that video evidence. No one was investigated. No one at all of any of the crimes that Bradley Manning revealed of turning people over with the knowledge that they would be tortured by the Iraqi authorities. It is criminal to do that. It is obligatory to investigate it. And the order which the WikiLeaks documents in Iraq show was given in every case so there was a systematic high level order was do not investigate. That is an illegal order. I knew that. Anyone who knew the statute would know that. Perhaps, most people might or might not know that but Bradley Manning reports his own reaction to that was this must be reported and investigatd and I will have to do it since my chain of command is unwilling to do it. He is the one person who was actually obeying the law and I mean going up the chain of command to the President of the United States, who is violating that statute right now in failing to investigate the crimes that are clearly documented in his own classified documents and in his video, which was unclassified.
GOSZTOLA: And you think Manning deserves some kind of award for what he did?
ELLSBERG: I would say that Bradley Manning deserves, for all the material that he put out, deserves the congressional Medal of Honor. Realistically, I don’t imagine Congress awarding him. But, in terms of what he deserves, the Medal of Honor, which is a congressional act, is given to members of the military who exhibit exceptional courage in carrying out their duties in a war. That’s exactly did do. In fact, it’s often observed or sometimes observed that these are not wars that have produced known heroes like Audie Murphy in the second World War or Sergeant York in the first World War. We don’t have names. There are undoubtedly people, who have shown great courage on the battlefield. I’m sure there are thousands of such people probably, whose names we don’t know.
It is very rare to see such courage in the form of moral courage or civil courage about behaving in ways that contradict the desires of your boss or your president. And, that does occur but it’s much rarer. I would say in the case of the military man here like Bradley Manning we do have a named hero of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and his name is Bradley Manning.
GOSZTOLA: What is your reaction to what Manning had to say about uncovering details on opponents of the Iraqi prime minister being turned over to the police for detention and possible torture? He had “anti-Iraqi” literature translated and it wasn’t criminal at all, but people behind this kind of literature were being rounded up by police.
ELLSBERG: Manning, having served a role as turning over certain Iraqis to the police as “suspects,” took the initiative of having the material he had put out translated and read it and discovered it was an academic treatise on corruption in the government, something for which they should not have been imprisoned and something for which they should not have been tortured. So, he ran to his commander to show him this material and was told forget that. Don’t worry about it. Just get more suspects for the Iraqis. That’s our job.
Now, every aspect of that represented two things: crime and coverup. Every aspect was criminal him for him, for Iraqis and for the officer. And it is very clear that it was the intent to cover it up, what had been investigated by his initiative. So he realized at that point I was actively participating that was wrong, that I was totally against. And as I say, I am sure many people realize that really but what he did next was unusual and that was to act on it. He had already made contact with WikiLeaks so he decided to continue that and put out the State Department documents.
GOSZTOLA: Manning had a top secret clearance and access to much more information than what was released.
ELLSBERG: He worked in a SCIF and had a top secret security clearance, but the material he put out was, at most, secret. He is often described as someone who was a young 22-year-old specialist who put out everything he could get his hands on. That is the opposite of the truth except for the age. The fact he was in a SCIF tells you right away that he had information that was much higher than secret.
He saw that the cables he was putting out did not even have designators on them like “NODIS” —no distribution—or “LIMDIS”—limited distribution. These were “SIPDIS,” which meant to him that they were available to over 400,000 other members on this secret network. In other words, it was relatively non-sensitive material, though still protected. Much of what he put out was unclassified but some of it was secret.
I personally, from my own experience, would not have expected very embarrassing or incriminating material to be only secret. When I was a special assistant to the secretary of defense in the Pentagon for more than 40 years earlier, I didn’t have time to read anything that was only secret. It had to be at least “LIMDIS” or “NODIS” and mostly secret. And now I realize that, having read this material, I was missing more material than I realized. I just did not have time to read it. There was too much. I am surprised to learn that all this information on torture was only secret.
He put out only stuff that he knew was likely available and even the stuff he had not read was very unlikely to reveal more than embarrassing information, such as gossip, on counterpart diplomats, which I think newspapers gave undue attention.
GOSZTOLA: But, you think that a problem was created by the fact that Manning did not read all the US State Embassy cables?
ELLSBERG: I think he did do something that was problematic and I want to make this point. He did put out a lot of State Department cables that he hadn’t had time to read. I, at the time, would not have done that. I would not have put out something I had not read. I had read every page of the 7,000-top secret pages. People often make that point in distinguishing between us. But, in terms of the three years of experience, I think the gamble that we’ve had since he put it out was very well justified.
He obviously figured there were many more crimes that he had not had time to read in that material. From what we had seen, there was very little that was more than embarrassing to the government. Now, he could have been wrong about that and that’s why I wouldn’t have done it at the time, but now that the experiment has been done. Three years have passed. There is not one example that the government has given of someone actually suffering harm or a policy suffering actual harm from those revelations. On the contrary, the Tunisia cables would probably have never been published by the New York Times.
Manning is described as having dumped 250,000 cables on to the web that he hadn’t read. That again is the opposite of the truth. He could just as well have put them on the internet instead of what he did. He tried to give them to the New York Times or the Washington Post. They weren’t interested or didn’t show immediate interest. He then gave them to WikiLeaks, which I could not have done 40 years ago. The internet did not exist. WikiLeaks, in turn, gave them to newspapers, which had experienced staff to work with and had experience in dealing with this material and whose judgment as to what the public ought to be told—which is their job—is much more reliable for democracy than the judgment of executive officials on the whole. Even though mistakes can be made by either group, I would much rather trust the judgment of newspapers than people in the Executive Branch, whose job is to keep secrets and deceive the public to keep a war going.
When he gave the information to WikiLeaks and they in turn gave it to a number of other newspapers, after six months, only about 2% material had been released. That is the opposite of indiscriminate. In the end, after six months or so, the material did mistakenly become available again with no harmful results. No one intended that to happen. It was a result of inadvertent screw-ups by a whole handful of individuals.
I have always disagreed with the first judgment of WikiLeaks of putting out all the Afghan war logs at the same time the newspapers wrote some of their stories that included some names of informants that should not have been put out. I think WikiLeaks learned from that experience, even though no one was harmed, according to the Pentagon, by that revelation. They could have been but fortunately they weren’t.
The idea of an indiscriminate release, which I would have opposed, was not the case for anybody.
GOSZTOLA: Hearing Manning talk about researching information reminded me of your case. What do you think of this process he seems to have applied to the information eventually disclosed to WikiLeaks?
ELLSBERG: Manning had the ability to use very good judgment on the legality and the military implications of what he was looking at just as I had good experience in looking at what I was looking at, which was different. It was top secret material on the decision-making process and I had been involved in that decision-making process. I did have a good ability to have judgment. Whereas people say Ellsberg was a 40-year-old who had a lot of experience. His judgment could be trusted somewhat. How could we trust the judgment of a 22-year-old?
I would say, from the experience, we’ve seen we have very good basis for trusting the judgment of this 22-year-old and I give him credit for acting quickly in a way that took me twice as long. I don’t give myself any credit for taking twenty extra years to decide to do the right thing.
GOSZTOLA: How do you react to what he said about wanting to go to a media organization like the New York Times or the Washington Post and how he was nervous?
ELLSBERG: To me, to put out information when I first did in 1968, it was a great break in my own experience from what I had been doing. I had lived up to the code more than most people—of keeping my mouth shut about information no matter what it was. It was a great change for me to see that the other was a higher priority. I did have someone I had some experience with, Neil Sheehan. I knew him in Vietnam and I knew him later and I trusted his energy and his journalistic skills.
Bradley, of course, did not give the New York Times very long to reflect on his material, but they reacted without very great interest. If he had stayed with them, the material might well have never come out. After all, people who gave the NSA wiretap criminality to the New York Times back in early 2004 didn’t see it come out for another year and a half and that was almost circumstantial. I think the people who did that should have gone to some place like WikiLeaks long before and gone ahead with it. They waited too long. Bradley didn’t wait too long but he had WikiLeaks.
GOSZTOLA: What is your reaction to Manning pleading guilty to some offenses in the charges?
ELLSBERG: The way I see it, he got himself into the exact position that I was in at the start of my trial. I stipulated to all the facts, as he has essentially done and I did it for two reasons. Not just to make the prosecution’s job easier and make the trial shorter. That’s the obvious effect. I did it so I was able to say right away that the other people who would be suspected of helping me had not, in fact, played any role, people like Paul Warnke, Mort Halperin or Les Gelb, who the president did suspect. I took full responsibility that I was the only person of officials that had actually done anything.
So, I would say that after his testimony it is a mockery to continue with the grand jury process against Julian Assange. It is very clear if you believe what he says—and I do and I am sure the trial will hold it out—That Assange had nothing to do. He applied no pressure on Manning and did not provide any services for him other than normal journalistic services in the digital computer. If you’re not going to prosecute the New York Times, then you shouldn’t be prosecuting Julian Assange.
The other aspect is this frees him to speak about his motives. He can’t say why he did what he did if he is still pleading not guilty and putting the burden of proof on the prosecution. The last three years he has not been able through his lawyer to speak to his motives and that’s what he has done, as I was able to do in the very beginning. Of course, I was a civilian out on bond the entire time. He’s been in military custody and virtually incommunicado except for his lawyer. At his trial, when I tried to say, “Hi, Bradley,” to him, I was immediately escorted out of the courtroom by a couple of guards.
So, this is the first time that people have been able to see his actual motives and his motives turn out to be exactly what he said without any self-serving purpose to his unfortunate confidant Adrian Lamo three years ago. Mainly, this was information the public should know. It was criminal. It should be investigated and prosecuted and the process should be changed.
I didn’t plead guilty at the beginning because, as a civilian, I didn’t have military charges against me. I had the same charges he does of the Espionage Act, but we were able to argue that the act was unconstitutional as applied to leaks to the American public. It had never been used for that purpose before. Now, he will presumably argue the same at his trial, though with less chance of success because there have been some cases before this. Only one jury conviction up til now for leaking. The Supreme Court to this day has never ruled on the question so he can argue and should argue the charge is unconstitutional in this use.
The military charge of “aiding the enemy” is not only absurd but extremely dangerous and ominous I would say. Because since it applies to any person, not just military, it means anybody who says anything critical of the government, which would of course be of interest to our enemies and our allies as well as civilians, could lead to the charge of “aiding the enemy.” That’s a negation of democracy and can’t stand. If he is found guilty of that, journalism will be out of bounds and speaking freely for publication will be in trouble.
GOSZTOLA: What do you think about the fact that Manning will not be able to talk about his motives during his trial?
ELLSBERG: I assumed that I would be able to speak of my motives for giving the Pentagon Papers to the press at trial so major aspects I withheld from the press. I told them wait until my testimony. I finally had four and a half days on the stand after five months in court in 1973. To my horror, when my lawyer said why did you give the Pentagon Papers, the prosecutor objected and said motive is not a part of this case. So, he tried to rephrase it in various ways and couldn’t get it through. My lawyer, Leonard Boudin, experienced constitutional lawyer, said to the judge, “Your honor, I’ve never heard of case in which the defendant was not able to tell the jurors why he had done what he had done.” The judge said to him, “Well now you’ve heard of him.” And as a matter of fact I was not able to testify to my motives just as they’re going to keep him from testifying to his motives.
Bradley Manning’s statement may be the only time that the public will hear his motives because in the trial the prosecutors may keep him from making the same statements just as they did in my case. So, he had to plead guilty because he clearly did violate military regulations and in doing so he was allowed by the judge to read a statement on his motives, which is significant.