October 25th, 2010

Assange and Ellsberg: together at last

When I wrote this post I perceived the philosophical connections between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers renown. But little did I know that their ties are even more concrete than I thought.

For instance, Assange appeared as special guest (courtesy of Skype technology) at a conference organized by Ellsberg back in June, where Assange paid explicit homage to Ellsberg by stating, ““Dan is a hero of mine.”

More quotes from the conference:

Ellsberg had said that rather than go through the laborious work of photocopying the [Pentagon] papers on primitive machines, and then schlep them across the country, he wished he had been able to use the Internet to leak the documents…

“Dan has a wonderful statement that we’ve used. And that is that courage is contagious,” said Assange, citing a leaker who spoke to Ramparts magazine in 1972, who credited Ellsberg as his inspiration.

At the end of the day the two said they would “keep in touch.” And so they apparently have; last Friday the two appeared together at a London news conference:

Mr. Ellsberg, who said he had flown overnight from California to attend, described Mr. Assange admiringly as “the most dangerous man in the world” for challenging governments, particularly the United States. He said the WikiLeaks founder had been “pursued across three continents” by Western intelligence services and compared the Obama administration’s threat to prosecute Mr. Assange to his own treatment under President Richard M. Nixon.

I wonder whether Ellsberg thinks a government shouldn’t try to prosecute security leaks. It’s hard to imagine a government on earth that wouldn’t try to do so; any government that did not would probably not last very long.

Ellsberg knew he was risking prosecution when he gave the Papers to the media, but his case never went to trial because charges were dropped due to the transgressions of the Watergate perpetrators. You may or may not remember why they originally called themselves “plumbers” [emphasis mine]:

The White House Plumbers, sometimes simply called the Plumbers, were a covert White House Special Investigations Unit established July 24, 1971 during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Its task was to stop the leaking of classified information to the news media

The Plumbers’ first task was the burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s Los Angeles psychiatrist, Lewis J. Fielding, in an effort to uncover evidence to discredit Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. The operation was reportedly unsuccessful in finding Ellsberg’s file and was so reported to the White House.

Government is constrained by laws against this sort of thing, and rightly so. Its power and potential for abuse is ordinarily far greater than that of the average citizen. But the consequence of it all is that leakers now seem to be able to breach national security with impunity, at least most of the time (I offered some suggestions on how to deal with this phenomenon here and here).

In addition, like many on the Wikileaks staff, Assange is not a US citizen, so it’s hard to see how those particular people could be prosecuted for anything. Also, the internet helps him not only disseminate the information, but affords extra layers of anonymity to the leakers who are US citizens. What’s more, it allows Assange to organize the whole thing much better and to increase the number of players; in contrast (at least as far as I know), Ellsberg acted mostly alone, although he needed the cooperation of the MSM to broadcast the information.

And cooperate they did. Most people got their ideas about what the Papers contained by what parts the MSM chose to highlight and summarize. As I wrote in 2006:

We all know the drill [presented by the MSM]: fearless Daniel Ellsberg, at the risk of prosecution, spirits away classified information…and gives it to the press, who publish it in brave defiance of government efforts and a Supreme Court case trying to enjoin them from doing so. But Ellsberg’s–and the Times and Post’s–devotion to truth won out, the American people were informed of the government’s deceptions, and we finally disengaged from an unwinnable battle…

A fascinating piece on the subject of war coverage by the MSM–both then and now–was written by James Q. Wilson and appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Take a look at this, on the Papers:

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage was at odds with what the documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.

In short, a key newspaper said that politicians had manipulated us into a war by means of deception. This claim, wrong as it was, was part of a chain of reporting and editorializing that helped convince upper-middle-class Americans that the government could not be trusted.

The internet giveth and the internet taketh away. It may make it easier to dump the information and get away with it. But it may make it harder for the left to control the message for those who want to think for themselves. For example, already it has become evident that some of the recent Wikileaks information on Iraq tends to implicate Iran and its apologists on the left. And, wonder of wonders, even the NY Times is reporting as much.

As Michael Ledeen writes:

No thanks go to…those like Sy Hersh who wrote again and again that American forces were operating in Iran, and who warned that the Bush administration first, and now the Obama administration, were planning a shooting war against the Islamic Republic. Hersh and the various Giraldis, Lobes, Cannistraros, and their echo chambers on the wacky left should take the opportunity to apologize for failing to report what was actually going on: the Iranians were waging war against us, while we were doing precious little to fight back, despite a high cost of life and limbs.

Probably not exactly what Assange had hoped for from Wikileaks.

[NOTE: Two of my previous posts on Daniel Ellsberg and his influence on military whistleblowers and security leaks may be of interest: this and this.]

13 Responses to “Assange and Ellsberg: together at last”

  1. Bill West Says:

    Title 18 Section 798

    The statute is unequivocal. It begins:

    “(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes,
    transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person,
    or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or
    interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign
    government to the detriment of the United States any classified
    information -”

    The entire text is at http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/uscode/18/I/37/798

    The guy should be presecuted under this statute. Lichtblau and Risen should have been likewise prosecuted.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Bill West: by “the guy,” do you mean Assange? Can he be extradicted? Can he even be found (I hear he is in hiding)? As a practical matter, I don’t think he can be prosecuted. He and most of his confederates have gotten a great deal cagier than people used to be about this sort of thing).

    In addition, my (admittedly very quick) reading of the statute you linked seems to confine the information it covers to cryptography and related information that is specific to codes and their transmission, or ways we gather intelligence. I don’t think the Wikileaks material or anything like it would be covered.

  3. expat Says:

    Instapundit has this link about wars within Wikileaks:


  4. Artfldgr Says:

    Notice what countries that they DONT release information about….

    ie… the countries who disburse information to them to release that basically becomes an intelligence attack…

    most never noticed that the tin hats always had info against the US, but not against Russia, china, Cuba, etc.

    its a wonderful way to release information obtained by spying agencies selectively, and cause problems among an naive and stupid population that not only believes that such battles are in the past, but that such is completely not an issue today at all

    Just as the Russians giving the equivalent of every neurotic Americans dream all for spying. you can be famous, sexy, have your own show, riches too! all you have to do is spy for us!!! and when your caught, its better than when you were spying!

  5. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Hiss. Rosenbergs.

    It’s for a good cause and a better world, you see, so it doesn’t count as treason.

  6. Bill West Says:

    It’s broader than that, as paragraph (3) notes. Prof. John Eastment testified before congress after Lichtblau and Risen disclosed classified material in the NYT. The case he makes in his testimoney are applicable in this case.


    US laws apply to foreigners as well. Perhaps not on foreign soil. Then our intelligence services might be tasked with gathering information outside the country to learn the identities of collaborators inside the country.

    It’s a threat. We must protect ourselves from enemies foreign and domestic. I was angry with the Bush administration for failing to prosecute Lichtblau and Risen.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Bill West: that’s long. I don’t have time to read it now. But I will try to look at it later, because it looks interesting.

  8. Jim Miller Says:

    Neo – If you can, buy or borrow a copy of Epstein’s collection, “Between Fact and Fiction”.

    It contains the essay Wilson refers to, and much else.

    His “News from Nowhere” is also very good.

    (I believe that Epstein makes most (all/) of the essays in the book available on his rather strange web site.)

  9. Vieux Charles Says:

    How I envy Israel, that they have such a fine group of courageous patriotic heroes in the Mossad.

  10. Tom Says:

    I repeat my comment of yesterday: These people are iterations of the anarchists of 100 years ago, sociopaths.

  11. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    I take comfort in Assange’s need to be in hiding… and his whining that he’s being unfairly targeted. (He bragged about taking on the world’s most dangerous military. Did he really think that the US military would not fight back? That’s what armies do.)

    As one of the articles about him commented: “If you act outside the system, you will be dealt with outside the system”. Indeed.

    Vieux Charles: that wouldn’t be sarcasm, now would it?

    Daniel in Brookline

  12. njartist49 Says:

    …the American people were informed of the government’s deceptions, and we finally disengaged from an unwinnable battle…

    It was not unwinnable,/i>. We did not lose militarily. The Democratic controlled Congress denied aid to the South Vietnamese when the North broke the treaty and invaded the South; by this time the U.S. military had long since departed.

    Refusing to fight or or being stabbed in the back by members of your own side – that is called treason – does not make a war unwinnable.

  13. njartist49 Says:

    There needs to be an edit function here.

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