Daniel Ellsberg On Assange Arrest: The Beginning of the End For Press Freedom
Published on Apr 11, 2019
SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Whistleblower associated with WikiLeaks Julian Assange appeared to be making a statement as he was shuffled out in handcuffs from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He was carrying a book, a book published by The Real News Network with Gore Vidal on the history of the national security state. We gather Assange may have been trying to send the world a message, as did the Washington Post. And you can find an interview that Paul Jay, the senior editor here at The Real News Network, had done with The Washington Post in the link below.
On to talk about Assange and the reasons for his arrest is a man that is, perhaps, the most famous whistleblower in history that has experienced this type of arrests and state threats, is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the famous Pentagon Papers. Daniel’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. You will find an interview series related to Daniel’s book here on The Real News Network, and we’ll put a link to that, as well. Daniel, good to have you here.
DANIEL ELLSBERG Glad to be back with you. Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES Daniel, your reaction to what has just happened to Julian Assange in London?
DANIEL ELLSBERG It’s a very serious assault on the First Amendment. A clear attempt to rescind the freedom of the press, essentially. Up till now we’ve had a dozen or so indictments of sources, of which my prosecution is the very first prosecution of an American for disclosing information to the American public. And that was ended a couple of years later by governmental misconduct. There were two others before President Obama, and nine or so under President Obama, of sources, none of these having been tested in the Supreme Court yet as to their relation to the First Amendment. Hasn’t gone to them.
This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher, Julian Assange. And if it’s successful it will not be the last. This is clearly is a part of President Trump’s war on the press, what he calls the enemy of the state. And if he succeeds in putting Julian Assange in prison, where I think he’ll be for life, if he goes there at all, probably the first charge against him is only a few years. But that’s probably just the first of many.
In my own case, my first indictment was for three counts, felony counts. That was later expanded to 12 felony counts by the end of the year, for a possible 115-year sentence. So I think this is a warning shot across the bow of every editor and publisher in the country.
If they make the connection of the Real News Network book that he was carrying with him into prison, which I think Gore Vidal would be very pleased to see, him associated with this incident in terms of defending Julian Assange’s rights, but they may connect you. You may be in the next conspiracy trial with Julian Assange. It may not take much more than that. I see on the indictment, which I’ve just read, that one of the charges is that he encouraged Chelsea Manning and Bradley Manning to give him documents, more documents, after she had already given him hundreds of thousands of files. Well, if that’s a crime, then journalism is a crime, because just on countless occasions I have been harassed by journalists for documents, or for more documents than I had yet given them. So they–none of them have been put on trial up till now. But in this case, if that’s all it takes, then no journalist is safe. The freedom of the press is not safe. It’s over. And I think our republic is in its last days, because unauthorized disclosures of this kind are the lifeblood of a republic.
SHARMINI PERIES Daniel, thank you for connecting that Chelsea Manning is currently sitting in prison, and after 28 days in solitary confinement for not cooperating and answering the questions related to the Julian Assange case, and the grand jury investigation that is underway. Now, it is very interesting that President Moreno of Ecuador withdrew the asylum that was protecting Julian Assange until today in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which led to all of this. And Jen Robinson, who is Julian Assange’s–one of his lawyers, tweeted as he was being arrested that she wanted to confirm that Assange had been arrested not just for breach of bail conditions, but also in relation to the U.S. extradition request. Now, in your assessment of having undergone this kind of allegations and arrests, and being under this kind of scrutiny by the state, what do you think the real intentions here is of the United States in forcing this revocation of his asylum from the Ecuadorian Embassy, as well as this request for extradition?
DANIEL ELLSBERG You know, I think the word ‘forcing’ may be misleading here, because it underrates the degree of choice here that Ecuador and the British had in both these cases. And for that matter, the Department of Justice. But they couldn’t really force Ecuador to break the norm of international asylum here by handing him over. They couldn’t force Britain. Obviously both of those were induced by various incentives. My guess would be in the case of Moreno that he’s involved in debt relief. And the U.S., the great creditor nation here–although it’s actually a debtor nation altogether. But they’re able to bring the kind of pressure on Ecuador that caused essentially a lawless action here which threatens everyone in asylum. Everyone in the world. The people in this country who have been granted political asylum, people in Britain, and certainly in Ecuador.
So that’s–that’s very ominous. The British have had a long history here of servility, basically, with respect to their ally the United States, and again, are not too concerned, I think, about law. There was an earlier indication that Ecuador might find an assurance from Britain that Assange was not facing a death penalty as sufficient excuse for revoking his asylum on the grounds that they had really only given asylum because of fear of the death penalty. I think that’s absurd. I think there was no mention of that seven years ago when he got the asylum. And of course you don’t have to be facing a death penalty to be seeking and being granted political asylum. So why exactly this moment is chosen for Ecuador and Britain to truckle to the United States, I’m not sure I notice that the indictment was signed a year ago in March 2018. Maybe they’ve, the price has been haggling between Ecuador and Britain as to what the price would be for handing him over.
As I say, though, it’s a threat not only to journalists, but to people in political status and political asylum everywhere. But the immediate threat, you say the significance of is for Trump, I have no doubt that he wants to define criminally in a courtroom the press as a an enemy of the people. When I say that Assange seeking documents–something that I’ve been asked countless times by a journalist to do, to give them documents–if that’s all it takes, then the First Amendment means very little. And without freedom of the press you have no–you have very little freedom in the country. I’m afraid that’s the direction we’re going.
So journalists in general, I think, should rally around this case, whatever they think of Julian himself. There’s a lot of people who don’t like Julian personally. I am not one of those. I do like him. There’s a lot of people who are very critical of his actions in the election of 2016, on various grounds. I’m not happy with the result to the extent that it in any way aided President Trump to become president. And Trump did, of course, state his love for Julian at one point. He said “I love WikiLeaks” when it seemed to be helping him. But of course a promise of love from Donald Trump is not terribly reliable. We knew that already. So he’s willing to make him the sacrificial goat here, I think, for journalists in general.
SHARMINI PERIES Now, Daniel, you said something very interesting, which is that all those who were interested in press freedom, and of course, defending our right to freedom of expression, and access to information, and knowledge that is critical for democracy, you in this situation was also assisted by various people on the outside. What are some of the pivotal things that happened in your case that might be a lesson for us today?
DANIEL ELLSBERG Well, something that was striking to me was that a dozen or so people helped my wife and I, Patricia and I, who was my–Tricia’s my unindicted coconspirator here, now–and a number of people helped us find lodging while we were eluding the FBI, putting out 17 different parts of the Pentagon Papers to different newspapers to keep the story going after the Times and the Post had both been enjoined, for the first time in our history. And none of those people was ever questioned by the FBI, because we stayed off the phone, basically, which at that time kind of paralyzed them, in the days before computers. In those days payphones were relatively safe. I don’t think that’s true anymore, if there are still payphones, as a matter of fact.
But what struck me was that when I finally wrote an account of that many years later, in the first–about 2002, 30 years later–I had hoped to tell the story of all these other people 30 years later as part of the story that had never gotten into the news. It would be interesting to people. How they had helped us; carrying the papers to different newspapers, and communicating with them, and finding us places to stay. In those days it was quite easy to find people. They just had to be young, basically, with long hair, men or women, and said there’s something you could do here that might help shorten this war. But it might have a lot of legal risk. No one refused. However, 30 years later, not one was willing to let their name be used, because that was a time when John Ashcroft, our previous Confederate Attorney General, before Sessions was the attorney general. And they were afraid, in one case, of deportation; in other cases of indictment, even as late as that.
Now, just a couple of years ago one of–a key person in that process, Gar Alperovitz, did, after consulting his lawyers, decide to let me use his name. And that–there was a New Yorker story about that recently. But others, still cautious. And what it appears now is I think they were right to be cautious about that. I would have thought with all his time having elapsed that could be–and with it having been clear that the publication they’d aided in had served the American interest in helping end the Vietnam War and exposing a lot of lying, I would have thought that they would be not only proud of that, which I think they are, but are willing to take credit for that. Nope. That’s a credit they didn’t want, because it may come at the cost of an indictment. And I hope Gar is not caught up in that at this point.
But the conspiracy charge, I don’t know if there’s a conspiracy charge in this case yet. It’s Chelsea Manning who gave Julian the material has served seven and a half years in prison, and is in prison again right now, apparently because they want her to go beyond what she said, either falsely, which they would be happy with, to incriminate Julian Assange. After all, torture is mainly used for false confessions, to get them. And it’s usually successful at that. But not successful with Chelsea Manning. She was in solitary confinement for ten and a half months, until public pressure got her released into the general prison population years ago. And clearly she’s not a person who can be tortured into a false confession. Or they would want her to give new details of her dealings with Assange that would help them in their prosecution of Assange. And she is not cooperating with the grand jury on that. She objects to the grand jury as an undemocratic–unconstitutional, really–but an undemocratic process and its secrecy, its lack of legal defense, legal support in that process. And many people over the years have resisted that.
As a matter of fact, my codefendant, Tony Russo, refused to testify to the grand jury before–after I was indicted, but before the new indictment. And he spent about a month in jail before he himself was indicted and added to the indictment. So that’s the precedent for what Chelsea Manning is doing now. He didn’t want to be testifying against me in secret to a grand jury, no transcript of the proceedings, no publicity as to what he may have said. In fact, he offered to testify if he was given a transcript that he could publish of his testimony, and they refused to do that, and indicted him itself. I say again, that was Anthony Russo, who is no longer alive.
But Chelsea is doing that right now. She’s acting very courageously–again, I would say, which is not something I would ever demand of anyone. But I’m not at all surprised that she is doing that.
SHARMINI PERIES And Daniel, finally, while the U.S. has requested an extradition here, it is very possible that Julian Assange’s lawyers will resist this request. What are the chances of that succeeding? And if it doesn’t succeed, what awaits him at this end in the U.S. if he’s extradited?
DANIEL ELLSBERG I am doubtful that–but what do I know? My judgment is not worth much here, and it’s a fairly unprecedented case; in fact, totally unprecedented when we’re talking about extraditing him for committing journalism. They do charge him with aiding, or trying to aid Chelsea to conceal her identity on the leaks here. That’s something that the Freedom of the Press Foundation in a different way–and I’m on the board of that, along with Ed Snowden and Laura Poitras, and others. We’ve given out software to many journalist associations to enable people to give them information secretly, and cipher, to encipher it. That’s a little different from what he’s charged with here, but to the same effect, of concealing the source.
Incidentally, Chelsea told me that she intended to reveal herself eventually here to prevent other people from being wrongly accused. That was true of me, and true of Ed Snowden, as well, that we didn’t want other people to be accused of doing what we alone had done here.
So I do think that having induced the British to arrest him forcibly, as just happened, indicates that they will go the extra mile in violating, as I say, international norms by violating his immunity, and his asylum, and then shipping off to the U.S. In my day, his case would have been almost sure to be upheld by this–that is, the case dismissed by the Supreme Court on grounds of violating the First Amendment. But that was a different Supreme Court, 40 years ago. And this court I don’t think at all he could count on to defend the Supreme Court, or much else, in the Bill of Rights. I think a great deal is at risk nowadays, especially with the last couple of appointments that Trump has made. But before that, as well.
So it’s a very ominous situation, not only for Julian Assange, who’s been in one room for almost seven years now, something I suspect, by the way, has affected his judgment in some respects. I don’t endorse every choice he’s made in the last couple of years, in particular. I don’t know what kind of judgment I’d be showing after six years in one room. I think he has ahead of him, for having taken on the world’s mightiest empire and exposed its criminal secrets, in many cases, having to do with torture and assassination, he’s not going to get any breaks from them. I think he’ll be in one room, possibly in solitary confinement, on the excuse that he has further secrets that he might reveal; just as Ed Snowden would face that, I think, possibly for the rest of his life. And that will certainly be far, far more onerous than the room he’s had in the Ecuadorian Embassy, which already amounted to inhumane treatment and wrongful imprisonment. Well, the solitary he’s heading for now is much more serious.
I did notice, by the way, that he was being dragged down the steps. I’ve been arrested many times, and I have a bad back myself. I always walk when I get arrested to spare the backs of the police arresting me. But I think if I were being arrested under these circumstances, with the Constitution at stake here, being absolutely wrongfully arrested, I wouldn’t worry about their backs. I would do what Julian was apparently doing. And that was you’re going to have to drag me into prison.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Daniel. Any last thoughts you have on this case? And particularly, if Julian Assange gets charged with espionage on top of all of this?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: It’s a day for journalists in general, especially, and everybody who values a free press, and not only in this country, to join ranks here now to expose and resist the wrongful–and in this country unconstitutional–abuse of our laws to silence journalists. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he is further indicted under the Espionage Act, as I was, the first person to do that. I suspect that will be added to his charges. And again, that’s a great danger to journalists in general. They have to inform themselves on it and begin to demand that the Espionage Act not be used against the free press as it has been under the last two presidents. Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: Daniel Ellsberg, I thank you so much for joining us on this very significant day that exposes the hand of the state that threatens our freedom of expression. Thank you so much.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.