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The Band of Leakers

The nominal occasions for a conference call today with “Julian Assange & Whistleblowers” were, obviously, Edward Snowden’s recent leaks; the ongoing Bradley Manning court-martial; and the one-year anniversary of Assange’s “embassy confinement” (he took aslyum in Ecuador’s embassy in London; during the call, he accused Britain of violating international law by refusing to allow him to travel from the embassy to Ecuador itself). But the most interesting person on the call to me—more than Assange, who spoke in a mumble that utilized only the lowest registers of his voice, so that he was frequently unintelligible; more than Thomas Drake, who allegedly leaked National Security Agency information; more than journalist Alexa O’Brien—was Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers.

In an avuncular tone, Ellsberg argued in his opening statement that he is no different from Snowden or Manning: “I’ve benefited from more favorable notions in the last ten days and several years, since Manning, then in the last 20 or 30 years,” he told the conference, and you could almost hear the ironic smile in his voice. “But unfortunately it’s in the form of using me as a foil against people I support, which is not to say,” he hastily added, perhaps thinking of the sexual assault allegations against Assange, “they are unreservedly perfect human beings.” He concluded: “I support very strongly Assange, Manning, Thomas Drake, and Snowden of course, and feel that they’ve performed very great service … . We acted in the same spirit, and I feel a great affinity with each of them.”

Given that Ellsberg was persecuted by that ultimate example of executive branch abuse, Richard Nixon (famously, Nixon’s goons burglared Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to retrieve personal information that could be used to blackmail or discredit him), his lacerations of Barack Obama had undeniable power. “I have no doubt at all that President Obama would not only be facing me, for the Pentagon Papers, with the life sentence that is facing Manning and will no doubt face Snowden,” he insisted, “but all the dirty tricks.”

And he took detailed issue—in what was becoming his typical pedantic manner—with the charge that Manning was a “worse” leaker than Ellsberg because Manning did not attempt to discriminate in terms of what he was leaking, and also leaked it to an organization, Assange’s WikiLeaks, that itself would be unlikely to discriminate (Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times). It’s in fact a difference that Snowden explicitly drew between himself and Manning in his initial Guardian interview. Ellsberg would have none of it: “All three of us—Ellsberg, Manning, Snowden—had access to information that was not only top-secret, but much higher than top-secret, including communications intelligence,” he explained. “Manning and I revealed nothing higher than the top-secret level. Because evidently—and I can speak for myself here, but also [I’d assume] for Manning—we didn't see where the public need for that information outweighed any valid requirement for secrecy.” Going hardcore on us, he continued: “But what people seem to have missed is that Manning worked in what's known as a SCIF—that’s a Secret Compartmented Information Facility. That meant that most of the material he was dealing with was not only top-secret, but higher than top-secret. He didn't release any of that.”

What Ellsberg didn’t address—and what I didn’t get to ask about, as time ran out (the call lasted well over an hour) before they reached my question—is a difference between Ellsberg, on the one hand, and Manning and Snowden on the other, that has been raised by (among others) my former colleague Liel Leibovitz. Namely: Ellsberg first tried to avoid having to leak the Pentagon Papers by contacting various senators and trying, in vain, to get them to “leak” the documents on the Senate floor, for which they would be immune from prosecution. Manning and Snowden do not appear to have tried to work through the system first in a similar manner, although it could be argued they also lacked the resources to do so.

What of the charges, made by Reps. Peter King and Dianne Feinstein among others, that Snowden is a traitor? “None of us have been charged with treason, and could not be,” said Ellsberg. “It’s obvious all of us were patriotic and wanted the best for this country, and did not adhere to a foreign government.” Anyone who understands the Constitution would know that, he added mournfully (and pedantically). “I’m sorry to say that our constitutional scholar in the Oval Office seems to be of a similar bent to John Yoo—Y-O-O.”