"I think the purpose of these prosecutions is to shut off investigative journalism in the national security field" - Daniel Ellsberg
This article originally appeared at RT
General David Petraeus has been sentenced to just two years of probation for leaking state secrets, while Chelsea Manning faces 30 years in prison and Edward Snowden a life in exile. RT’s Thom Hartmann spoke to one of the US’s most famous whistleblowers.
Daniel Ellsberg is an activist and is one of the co-founders of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He became famous when as a military adviser he released the Pentagon Papers, a top secret account of US government actions in the Vietnam War, to the press in 1971. He was charged under the Espionage Act but all charges against him were dismissed in May 1973.
Thom Hartmann, RT: We’re told that General Petraeus got a lighter sentence last week because he didn’t take this classified information and push it out into the media, whereas Chelsea Manning did. Do you think the difference is significantly or substantially real enough to justify a 30-year sentence versus three years’ probation?
Daniel Ellsberg: I’m not surprised, in the clip you just showed that General Petraeus is smiling, he had good reason to. I’m sure he was very surprised to find himself in the defendants dock at all. Most people in his position, most generals and high officials who give information for their own self-interest, for puffing up their own biography, or improving his relationship with his biographer let’s say, or for helping an agency, for helping the president’s policy. They never get prosecuted no matter how sensitive the information is they put on.
I would love to see that smile on Edward Snowden’s face if he was offered a plea bargain like that. I would be happy as an American if that were to happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
RT: How has the climate changed from your day until now?
DE: Seeing that clip was really nostalgic for me in a way, to see that four-star general there in this case in court, because I remember the day that General Alexander Haig – formerly a lieutenant Colonel in President Nixon’s Whitehouse when I knew him four years earlier – came into my court room to testify against me at the behest of President Nixon, who had committed a number of crimes against me.
I remember going up to him and not having seen him in four years and I said, “Al, what are you doing here?” And he said, “Well I’m here to testify against you.”
And the point was, as jurors said, after charges were dismissed against me – you’re able to talk to the jurors – and one of them said that somebody had said: ‘Did you see those four stars on his shoulder?’ Another juror said “Eight stars”.
The reason why charges were dismissed was various crimes, various things that President Nixon did against me to shut me up about what he was doing in Vietnam, which was information that went beyond the Pentagon Papers. His fear that I would reveal documents on nuclear threats he was making against North Vietnam and his plans to escalate led him to take a number of actions, which were then criminal. He sent CIA assets into my former psychoanalyst’s office and ordered to get information to blackmail me into silence. Later he overheard me on warrant lists wiretaps, then illegal, brought 12 CIA assets from the Bay of Pigs up to incapacitate me totally on the steps of the Capitol.
When those things came out, they all faced President Nixon with prosecution and impeachment proceedings, which led him to resign and that made the war end-able.
All of those things are now supposed to be legal, thanks to the Patriot Act, which sets free the CIA to go into a doctor’s office as a domestic police force, always warrantless wiretapping in the FISA Amendment Act.
And even our President, although it’s not a matter of legislation, President Obama claims the right to assassinate American citizens anywhere in the world, at his decision that they threaten his view of the national interest.
This is how our democracy has collapsed, eroded. It hasn’t totally collapsed; if it had, we wouldn’t be sitting here now. But the warrantless surveillance machinery that Edward Snowden exposed goes beyond what the secret service in East Germany, the Stasi, couldn’t even have dreamed of at that point.
Snowden has called it a turnkey tyranny: It takes a turn of a key to start using the lists from that mass surveillance and blackmailing people into informants, as happened in East Germany, and to send them into detention camps if there was another 9/11 or domestic disturbance of the kind we’re seeing in Baltimore that got too widespread over the police occupation of the ghettos, for example.
They have the ability now to exercise a police state. That’s very bad and the Patriot Act itself is clearly unconstitutional. Congress can’t rescind the 4th Amendment by a majority vote. The President is using the Espionage Act against ten entities as if it were an Official Secrets Act of the British kind. It criminalizes any release of classified information. That’s always been regarded as unconstitutional, up till now, violating our First Amendment. The British have an Official Secrets Act, we have the First Amendment. Now it seems we have an Official Secrets Act as well.
RT: Was it Obama or was it the Patriot Act during the Bush administration or is it both?
DE: In the case of these prosecutions of people who blow the whistle against wrongdoing, or simply leak like Petraeus, Obama has brought ten prosecutions like that, compared to three under all previous presidents. My persecution was the first, two other presidents had one each. Obama has had ten.
Now Petraeus’ charges were reduced from what the FBI had been recommending under Espionage Act charges to a misdemeanor, with which Edward Snowden would come back in a minute and he wouldn’t even have to get probation. That’s now why he’s in exile. He’s facing 30 years, 40 years, a life sentence as I was facing. A 115-year possible sentence and the purpose of that is to discourage whistleblowing.
I don’t think Petraeus should have been brought before the Espionage Act in court, because he’s not a spy. And that act was meant for spies, not for whistleblowers. He’s not a whistleblower either; he’s just a leaker, a word that was often used against me. It’s fair enough to say OK, he leaked to his biographer, he wasn’t a spy. But if he had been charged as the FBI wanted under the Espionage Act, then like Tom Drake or Chelsea Manning or Snowden if he came back, he would have had no opportunity to say why he did what he did.
By the way he doesn’t have a very good reason. But Chelsea Manning or Snowden or Tom Drake or others did not have the ability to say why they did what they did, whether it harmed the United States or was helpful or beneficial. The Espionage Act doesn’t allow that. It is unconstitutionally used against anybody who spies, but Obama is counting that the current Supreme Court wouldn’t notice that.
RT: It seems like the trend, there’s a fairly large body of information indicating that many pieces of the Patriot Act have not only been unconstitutional, but also ineffective.
DE: It isn’t ineffective in discouraging whistleblowing, I’m afraid. There will be people like Chelsea Manning or Ed Snowden, or I, who are willing to face life in jail or exile in order to inform the American people that they are being lied into a war, that their constitution is being shredded, but not too many.
And I think the purpose of these prosecutions is to shut off investigative journalism in the national security field, which depends on sources and the threat is new under Obama, you will be prosecuted if your identified.
Thanks to the mass surveillance, the chance of identifying the source is extremely high now. That’s what happened in the Jeffrey Sterling trial just now. James Risen was overheard, the metadata was collected off his phone calls with Sterling, which may even have led here to its circumstantial evidence. But it convinced the jury and it brought Sterling to a point where he’s facing sentence. I’m sure is not likely to get the plea bargain that Petraeus did. There is nothing new about double standards – if we didn’t have double standards there would be no standards – that’s really about all there is, but this was, of course, a very dramatic instance of it.
RT: Would you agree with or characterize the arc over the last 30-40 years as being one where we have been moving further and further away from fundamental constitutional principles and closer and closer not just to an authoritarian and uber-security state, but one that is at the same time, mind-bogglingly profitable for very large corporations.
DE: It’s been profitable for a long time for large corporations, the energy corporations and others. Not everybody was disfavored by the Vietnam War, a lot of people made a lot of money, and with the Iraq war and the Gulf war there’s always been a lot of money there.
What has changed since 9/11 is people like Vice President Dick Cheney, who believe that our Constitution is outmoded and the Bill of Rights is anachronistic. As his favorite lawyer John Yule said, they have been given free reign now to exercise what they think of as the proper form of government – while it used to be called and is properly called monarchical. So we’re being offered right now – and we were in the last of the election and we will be in future elections – a choice between two candidates, monarchs. That’s not what our founders had in mind. I think we should be working to change that, to take it back.