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The Trendsetter, Daniel Ellsberg whose Conscience Hurt | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 17 June 2023, by Papri Sri Raman


The United States of America has been the loudest in calling itself a Democracy ever since it was born. With the death of Daniel Ellsberg on 16 June, an epoch that championed transparency globally has truly come to an end. Perhaps, progressive ideology worldwide no longer has an icon to look up to. Ellsberg died at the ripe old age of 92, in his home in California; he had been suffering from pancreatic cancer and had in March said, he would be working for world peace.

Ellsberg is best known as an activist — the man who leaked the history of America’s ‘Vietnam War’ in 1971 in a documentation known now as the Pentagon Papers. It comprised 7,000 pages of historical analysis and supporting documents, revealing how the US government had secretly expanded its role in Vietnam across four presidential administrations. As his opposition to the US Vietnam policy increased, Ellsberg, with the help of a colleague, Anthony J Russo, slowly but surely smuggled out briefcase by briefcase, pages of this report. Remember, in those days, the internet was yet to arrive.

Yes, Ellsberg’s death brings to mind things all that happened half-a-century ago, not only in the USA but across the world. The document was officially titled, ‘Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force’ and it is a United States Department of Defense history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Ellsberg was an official at the Defense Department, a military analyst at the Rand Corp, and a consultant for the State Department, which dispatched him to Saigon in 1965, to assess counterinsurgency efforts. Returning to the USA, he worked to create the Pentagon Papers, and then his conscience did not allow him to rest on what he had seen in Vietnam. He leaked this report that finally led to the fall of President Richard Nixon. Nixon was Eisenhower’s man, at the time due for re-election.

The Nixon government’s then national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, called Ellsberg ‘the most dangerous man in America’. In March 2023, in a statement to the world signalling he was on his way out, Ellsberg had said, ‘When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars. It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed.’

What followed the Ellsberg disclosure was the US Supreme Court ruling on press freedoms that made the White House mastermind a series of burglaries known as the Watergate scandal. After the Ellsberg disclosures, in June 1972, The Nixon administration ordered burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington, known as the Watergate building. The connection between the break-in and Nixon’s re-election committee was highlighted by The Washington Post, Time Magazine and The New York Times.

The coverage dramatically increased publicity. Relying heavily upon anonymous sources, Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information suggesting that knowledge of the break-in, and attempts to cover it up, led deeply into the upper reaches of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, and the White House. They had Ellsberg to look up to. Woodward and Bernstein interviewed Judy Hoback Miller, the bookkeeper for Nixon’s re-election campaign, who revealed to them information about the mishandling of funds, and records being destroyed.

Miller was not the only one whose conscience hurt. Woodward and Bernstein also had a source, they called it Deep Throat, which they protected throughout. In 2005, the informant was identified as Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI during the 1970s. In February 1973, the US Senate establish a select committee to investigate Watergate. A tape was released during the course of this investigation, that pegged the blame for the coverup attempt on Nixon. Before the release of this tape, Nixon had claimed that there were no political motivations in his instructions to the CIA, and claimed he had no knowledge before March 1973, of involvement by his senior campaign officials. The contents of this tape, however, persuaded Nixon’s own lawyers, Fred Buzhardt and James St Clair, that ‘the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers—for more than two years’. The tape, which Barber Conable (a Congressman then) referred to as a ‘smoking gun’, proved that Nixon had been involved in the coverup from the beginning. Fearing impeachment Nixon resigned from the presidency in August 1974.

Ellsberg’s death not only brings back all these stories, also the thought that it seems, he and Kissinger had been vying with each other as to who would last longer. Kissinger turned 100 a few weeks ago. In a Guardian profile, Bhaskar Sunkara and Jonah Walters write: A teenage Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, Kissinger charted an unlikely path to some of the most powerful positions on Earth.... Back then, one fawning profile of the young statesman cast him as ‘the sex symbol of the Nixon administration’.... Even more strangely, as national security adviser and secretary of state under Nixon and Ford, he became something of a pop icon.... While Kissinger gallivanted with Washington’s jet set, he and Nixon — a pair so firmly joined at the hip that Isaiah Berlin christened them ‘Nixonger’ — were busy contriving a political brand rooted in their supposed disdain for the liberal elite, whose effete morality, they claimed, could lead only to paralysis.... Much of the world views Kissinger as a war criminal — yet in the US, surrounded by powerful friends, he is feted as a celebrity intellectual....Within a few short years he masterminded illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia and enabled genocide in East Timor and East Pakistan(Bangladesh now. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide is a 2013 book by American journalist and academic Gary J Bass about on a State Department dissent memo on American policy during the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, sent by Archer Blood, the American Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan). Kissinger is also accused of masterminding disruptions in Chile, Brazil and a few other Latin American countries. ‘Kissinger should be ashamed to be seen in public’, the angry journalists say.

However, the Kissinger-driven American policy of changing the world exists and continue to exist, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran and several other countries in the Middle East. ‘The Kissinger doctrine persists today: if sovereign countries refuse to be worked into broader US schemes, the American national security state will move swiftly to undercut their sovereignty. This is business as usual for the US, no matter which party sits in the White House — and Kissinger, while he lives, remains among the chief stewards of this status quo’, says the Guardian story. Yet, Ellsberg reminds us, that his legacy is lasting as well.

Historians, Arthur S Link and Vincent P De Santis argue that the majority of American progressives wanted to purify politics and lobbied for greater democratic control over public policy. In that sense, Ellsberg was progressive, he wanted the media to be a public property, a do-gooder, against wars and hegemonies. Ellsberg co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a Brooklyn nonprofit, and championed the work of a new generation of digital leakers and whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Ellsberg was a trend-setter in that sense of transparency in civil societies of democracies.

Ellsberg’s portégé, Snowden was an American citizen, born in 1983. This former computer intelligence consultant and whistleblower leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in May 2013, when he was an employee and subcontractor. His disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programmes, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments.

The USA of the twenty-first century was very different from Ellsberg’s time in the seventies. Snowden says he ‘gradually became disillusioned with the programmes with which he was involved, and that he tried to raise his ethical concerns through internal channels but was ignored’. By June end the USA, with its Ellsberg lesson in mind, applied its 1917 Espionage Act against Snowden. But this was an internet-savvy generation. Two days later Snowden fled to Moscow where he is a naturalised citizen now. He was aided by a man called Julian Assange and his organisation.

Chelsea Manning, born in 1987 and known Bradley Edward Manning, was a USA soldier. Assigned in 2009 to an army unit in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, Manning had access to classified databases. In early 2010, he leaked classified information to WikiLeaks. The material included videos of the July 2007, Baghdad airstrike and the 2009 Granai massacre in Afghanistan; 251,287 US diplomatic cables; and 482,832 Army reports that came to be known as the ‘Iraq War Logs’ and the ‘Afghan War Diary’. WikiLeaks and its media partners published the documents between April 2010 and April 2011. It comprised 750,000 classified, or unclassified but sensitive, military and diplomatic documents. He was convicted by court-martial in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act. Charged with 22 offences, Manning pleaded guilty in 2013, disclosed her female gender and was in jail till 2017, when her sentence was commuted.

In March 2010, a member of WikiLeaks — now identified as Julian Assange — talked with Manning by text chat while she submitted the leaks. Assange presented the footage of the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike at the Washington Press Club in April 2010. Assange, born in 1971, is an editor, publisher, and activist. In 2006, he founded the non-profit media organisation WikiLeaks. Unfortunately, he happened to be Australian. His website had hundreds of disclosures, including on the US NSA and Guantanamo, Syria, Saudi Arabia etc. After WikiLeaks released the Manning material, United States authorities began investigating WikiLeaks and Assange to prosecute them under the Espionage Act of 1917.

In 2013, US officials said it was unlikely that the Justice Department would indict Assange for publishing classified documents because it would also have to prosecute the news organisations and writers who published classified material. In June 2013, The New York Times, however was sure that court and other documents suggested that Assange was being examined by a US grand jury and ‘several government agencies’, including by the FBI. Court documents published in May 2014 suggest that WikiLeaks was under ‘active and ongoing’ investigation at that time. In July 2015, Assange called himself a ‘wanted journalist’ in an open letter to the French president published in Le Monde. Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice did not indict Assange because it was unable to find any evidence that his actions differed from those of a journalist. Assange’s US indictment was unsealed in 2019 during the Trump administration and expanded on later that year and in 2020.

Meanwhile, as long ago as August 2010, the Australian had visited Sweden, where he was accused of sexual assault by two women, who said, they were working for Wikileaks. This was after the publication of the Manning papers. From now on, the Assange story began to read like the long-hand of the CIA. Assange told the Swedish police the accusation was false. Assange left Sweden on 27 September 2010 and an international warrant for his ‘arrest-in-absence’ was issued for him by Sweden. On 8 December 2010, Assange gave himself up to British police and attended his first extradition hearing, where he was remanded in custody. On 16 December 2010, at the second hearing, he was granted bail by UK’s High Court of Justice and released after his supporters paid £240,000 in cash and sureties.

After that, geopolitics began to play out. UK, USA, Australia were allies. Assange then took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. On 16 August 2012, minister Ricardo Patiño announced that Ecuador was granting Assange political asylum because of the threat represented by the United States secret investigation against him. In its formal statement, Ecuador said that ‘as a consequence of Assange’s determined defense of the freedom of expression and freedom of press... in any given moment, a situation may come where his life, safety or personal integrity will be in danger’. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa confirmed on 18 August that Assange could stay at the embassy indefinitely. An office converted into a studio apartment, equipped with a bed, telephone, sun lamp, computer, shower, treadmill and kitchenette, became his home until 11 April 2019.
Several other countries became involved in the Assange story by this time. On 10 April 2019, WikiLeaks said it had uncovered an extensive surveillance operation against Assange from within the embassy. WikiLeaks said that ‘material including video, audio, copies of private legal documents and a medical report’ had surfaced in Spain and that unnamed individuals in Madrid had made an extortion attempt. On 26 September 2019, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that the Spanish defence and security company Undercover Global SL (UC Global) had spied on Assange for the CIA, during his time in the embassy.

Now Assange could no longer be ‘protected’ in the embassy. The UK arrested him and since his arrest in April 2019, Assange has been incarcerated in the Belmarsh prison in London. After examining Assange, the Swiss academic, Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, has concluded that ‘in addition to physical ailments, Mr Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma’. He can be extradited to the USA via Sweden any time.

That Ellsberg was Wikileak’s inspiration, there is no doubt. After the Pentagon Papers, there has been many other whistleblowers, mostly American. The Panama Papers (Spanish: Papeles de Panamá) which are 11.5 million leaked documents (or 2.6 terabytes of data) that were published, beginning on April 2016. The papers detail financial and attorney-client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The documents, some dating back to the 1970s, were created by, and taken from a former Panamanian offshore law firm and corporate service provider, Mossack Fonseca, and compiled with similar leaks into a searchable database.

Then came the Paradise Papers are a set of over 13.4 million confidential electronic documents on where the rich stash their moneys. It relates to offshore investments that were leaked to the German reporters Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, from the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The newspaper shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and a network of more than 380 journalists. Some of the details were made public on 5 November 2017 and stories are still being released.

So, even as we remember Daniel Ellsberg, we must acknowledge, for every Kissinger, there is an Ellsberg and for every Pentagone Papers, there will be other such Papers, not to say investor research outfits like Hindenburg. When one takes on responsibility for repairing or redeeming policy and politics, the lives of journalists and their sources are on short lines. Ellsberg was incredibly lucky to not only survive but set the ethical benchmark.

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