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Dan Ellsberg on WikiLeaks & the Essential Democratic Question: Who Will Tell the People? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Dan Ellsberg on WikiLeaks & the Essential Democratic Question: Who Will Tell the People?

The Obama White House was quick to condemn the publication Sunday evening of more than 91,000 secret documents detailing the monumentally misguided and frequently failed attempt by the United States to occupy Afghanistan.

National Security Adviser James Jones took the lead in attacking WikiLeaks for making the details of the war available to the American people—who are, ultimately, supposed to define the direction of US foreign policy—by declaring: “The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."

Despite the fact that the "Afghanistan War Logs," which are being published by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel, detail the mess in Afghanistan, and point to the bigger mess that will be made if the occupation is expanded as the Obama administration proposes, Jones offered a classic don't-confuse-us-with-the-facts response. "These irresponsible leaks will not impact our ongoing commitment to deepen our partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan; to defeat our common enemies; and to support the aspirations of the Afghan and Pakistani people."

The echo you are hearing is that of the Nixon administration responding to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Indeed, as Dan Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers says: "I'm very impressed by the release. It is the first release in thirty-nine years or forty years, since I first gave the Pentagon papers to the Senate, of the scale of the Pentagon papers."

We can only hope that Obama and his aides have read enough history to recognize that Nixon's over-reaction to the Pentagon Papers began a process that would lead—at least in part—to a House Judiciary Committee vote to impeach him and the only presidential resignation in the country's history.

It happens that, on the eve of the publication of the Afghanistan logs, I was with Ellsberg. We were in Cleveland at the Progressive Democrats of America conference, where a terrific documentary on Ellsberg—The Most Dangerous Man in America—was screened and I then interviewed the man who exposed the truth about the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg is a fan of WikiLeaks in particular and whistleblowers in general. He argues that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange "is serving our democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country."

“I’ve sort of been waiting for somebody to do this for forty years," he says of the release and publication of the Afghanistan War Logs.

Of Obama administration attacks on Assange and others, and the administration's broader crackdown on whistleblowers, Ellsberg says wryly: "The's not the kind of change I voted for when I voted for him."

What's the right response from officials who take seriously their oaths to obey a Constitution that places all power with the people—and that necessarily requires that the people get information about wars being waged in their name but without their informed consent?

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, did a whole lot better than the administration.

"However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Kerry, whose discomfort with the Afghanistan operation has grown increasingly evident. "Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent."

Kerry should hold hearings with regard to the Afghanistan War Logs.

Other members of the House and Senate should respond as the late Vermont Republican Senator George Aiken did to the publication of the Pentagon Papers: with an objection that "for a long time, the executive branch has tended to regard Congress as a foreign enemy—to be told as little as possible."

Already, there are those who are trying to distinguish between the Pentagon Papers case and the Afghanistan War Logs. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus argues that we all should "pause for a moment before accepting the comparison that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange makes between his release of more than 90,000 secret military documents about the Afghan fighting to that of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971."

Pincus makes a credible point. Of course there are differences in content and the character of that content, in the timing of the release and in the identities of those responsible for the leaks. Even Ellsberg has questions about whether the review of the documents that were recently released was as thorough as his review of the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers

But there is a fundamental—and overarching—similarity that makes Assange right when he tells the Guardian that "the nearest analogue is the Pentagon Papers that exposed how the United States was prosecuting the war in Vietnam."

Ellsberg said in 1971, when he surrended to authorities who planned to try him: "I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public." Ellsberg's argument was that the oaths he had sworn as a Marine and a military analyst were to the Constitution, a document that Jefferson said in his first inaugural address is best defended by "the diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason."

WikiLeaks says today that:  "We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information.”

Ellsberg has frequently noted "immediate parallels" between the people who these days provide information about the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations to WikiLeaks and the leaking he did during the Vietnam War to the New York Times.

“The secrecy that has enveloped the war in Afghanistan is very costly to us,” argues Ellsberg.

And Ellsberg is no fan of secrecy.

Those who leak and publish the true facts about America's wars, he explains, can usually be said to have "showed better judgment in putting it out than the people who keep [the facts] secret from the American people."

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