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Vietnam-era leaker looking for Iraq/Iran copycat

by Amy Kingsley

If Daniel Ellsberg had imagined in 1971 what his life would be like in 2008, he might have pictured himself secure in the custody the US Department of Corrections.

That’s because Ellsberg, who leaked the classified Pentagon Papers to the press, expected to go to jail for a very long time.

As it turns out, the security analyst’s fears were well founded. As soon as investigators traced articles published in The New York Times and The Washington Post back to Ellsberg, they indicted him on 12 counts of theft, conspiracy and espionage that carried a maximum sentence of 115 years.

But the government’s case morphed from prosecution to persecution, handing Ellsberg, 76, a mistrial, an education in domestic surveillance and an opportunity to spend the evening of Jan. 24 at Wake Forest University.

“I was one of the first victims of the Watergate plumbers,” Ellsberg said. “It was found during the course of my trial that I was under surveillance.”

Ellsberg told his story to a packed house at Wake Forest’s Brendle Recital Hall. The lecture, titled “Secrets vs. Security,” was part of the university’s Voices of Our Time series, and was pitched as a rumination on the need for new leaks about the Iraq war.

Instead, Ellsberg used his allotted time to discuss surveillance. The Watergate plumbers broke into the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find blackmail material on the whistleblower. After his trial, Ellsberg discovered that his apartment had also been bugged.

After his resignation, President Nixon argued on national television that illegal actions taken by the president under the guise of protecting national security were not, in fact, illegal. Neither Congress nor the courts bought the president’s argument, but some of his staffers did, Ellsberg said, including current Vice President Cheney, who worked in the Nixon White House.

“Cheney watched the Watergate process with the belief that Nixon should not have been regarded as potentially indictable,” Ellsberg said. “When he went to Congress, he took these executive branch ideas with him. When Cheney came into office in 2001, he came with a thirty-year-old agenda to restore the executive branch to something that would have kept Nixon out of trouble.”

Cheney and President Bush have indulged in the same kinds of illegal activities as Nixon and his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, Ellsberg said. The Times reported in December 2005 that the Bush administration had been engaging in widespread wiretapping since March 2001, circumventing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court set up in the wake of Watergate.

The difference with this administration, Ellsberg said, is that they haven’t had to battle Congress and the courts. Instead, they’ve used the attacks on 9-11 as a premise to make such practices quasi-legal.

“We can’t have a democracy when the executive branch knows all of your phone calls,” he said. “That’s an abyss from which there is no return.”

If Congress approves the president’s wiretapping proposal – which would give judicial immunity to phone companies that cooperate with the government – the United States would turn into a modern-day East Germany, Ellsberg said.

“It would turn the country into a sort of minimum security prison,” Ellsberg said. “Not quite so minimum for some people, but quite livable for others.”

At the beginning of his meandering speech, Ellsberg hinted at an important development. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), after months of publicly declaring his opposition to the immunity clause for phone companies in the new wiretapping bill, kowtowed to the Bush administration by tabling a bill that excluded the clause.

“Historians will not be able to tell if there was a Congress during these years,” he said.

Ellsberg saved some harsh words for the Times itself, which sat on the wiretapping story for more than a year before publication. He also reflected on his own actions.

“I wish I had done it sooner,” Ellsberg said. “It took me twenty-two months to go to the press. Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the war has started. Don’t wait until the bombs start falling”

Ellsberg, who commanded a Marine rifle company after his graduation from Harvard University, said he decided to leak after he determined that his oath of office trumped his secrecy agreement. He commended the intelligence officers who recently demanded that the federal government release a report showing that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programs.

“It’s not an oath to the president,” he said. “It’s not an oath to keep secrets. It’s an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

In a short exchange in which audience members submitted questions on index cars, Ellsberg fielded an inquiry about the power of the press.

“I used to say this about the press during Vietnam,” he said. “They did their function in a free society better than anyone, but still terribly.”

A crowd that included college students and retirees attended Ellsberg’s speech. One man, a former marine who served in Vietnam, said he came because the war ruined his life. He said he was devastated when he found out the country’s leaders lied about the causes of a war that took so many lives.

Ellsberg received two standing ovations. But not all the attendees enjoyed his speech. In the parking lot outside the recital hall, at least one group griped about censorship.

“They had microphones in the aisles,” one said. “So that must have been their original plan.”

“You can’t tell me they didn’t want to pick the questions,” the other said.

One possibility they didn’t discuss was that the surveillance-wary Ellsberg might have planted the microphones himself, as a reminder, perhaps, or for inspiration.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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