SHARMINI PERIES Daniel, your reaction to what has just happened to Julian Assange in London?
DANIEL ELLSBERG It’s a very serious assault on the First Amendment. A clear attempt to rescind the freedom of the press, essentially. Up till now we’ve had a dozen or so indictments of sources, of which my prosecution is the very first prosecution of an American for disclosing information to the American public. And that was ended a couple of years later by governmental misconduct. There were two others before President Obama, and nine or so under President Obama, of sources, none of these having been tested in the Supreme Court yet as to their relation to the First Amendment. Hasn’t gone to them.
This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher, Julian Assange. And if it’s successful it will not be the last. This is clearly is a part of President Trump’s war on the press, what he calls the enemy of the state. And if he succeeds in putting Julian Assange in prison, where I think he’ll be for life, if he goes there at all, probably the first charge against him is only a few years. But that’s probably just the first of many.
In my own case, my first indictment was for three counts, felony counts. That was later expanded to 12 felony counts by the end of the year, for a possible 115-year sentence. So I think this is a warning shot across the bow of every editor and publisher in the country.
If they make the connection of the Real News Network book that he was carrying with him into prison, which I think Gore Vidal would be very pleased to see, him associated with this incident in terms of defending Germany Assange’s rights, but they may connect you. You may be in the next conspiracy trial with Julian Assange. It may not take much more than that. I see on the indictment, which I’ve just read, that one of the charges is that he encouraged Chelsea Manning and Bradley Manning to give him documents, more documents, after she had already given him hundreds of thousands of files. Well, if that’s a crime, then journalism is a crime, because just on countless occasions I have been harassed by journalists for documents, or for more documents than I had yet given them. So they–none of them have been put on trial up till now. But in this case, if that’s all it takes, then no journalist is safe. The freedom of the press is not safe. It’s over. And I think our republic is in its last days, because unauthorized disclosures of this kind are the lifeblood of a republic.
SHARMINI PERIES Daniel, thank you for connecting that Chelsea Manning is currently sitting in prison, and after 28 days in solitary confinement for not cooperating and answering the questions related to the Julian Assange case, and the grand jury investigation that is underway. Now, it is very interesting that President Moreno of Ecuador withdrew the asylum that was protecting Julian Assange until today in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which led to all of this. And Jen Robinson, who is Julian Assange’s–one of his lawyers, tweeted as he was being arrested that she wanted to confirm that Assange had been arrested not just for breach of bail conditions, but also in relation to the U.S. extradition request. Now, in your assessment of having undergone this kind of allegations and arrests, and being under this kind of scrutiny by the state, what do you think the real intentions here is of the United States in forcing this revocation of his asylum from the Ecuadorian Embassy, as well as this request for extradition?
DANIEL ELLSBERG You know, I think the word ‘forcing’ may be misleading here, because it underrates the degree of choice here that Ecuador and the British had in both these cases. And for that matter, the Department of Justice. But they couldn’t really force Ecuador to break the norm of international asylum here by handing him over. They couldn’t force Britain. Obviously both of those were induced by various incentives. My guess would be in the case of Moreno that he’s involved in debt relief. And the U.S., the great creditor nation here–although it’s actually a debtor nation altogether. But they’re able to bring the kind of pressure on Ecuador that caused essentially a lawless action here which threatens everyone in asylum. Everyone in the world. The people in this country who have been granted political asylum, people in Britain, and certainly in Ecuador.
So that’s–that’s very ominous. The British have had a long history here of servility, basically, with respect to their ally the United States, and again, are not too concerned, I think, about law. There was an earlier indication that Ecuador might find an assurance from Britain that Assange was not facing a death penalty as sufficient excuse for revoking his asylum on the grounds that they had really only given asylum because of fear of the death penalty. I think that’s absurd. I think there was no mention of that seven years ago when he got the asylum. And of course you don’t have to be facing a death penalty to be seeking and being granted political asylum. So why exactly this moment is chosen for Ecuador and Britain to truckle to the United States, I’m not sure I notice that the indictment was signed a year ago in March 2018. Maybe they’ve, the price has been haggling between Ecuador and Britain as to what the price would be for handing him over.
As I say, though, it’s a threat not only to journalists, but to people in political status and political asylum everywhere. But the immediate threat, you say the significance of is for Trump, I have no doubt that he wants to define criminally in a courtroom the press as a an enemy of the people. When I say that Assange seeking documents–something that I’ve been asked countless times by a journalist to do, to give them documents–if that’s all it takes, then the First Amendment means very little. And without freedom of the press you have no–you have very little freedom in the country. I’m afraid that’s the direction we’re going.
So journalists in general, I think, should rally around this case, whatever they think of Julian himself. There’s a lot of people who don’t like Julian personally. I am not one of those. I do like him. There’s a lot of people who are very critical of his actions in the election of 2016, on various grounds. I’m not happy with the result to the extent that it in any way aided President Trump to become president. And Trump did, of course, state his love for Julian at one point. He said “I love WikiLeaks” when it seemed to be helping him. But of course a promise of love from Donald Trump is not terribly reliable. We knew that already. So he’s willing to make him the sacrificial goat here, I think, for journalists in general.
SHARMINI PERIES Now, Daniel, you said something very interesting, which is that all those who were interested in press freedom, and of course, defending our right to freedom of expression, and access to information, and knowledge that is critical for democracy, you in this situation was also assisted by various people on the outside. What are some of the pivotal things that happened in your case that might be a lesson for us today?
DANIEL ELLSBERG Well, something that was striking to me was that a dozen or so people helped my wife and I, Patricia and I, who was my–Tricia’s my unindicted coconspirator here, now–and a number of people helped us find lodging while we were eluding the FBI, putting out 17 different parts of the Pentagon Papers to different newspapers to keep the story going after the Times and the Post had both been enjoined, for the first time in our history. And none of those people was ever questioned by the FBI, because we stayed off the phone, basically, which at that time kind of paralyzed them, in the days before computers. In those days payphones were relatively safe. I don’t think that’s true anymore, if there are still payphones, as a matter of fact.
But what struck me was that when I finally wrote an account of that many years later, in the first–about 2002, 30 years later–I had hoped to tell the story of all these other people 30 years later as part of the story that had never gotten into the news. It would be interesting to people. How they had helped us; carrying the papers to different newspapers, and communicating with them, and finding us places to stay. In those days it was quite easy to find people. They just had to be young, basically, with long hair, men or women, and said there’s something you could do here that might help shorten this war. But it might have a lot of legal risk. No one refused. However, 30 years later, not one was willing to let their name be used, because that was a time when John Ashcroft, our previous Confederate Attorney General, before Sessions was the attorney general. And they were afraid, in one case, of deportation; in other cases of indictment, even as late as that.
Now, just a couple of years ago one of–a key person in that process, Gar Alperovitz, did, after consulting his lawyers, decide to let me use his name. And that–there was a New Yorker story about that recently. But others, still cautious. And what it appears now is I think they were right to be cautious about that. I would have thought with all his time having elapsed that could be–and with it having been clear that the publication they’d aided in had served the American interest in helping end the Vietnam War and exposing a lot of lying, I would have thought that they would be not only proud of that, which I think they are, but are willing to take credit for that. Nope. That’s a credit they didn’t want, because it may come at the cost of an indictment. And I hope Gar is not caught up in that at this point.
But the conspiracy charge, I don’t know if there’s a conspiracy charge in this case yet. It’s Chelsea Manning who gave Julian the material has served seven and a half years in prison, and is in prison again right now, apparently because they want her to go beyond what she said, either falsely, which they would be happy with, to incriminate Julian Assange. After all, torture is mainly used for false confessions, to get them. And it’s usually successful at that. But not successful with Chelsea Manning. She was in solitary confinement for ten and a half months, until public pressure got her released into the general prison population years ago. And clearly she’s not a person who can be tortured into a false confession. Or they would want her to give new details of her dealings with Assange that would help them in their prosecution of Assange. And she is not cooperating with the grand jury on that. She objects to the grand jury as an undemocratic–unconstitutional, really–but an undemocratic process and its secrecy, its lack of legal defense, legal support in that process. And many people over the years have resisted that.
As a matter of fact, my codefendant, Tony Russo, refused to testify to the grand jury before–after I was indicted, but before the new indictment. And he spent about a month in jail before he himself was indicted and added to the indictment. So that’s the precedent for what Chelsea Manning is doing now. He didn’t want to be testifying against me in secret to a grand jury, no transcript of the proceedings, no publicity as to what he may have said. In fact, he offered to testify if he was given a transcript that he could publish of his testimony, and they refused to do that, and indicted him itself. I say again, that was Anthony Russo, who is no longer alive.
But Chelsea is doing that right now. She’s acting very courageously–again, I would say, which is not something I would ever demand of anyone. But I’m not at all surprised that she is doing that.