Daniel Ellsberg Talks to AlterNet About Treatment of WikiLeaks' Assange
On his way to chain himself to the White House fence with peace activists, famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg stopped off at the National Press Club to join Brett Solomon of the Australian advocacy organization, GetUp.org, in the unveiling of a full-page ad appearing in today's New York Times.The ad calls for the release and fair treatment of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and an Australian citizen. After the release of a cache of cables from the U.S. State Department, Assange was apprehended in the U.K. on sex-crime charges pressed in Sweden. He was released on bail today.
After the press conference, Ellsberg spoke to AlterNet, calling the law by which the U.S. apparently seeks to prosecute Assange "unconstitutional."
Ellsberg became a household name in the 1970s when, while working as an analyst in the Department of Defense, he leaked classified information to the New York Times that revealed a torrent of misinformation and lies put before the American public about the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Late last month, the Times was among a handful of newspapers that published classified State Department communications released by WikiLeaks, which also previously released classified information regarding the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ad, signed by 90,000 Australians, reads:
Dear President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder:
We, as Australians, condemn calls for violence, including assassination, against Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or for him to be labeled a terrorist, enemy combatant or be treated outside the ordinary course of justice in any way.
To label WikiLeaks a terrorist organization is an insult to those Australians and Americans who have lost their lives to acts of terrorism and to terrorist forces. If WikiLeaks or their staff have broken international or national laws, let that case be heard in a just and fair court of law. At the moment, no such charges have been brought.
Solomon noted that in a nation of 20 million citizens, the tens of thousands who signed the petition represent a significant number of concerned Australians.
According to Assange's U.K. attorney, a secret grand jury convened by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is currently meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, to consider a prosecution of Assange.
While Holder has not confirmed that assertion, made by attorney Mark Stephens to David Frost on al Jazeera television, he has not denied it. According to the Voice of America, Holder "says he has authorized significant steps to be taken in response to the latest leak."
CBS News reported on November 29 that Holder has launched a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and/or Assange in the wake of its latest release of classified material. Ellsberg, however, held that it remains unclear whether a grand jury has been empaneled as part of Holder's investigation.
AlterNet caught up with Ellsberg after the press conference, asking for comment on an apparent public relations campaign to brand Assange as something other than a journalist. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley asserted last week that because Assange "has a political agenda." A handful of figures, including incoming Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., have called WikiLeaks a terrorist organization.
Yet, as CNN's Jeffrey Toobin pointed out earlier this month, the law no more shields journalists than anybody else from prosecution for the dissemination of classified information. For instance, in the case decided by the Supreme Court regarding the New York Times' decision to publish the Pentagon Papers leaked by Ellsberg, the court held only that the government did not have the right to keep the Times from publishing the papers, but the government still had the right to prosecute the Times after classified information from the papers was published in its pages. So, why try to make a distinction, however polemical?
"The law they're using makes no distinction between journalists, the press -- it applies to readers of the New York Times, just as well as to the publishers, the journalists and the leakers," Ellsberg explained. "The language of that law makes no distinction. Now, that's why they've been reluctant to use it -- because it's so broad, that it's almost clearly unconstitutional."
"They have tried to use the law -- mostly unsuccessfully -- but they've tried to use the law against leakers," Ellsberg continued. "They've never tried to use it against a publisher. So this would be a first."
In other words, if the Justice Department can successfully brand Assange as something other than a journalist or a publisher, it would not appear to be violating the perception of freedom of expression held by most Americans.
"[R]ather than break new ground there -- which looks even more clearly violating of First Amendment freedom of the press than against the leaker -- they prefer to say it's just the leaker -- not because of a difference in the law, it's because of the way they've applied the law in the past...and public perception."
After the press conference, Ellsberg planned to speak at an anti-war rally near the White House with activists who plan to conduct civil disobedience by chaining themselves to the fence that surrounds the White House. Other speakers included Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink; Brian Becker, National Coordinator, ANSWER coalition; Peace Mom Cindy Sheehan, Peace of the Action; Ray McGovern, retired CIA officer and former U.S. Army Intelligence officer; Mike Ferner, president, Veterans For Peace; Diane Wilson, environmental activist and author of An Unreasonable Woman; Debra Sweet, Director, World Can't Wait, and Mike Prysner, Iraq vet, cofounder of March Forward!.