What Would Daniel Ellsberg Do With the Pentagon Papers Today?April 22, 2010
By NOAM COHEN
Published: April 18, 2010
In 1971, Mr. Ellsberg passed to a reporter for The New York Times a copy of a secret report casting doubt on the war in Vietnam.
Two weeks ago, Wikileaks.org released a classified video showing a United States Apache helicopter killing 12 civilians in Baghdad. The reaction was so swift and powerful — an edited version has been viewed six million times on YouTube — that the episode provoked many questions about how such material is now released and digested.
Put another way: if someone today had the Pentagon Papers, or the modern equivalent, would he still go to the press, as Daniel Ellsberg did nearly 40 years ago and wait for the documents to be analyzed and published? Or would that person simply post them online immediately?
Mr. Ellsberg knows his answer.
“As of today, I wouldn’t have waited that long,” he said in an interview last week. “I would have gotten a scanner and put them on the Internet.”
In early 1971, Mr. Ellsberg, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, passed a New York Times reporter a copy of a top-secret report casting doubt on the war in Vietnam, the so-called Pentagon Papers. For months, he said, he waited, unsure if The New York Times would ever publish.
When the Nixon administration went to court and prevented The Times from publishing the full report, Mr. Ellsberg gave copies to The Washington Post and other newspapers.
Today, he says, there is something enticing about being independent — not at the whim of publishers or government attempts to control release. “The government wouldn’t have been tempted to enjoin it, if I had put it all out at once,” he said. “We got this duel going between newspapers and the government.”
He does concede that something might have been lost had Wikileaks been around in 1971. “I don’t think it would have had the same impact, then or now, as having it in The Times,” he said. The government’s attempt to block publication — something ended by the Supreme Court — was the best publicity, he said.
But playing the government off newspapers, and newspapers against each other, still does not compare with the power of the World Wide Web. “Competition worked in a useful way,” he said. “But the Internet has this viral aspect. It gets sent around and gets a broader audience.”
In all his strategizing about getting attention for the material he leaked, Mr. Ellsberg can sound a lot like Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks, who is unabashed in saying that one of his group’s principal obligations is “to get maximum political impact — to do justice to our material.”
Mr. Assange, true to that pledge, has been on a publicity tour that included a stop on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” In an interview in a Greenwich Village cafe last week, Mr. Assange (seated facing the door, Colbert show gift bag in tow) was quick to explain his place in the media landscape.
Someone connected like Mr. Ellsberg today, he said, is best advised to go to a mainstream outlet to get maximum publicity — much as Mr. Assange will speak to whoever gives him a microphone — but use Wikileaks as a home for the entire cache of documents.
He also acknowledged that April 5, the release date of the Apache video, was picked in anticipation of a slow news day (though, as it happened, the mining disaster in West Virginia occurred that day).
Mr. Assange has been criticized for creating an edited version of the video (he also published the longer, unedited version) and for concluding that the killings were “murders.”
The United States Army has said military protocol was followed in the incident, as its review at the time concluded. And Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week that the Apache video was misleading and lacked context — the equivalent of seeing the war “through a soda straw.”
But beyond questioning whether the use of deadly force was justified, Mr. Assange said the videos were needed to bring the reality of war to Americans.
“Some people say that war is war and that we should expect these kinds of casualties to occur in war,” Mr. Assange said. “But these kinds of war-is-war arguments are superfluous unless the public knows what war is.”
One of the consequences of the publicity surrounding the video is that the military may keep fewer of them and certainly will not circulate them as freely, said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a global intelligence agency, who has written about his experiences as a counterterrorism agent for the government.
“It’s the same kind of argument you have with your kids,” he said. “Be careful what you post to Facebook, because it will come back to haunt you when you go to a job interview.”
The timing couldn’t be worse, he added: “Ultimately, it hurts the U.S. intelligence operation” because it hinders efforts to improve communication among agencies.
For Mr. Ellsberg, leaking is about informing the American public. “The Internet is there to bring out this evidence, when a terribly wrongful, reckless criminal act is being prepared.” He said that earlier on, Wikileaks tried to recruit him as an adviser but he was skeptical. It looked like a way for the authorities to monitor leakers, he said, either by design or through surveillance.
“I didn’t believe that the technology could keep them away,” he said. “But the anger of the government over this leak suggests that they have been successful so far.”
Mr. Ellsberg said that he had made a donation to Wikileaks after watching the Apache video. Given the surveillance he has undergone in the last 40 years or so, he doubts that the contribution raised any eyebrows in government circles.
“I am sure I didn’t get on any new list by giving a contribution,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 19, 2010, on page B3 of the New York edition.