Whistleblowers Save our Democracy, Says Daniel Ellsberg

September 24, 2019

Trump has been exposed by leakers and might face consequences, and Edward Snowden has published a book. Daniel Ellsberg reflects on the bravery of exposing the truth.

Trump has been exposed by leakers and might face consequences, and Edward Snowden has published a book. Daniel Ellsberg reflects on the bravery of exposing the truth.



Daniel Ellsberg

Story Transcript

EDWARD SNOWDEN: It’s not enough to believe in something. You have to be ready to stand for something if you want it to change. And so that is what I hope this book will help people come to decide for themselves. Are you ready for this to change?

MARC STEINER: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Edward Snowden defines whistleblowing for this generation. Whistleblowing is back in the news, obviously, if it ever left. An unnamed whistleblower, blowers, have accused Trump of divulging secrets to a foreign leader. Another that he tried to get dirt on Biden from the leader of the Ukraine. Edward Snowden is back in the news with a new book and the reality he faces that the US government may seize the proceeds he may get from that book.

We don’t know the names of the whistleblowers in Trump’s administration and his world, but we do know that whistleblowing has been ongoing in this country since its founding. In her new book Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington and Trump, political scientist Allison Stanger in an article by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker argues that Americans support whistleblowing in theory, but in practice they treat whistleblowers badly. They also tend not to like them. Her quote was, “Whistleblowers are by definition troublemakers. For that reason, they can be difficult people.” Is that really true? What does that mean? And so what do we make of Snowden’s book and the latest revelations about Trump, and why the power of the whistleblower can transform how we see ourselves and how we see power.

We talk with one of our most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, who brought truth to light when he released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, revealing secrets about the Vietnam War that changed the nature of that war and our time. Daniel Ellsberg, welcome. Good to have you with us.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Good to be here. Thank you.

MARC STEINER: Let’s start with Snowden and what he had to say and the role he played. I know you two are close. He’s part of your foundation— chairman of the board I think, if I’m correct, as you said before we went on air. So talk a bit about where Snowden is now, this book and this period we seem to find ourselves in.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Snowden is a hero of mine as well as a friend, as is Chelsea Manning is a hero. The person who is in the news right now is being a little cautious and playing by the rules in a way that neither Manning or Snowden nor I did. And the difference that makes so far is that his information hasn’t actually gotten out to the Congress or to the public. He or she went to the Inspector General, as the rules inside call on them to do with a complaint. And we notice that as of now, it’s really not out.

Now, if the information is as urgent and timely and compelling as the Inspector General apparently found it to be and as the leaker – or not yet a leaker, we’ll call a whistleblower feels, the time may come if there’s no other way to get the information out for them to give it directly to Congress or the press or the public. They haven’t done that yet, unlike Snowden, and Snowden’s information got out. We don’t yet know what this a whistleblower has to tell us. So the time will come, as I say, when they faced the exact challenge that Ed Snowden made very soberly at the beginning of your program. Is she or he willing to take a risk in their personal lives and their career, even possibly a risk of prison to get this information to the American people? And if it is as important as they seem to feel, then they should definitely face the possibility, I would say, of paying a very high personal cost to get it to the public.

MARC STEINER: And that’s the part we don’t always kind of understand completely, the personal costs of why people will step over that line. I’ve interviewed Chelsea Manning a number of times, and I’m clearly absolutely familiar with your work and Snowden’s work. But your work moved my generation in a very deep way back in the early ’70s. And so talk about crossing that line and what that means politically, and what that means for transforming how we view our own society.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Nearly every whistleblower who’s by definition revealing some wrongdoing or dangerous practice by their own team, their agency, their department, their government, the executive branch to the public is doing something that their bosses don’t want to happen. That’s virtually by definition. Otherwise, they would have put it out themselves. And so they’ll take extreme steps to keep that information from getting out there and keep the whistleblower from succeeding in getting out, if that’s what they’re trying, and to punish them as an example to others. It’s not sheer revenge. It’s a question of deterring others from doing the same. So they can expect very strong efforts at retaliation, and laws passed by Congress supposedly to protect whistleblowers have not done so in the effect in the past. In fact, giving your information to a boss, your agency, or up through the channels, or to an inspector general has generally had the effect simply revealing your complaint to your bosses and allowing them to isolate you from further information, fire you, punish you, do various things. So it has not actually – very rarely has it actually protected the whistleblower from retaliation.

Now, probably the least dangerously of actually getting the information out is to go directly to the press, now the internet, perhaps Wikileaks, or just put it on the net as various people could have done, or go to the press. My outfit, the Freedom of Press Board, in which Ed Snowden is now the chairman, as he has promulgated enciphering cyber ability for people to get this in a coded form into newspapers. And a lot of newspapers use that now. But if you just go to the Inspector General, the situation in this current prospective whistleblower, an attempting whistleblower, has not yet succeeded in getting the information out.

They’re in somewhat of a bind now because having gone to the Inspector General with this complaint, there’s no chance for them to be anonymous. And if they then proceed to go to the press in frustration and getting ripped up because Inspector General knows who is trying to put this out. It could even be a, in some cases it has been, a mistake in this sense. A number of people in the National Security Agency, like Snowden was at one point, a number of them, Tom Drake, Bill Binney. Kurt Wevey, Ed Lewis made complaints to the Inspector General and also the Congress. Then, when somebody revealed the widespread surveillance of which they were aware but with which they had not leaked to the press, when someone did it, actually Thomas Tamm was one.

And then years later when Ed Snowden gave the actual – identifying himself, they immediately suspected Tom Drake and the others of having given this since they had made the complaint, and they actually hadn’t. So their careers were totally disrupted by the way they moved, which was within channels. They would have done better I could say practically speaking to have gone anonymously in the first instance to the press, and then we would have had their information years before Ed Snowden revealed it.

MARC STEINER: So you know, in many ways when you look at—A couple of quick questions here, when I was thinking about this. When you released the Pentagon Papers and then of course that led to Watergate and trying to get information on you to come after you. If these allegations are true, what Trump allegedly did, this was—

DANIEL ELLSBERG: We don’t have the content in detail yet at all. We only have speculation.

MARC STEINER: Exactly right. Well, suppose that speculation was real, what would that mean?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, what has leaked out so far, and I’m not clear just what the basis for it is so far. Somebody must’ve been talking more than they were officially allowed to do, but it implies that the president was using the power of his office to hold a $250 million aid deal in bands and pressuring Zelensky of Ukraine to help investigate and smear Joe Biden and his son in preparation for the election. And clearly then, using his office and the powers of his office for his personal benefit of getting reelected.

Now, truthfully, that’s pretty much what presidents do all the time. In this particular case, there’s the unusual aspect to asking a foreign government to help in that. I would say the people who are treating this as if this is slightly unprecedented and unimaginable kind of thing are either ignorant of our history, which is quite possible, or being disingenuous because there’s no question Nixon, for example, did exactly the same as a candidate in 1968. Many others have done this in various ways.

That doesn’t make it legal or constitutional. It does mean in this case that he may have gotten caught thanks to somebody ringing the bell here or blowing the whistle. And they say whether we really learn enough to constitute this, to know enough to see this as an impeachable offense, it does look it’s going to depend on that whistleblower taking thee further risk, a real risk, of going directly to Congress or to the press. Well, there would be a real risk in doing that and it could be very much a risk worth taking.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious as we kind of wind down here a little bit in our conversation that when you released the Pentagon Papers and were exonerated legally—

DANIEL ELLSBERG: No, I couldn’t be exonerated. My trial lead to a mistrial. It was then acquitted.

MARC STEINER: [crosstalk] That’s right. Right.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Because of government criminality in trying to blackmail me from keeping other information. By the way, if whoever does know in the administration who the person is, the whistleblower—And I use that term a little cautiously here because so far, they haven’t really gone outside channels. They haven’t gone outside of their agency so far to bring that information public, and it hasn’t become public. So let’s just say it’s an attempted whistleblower here so far.

MARC STEINER: Right.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, we can be sure that whoever knows that identity and connected with Trump White House, will be bringing extreme pressure to appear to keep them from further going further in revelations. I think, for example, Ed Snowden, if they could have found him, and he was in Hong Kong, well advisedly out of the country when the revelations came up. But If they could have identified him, found him before he actually identified himself and before it had all become public, he would have been in considerable danger of his life, I believe.

In fact, I can say that personally because Richard Nixon sent a dozen CIA assets, so-called, former Bay of Pigs veterans, Cuban Americans, to come up and incapacitate me totally on the steps of the Capitol. And the prosecutor, their prosecutor, was sure that meant to kill me. I’m not so sure he did mean to kill me. I think they wanted to shut me up and make sure I didn’t tell any further secrets on Nixon himself. So when I said at the time that they were looking for Snowden, that he was endanger of his life, some people thought I was off the wall on that. I had to say you’re looking at somebody who actually was in danger more than I knew at the time from the White House.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. This whole way we look at this thing in this society at large, it’s patriot-trader. Which one is it and who are you? And I think that it seems that it’s gotten, in the last 40 years, even more dangerous in some ways for people to become whistleblowers. People are really being prosecuted, put in prison for these things.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: [inaudible] the only person who was prosecuted for doing that under the Espionage Act. No one had ever been prosecuted under any law before for leaking to the American public. Now, I got used to headlines about me, interviews with me or profiles for whatever with the heading, “Patriot or Traitor.”

MARC STEINER: Right.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: “Trader or hero,” or whatever. And it was very dismaying to me to realize that there really were so many people in the country who imagined telling the truth to your fellow citizens can be treason. That’s not true under our Constitution. In fact, we fought a revolution in part to change the system in which criticizing a king was seditious libel or treason, and you could be drawn and quartered for it. Actually, remember, this country was founded by traders. Every single one of them liable to be hanged if they’d been caught after 1776 for signing the Declaration of Independence, and they discovered a different loyalty to a country where telling the truth is not treason.

MARC STEINER: And telling the truth and exposing the lies that may happen around us, I mean, if we look at the right way, it strengthens our democracy, and who we are and what our future might be.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: If you’re not able to do that, you don’t have a democracy. So it is democracy in action, the ability to criticize and to inform your fellow citizens what they need to know to be the sovereign public, to hold officials accountable. People say voting is the only remedy in this case, but what does voting mean if you don’t have the information on which to evaluate a candidate or compare them to someone else? It means it’s a disguised monarchy actually. We’re back to George III, and that the revolution was rescinded in effect. We have a president right now, I think, who doesn’t believe at all in the Constitution or what it meant to have a government different from that of Imperial Britain.

MARC STEINER: Well, I want to thank you for being you, Daniel Ellsberg and for Mr. Snowden and Chelsea Manning and the rest. I thank you for taking your time once again with The Real News. It’s always a pleasure to have you with us. I look forward to doing it again, I hope.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Mm-hmm. Good.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. We’ll stay on top of this and keep whistleblowing out in front. Take care.