Government officials tell The Daily Beast that they are searching for Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, whom they believe is in possession of State Department secrets leaked to him by an Army intelligence specialist now under arrest. As Assange, the Australian champion of whistleblowers cancelled a public appearance in Las Vegas Friday night, The Daily Beast talked with Daniel Ellsberg, the legendary leaker of the Pentagon Papers about Assange’s safety and what he would do if he were in possession of the State Department’s confidential traffic. Since standing trial for providing state secrets to newspapers—he was acquitted in 1973—Ellsberg has become an author and activist.
Having read a hell of a lot of diplomatic cables, I would confidently make the judgment that very little, less than one percent, one percent perhaps, can honestly be said to endanger national security.
The Daily Beast: Could the release of the diplomatic cables said to be in the possession of Wikileaks endanger national security?
Daniel Ellsberg: Any serious risk to that national security is extremely low. There may be 260,000 diplomatic cables. It’s very hard to think of any of that which could be plausibly described as a national security risk. Will it embarrass diplomatic relationships? Sure, very likely—all to the good of our democratic functioning. The embarrassment would be our awareness that we are supporting and facilitating dictators and corrupt and murderous governments, and we are quite aware of their nature.
• Exclusive: The Pentagon Manhunt for Wikileaks’ Julian Assange An example would be surrounding a visit of Hamid Karzai to this country…where he is given a special audience with the president. We know that privately he is seen realistically. We know that because of the leak, which I think started out of this investigation. We know that because of the leak from Ambassador Eikenberry. He describes him as irredeemably corrupt, not an appropriate partner for a pacification program, and cannot change.
They would regard this as very embarrassing, [since publicly they’ve been] saying, he is a perfectly suitable partner for pacification, working on corruption…Ha ha….Bullshit.
Do you think Assange is in danger?
I happen to have been the target of a White House hit squad myself. On May 3, 1972, a dozen CIA assets from the Bay of Pigs, Cuban émigrés were brought up from Miami with orders to “incapacitate me totally.” I said to the prosecutor, “What does that mean? Kill me.” He said, “It means to incapacitate you totally. But you have to understand these guys never use the word ‘kill.’”
Is the Obama White House anymore enlightened than Nixon’s?
We’ve now been told by Dennis Blair, the late head of intelligence here, that President Obama has authorized the killing of American citizens overseas, who are suspected of involvement in terrorism. Assange is not American, so he doesn’t even have that constraint. I would think that he is in some danger. Granted, I would think that his notoriety now would provide him some degree of protection. You would think that would protect him, but you could have said the same thing about me. I was the number one defendant. I was on trail but they brought up people to beat me up.
You believe he is in danger of bodily harm, then?
Absolutely. On the same basis, I was….Obama is now proclaiming rights of life and death, being judge, jury, and executioner of Americans without due process. No president has ever claimed that and possibly no one since John the First.
What advice would you give Assange?
Stay out of the U.S. Otherwise, keep doing what he is doing. It’s pretty valuable…He is serving our democracy and serving our rule of law precisely by challenging the secrecy regulations, which are not laws in most cases, in this country.
He is doing very good work for our democracy. If [the alleged leaker, Bradley Manning] has done what he is alleged to have done, I congratulate him. He has used his opportunities very well. He has upheld his oath of office to support the Constitution. It so happens that enlisted men also take an oath to obey the orders of superiors. Officers don’t make that oath, only to the Constitution. But sometimes the oath to the Constitution and oath to superiors are in conflict.
Assange has taken the position that all information should be out there. Do you agree?
He has talked about not holding anything back. I wouldn’t agree with that. Some judgments should be made. Frankly, I don’t know whether he would really act on that.
In your opinion, not everything should be released.
Yes, there are things that should be kept secret for some period of time. It’s a matter of time that it can be kept. To say that there are no such things is unrealistic and doesn’t stand up under much thought. [Assange] is taking a position there that on its face is not sustainable, but he might well not keep it. He’s obviously a very competent guy in many ways. I think his instincts are that most of this material deserves to be out. We are arguing over a very small fragment that doesn’t. He has not yet put out anything that hurt anybody’s national security.
And what about these cables in particular?
On the question of those 260,000 diplomatic cables, it is not my position that nothing in them could deserve to be secret, that nothing deserves to be secret. I don’t know. I haven’t read them. Having read a hell of a lot of diplomatic cables, I would confidently make the judgment that very little, less than one percent, one percent perhaps, can honestly be said to endanger national security. That’s distinct [from the percentage that could cause] embarrassment—very serious embarrassment, [if people] realize that we are aware of highly murderous and corrupt operations by people and that we are supporting them. It is very seriously embarrassing.
I think a better judgment would be to look over the 260,000 cables and exclude those which on their surface are dangerous. If the choice is between putting none of them out, as the State Department would like, and putting all of them out, I definitely feel our national security would be improved if they were put out. Between those two choices, I would rather see them all of them out. It would help understand our own foreign policy and give us the chance to improve it democratically. I hope they are out, I hope we get to see them.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.