Daniel Ellsberg On The CIA Plan To Kidnap And Possibly Kill Julian Assange, The End Of The Afghanistan Occupation, And The Ongoing Us Drone War

Photograph Source: Daniel Ellsberg in 2020 by Christopher Michel. Cmichel67 – CC BY-SA 4.0

There are many things to say about Legendary Whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg. First and foremost of course is that he blew the whistle on the big lies behind the US Justification for the Vietnam war. Indeed, in 1967 while at the Rand Institute Daniel Ellsberg worked on the top-secret McNamara Study, US Decision Making in Vietnam, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. In 1969 he photocopied the 7,000-page study and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1971 he gave it to the New York Times, the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.

Ellsberg’s subsequent trial on 12 felony counts posing a possible sentence of some 115 years was dismissed in 1973 on the grounds of governmental misconduct against him, leading to the convictions of several White House aides and figuring in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. Now in his 90’s, Dan Ellsberg is front and center in the battle to free Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. We spoke to Ellsberg on the heels of the troubling revelations that the US CIA was considering kidnapping and even killing Assange.

Dennis: Good to speak to you again Dan. Let’s start with this: Why do you think the former CIA Director under Donald Trump thought that it might be necessary not only to kidnap, to maybe kill, Julian Assange? Why did they find him so dangerous?

Dan: You know, the – I notice on the news, on Wiki, Google News, a couple headlines that I haven’t seen yet about why did the CIA want to kill Assange. I’m interested in those stories. I haven’t been able to read them yet. Actually, it’s on a podcast. I’ll have to listen to it in England, because that isn’t self-evident why at that point they would want to kill him, except that yes, they wanted him to come into trial, they wanted to kidnap him, and get him back here. Or now they’re still trying to extradite him under Biden and get him for trial.

But on the other hand, a trial isn’t actually perfect for them because that will certainly bring up two kinds of problems, the crimes that he revealed, the war crimes, the things that Chelsea Manning had given to him about Afghanistan and Iraq revealing enormous numbers of civilians killed which had not been reported, a major program of torture by our Iraqi allies which continued into the Biden – into the, I’m sorry, Obama Administration when Biden was Vice President, and definitely would have constituted war crimes. So, these are not things they wanted discussed in open-ended trial all that much, although they do want to make an example of Julian.

I really think that in one – I’ve always thought that to some extent the best thing for him is just to keep him there in a prison without having to go through a trial and reveal any of this stuff, or have him even in Sweden on that. But since they don’t want to concede that what he did was not criminal, as I would say was not under any constitutional reading of the Espionage Act, they want to continue that and have to at least go through the motions of trying to expedite him.

But of course, assassinating him would cut that short, just keep him silent, keep him out of the way, certainly form a good example, counter, to people who might be tempted to follow in his footsteps as to what to expect if you take on not only the world’s richest and strongest imperial power, the United States, but really this was a challenge to secrecy in all governments in the world. And I doubt if he has very many admirers within state governments, practically anywhere in the world, although there were many countries where he’s extremely popular.

Germany, for example, being one for various reasons. But their – and even their Bundestag has tried to get him to come as a witness about the secrecy system. But governments that want to be tight in hand with their rich uncle here, Uncle Sam, do not want to antagonize America, and that turns out to be Biden as well as Trump. So, he’s challenged all of them, and that puts you by way of a lot of retribution.

Dennis: How would you – how do you consider Julian Assange? Do you see him as a publisher and poet and journalist? People call him lots of different things. And apparently he’s been, although he’s helped a great deal in publishing a number of incredible stories in various news organizations, he’s been sort of betrayed, set aside, forgotten. How do you see him? Is he – is his work important in terms of journalism, and what role does it play in the public knowledge?

Dan: Well first take the position that the government – that he’s put himself in as government, our government, has put him in of being under charges as a publisher, as a journalist. He’s the first actually to be indicted in this country in a way that is blatantly in contradiction to the First Amendment, “Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of the press, freedom of speech.” There could hardly be a more clear-cut denial of the protection to the press, that the First Amendment author than to be indicting and prosecuting Julian Assange.

At the same time, he offers him a good starting point, if you’re going to start, and this would be a start, of prosecuting people who are actually journalists, members of the press, because for a number of reasons he’s regarded at best at arm’s length by many mainstream media sources including the ones that used his material to great effect like the New York Times. And it’s beyond arms-length. They really regard him with disdain, contempt. They published right at the beginning a profile of him, how he smelled bad and looked like a bag woman. This is a man who had just given them and partnered with them on the release of thousands of documents which they used, and to great effect, but could hardly have been more denigrating.

And well I told him he should have expected that, or if he’d asked me what to expect. He was rather shocked by it, that the Times of all places, would go after him that way. And I said, “Well that’s what they do to sources,” as I found in my own experience with them right from the beginning. They not only don’t see sources as part of the journalistic process, I actually think that a lot of them see their sources, real sources, people who are telling them things the government doesn’t want told, not authorities who are putting out self-serving and which is most leaked, authorities of various kinds who would never be in – risk in the government for putting it out because they’re serving their budgets, they’re serving the President when they put this stuff out. That’s what most leaks consist of.

But actual whistleblowers who put out information that is embarrassing or criminal or politically relevant to the public, that the government really doesn’t want out, oddly, my experience has been the press does not generally regard them as partners. I almost think they regard them the way police regard their own informants, their snitches, as snitches, as criminals, who were useful to them but not worthy of respect. And that may sound strange coming from me, but that’s my take on it, not only from my own experience but from that of a lot of other people, whistleblowers.

Dennis: We’re speaking with Daniel Ellsberg –

Dan: I’m sorry, Dennis, you were really asking though what the significance was there, and I meant to say –

Dennis: Yes.

Dan: – having put him on trial, since he is their perfect person, not fully espoused or supported by other members of the press, and arguably in some kind of area here. Bill Keller said, “He’s not a journalist in any way that I recognize.” The kind that Bill Keller recognizes is the kind that holds back a story on massive surveillance of Americans in total violation of the Fourth Amendment and domestic laws, holds that back at the request of the White House for a year after an election, through an election in which the President said, “We don’t listen to anybody American without a warrant.” A total lie.

And the Times had that story before the election, didn’t put it out. That was Bill Keller. That’s the kind he regards as a journalist. I say he should have been impeached for that as a journalist or some equivalent of that, fired, but instead when he finally did put it out in competition with his own journalist, James Rice, and was going to put it out otherwise, he got a Pulitzer Prize for it. Okay, Keller then is – of the Times, he no longer there, but willing then not to report in any way or show any respect for, admire at all this particular journalist Julian Assange and others being against Julian for somewhat better reason I could say, and we could come back to that, or not.

Nevertheless, the indictment which is probably as they say going to get the least support of anybody you could find for a journalist or for the case, does put a bullseye on the back of any investigative journalist in America, and one could even say the world. Julian, after all, is not an American. He’s Australian. He did not do this in America. They’re still trying to get him back here to charge him with an extremely questionable unconstitutional charge of violating the Espionage Act which as I’ve said earlier, I think would not stand up constitutionally.

But it threatens every journalist in the country who might do something classified, put out something classified, which happens all the time, every day really, it threatens them with imprisonment and some with prosecution for the first time in our history. So the press has – they say want to be something other than a source of handouts from the government, something other than a spokesperson for the government, has extreme interest in supporting and protecting the First Amendment which protects them, and to do that you have to support Julian Assange and do everything you can to see the faults, the wrongness of the effort to indict him and the effort to extradite him and the actual indictment of him.

And the press actually did at one point – I think there was a day or two in this indictment openly – there were a lot of editorials on that, rightly so, and then dropped as if it had all been settled. It just went away. The press, you know, in short has not perceived from my day till this – that’s 50 years, has not perceived that this abuse of the Espionage Act is aimed directly at them, all of them, all of them who want to print something other than a government handout or government authorized leak.

And they’ve just laid back on this. I would say it’s very derelict, and not only in the part of Bill Keller who I’ve already criticized, but the press in general has not taken this on as a protection case that involves the very basis of our democracy.

Dennis: We’re speaking with Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg. I’m thinking of Judith Miller, and she’s your perfect government stenographer who wrote the lies that –

Dan: Yeah.

Dennis: – got us into –

Dan: Yeah.

Dennis: – the Iraq War. That’s the kind of journalist I guess they praise, except that one happened to get caught and went to jail. I want to ask you, Dan, we’ve just seen the US end a 20-year occupation of Afghanistan with a bombing that really – it’s sort of – I think of it as collateral murder too, where they were outraged that there was an attack at the airport and so they just sent out a drone and instead of killing so-called terrorists they killed an entire family with a whole bunch of children, a couple of young children. It seemed that the kind of journalism that Julian Assange did was meant to try and stop that kind of, if you will, collateral murder.

Dan: Well, exactly so. Assange challenges the whole secrecy system in a way that’s long overdue and this area that you describe, for instance, is an appropriate example of that. Daniel Hale has since gone to prison now [inaudible 15:22] for a plea deal for revealing that the drone program of which he was a part and which he worked for several years, and then publicly has opposed for years, one of his major points brought out in a series of articles in the [inaudible 15:40] and in a book by [inaudible 15:43] and many talks by Hale himself, was that what happened in Kabul of carefully pursuing a particular target following him for hours, assuring themselves that there were no civilians around in which turned out not to be true. But also, you know, that it was an important high valued terrorist, they had the wrong man.

He not only was not a terrorist, he was working for us or an NGO here, helping people there, actually the kind of person whose relatives are now under risk from the Taliban because they were not on the side of the Taliban, and that’s who we killed. Well that’s what Hale showed unmistakably was that that was not an isolated incident, a mistake, even though it took hours – it was involved – I think I read at one point there were nine drones over that car at the point when it, you know, many different commands were following that and different agencies, tremendous discussion and consideration of it resulting in murder, second-degree murder, not intended these people, because these weren’t the people they thought they were.

That turns out to be standard. What Hale showed specifically was a lot of [inaudible 17:07] from the program from inside it which he revealed which showed that for every – for one period, long period, for every named person that the drone attack was focused on, and in those days it almost always was a particular person. Now it’s much broader. For every person they actually killed with a drone, perhaps 17 others who had no connection with that were killed, people who at first they had the wrong person, as in this case, or the wrong house or the missile went astray or there were people next to him – this is almost always the case, other people around there, 17 civilians for one suspect.

Remember that the suspect has been subject to no due process, no conviction, even in the case of an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki who was killed and two weeks later his 16-year-old son killed, again for reasons never explained. In that case they said, oh they thought that the son was with a high-level Taliban person. Well, he wasn’t. So, well oops, you know, mistake, nobody’s perfect. The point being what that Kabul incident should reveal with the unique amount of investigation that is involved in it, the press should be picking that up and saying how common is that mistake.

It clearly shows that there’s every reason to believe that quote “errors” like that and massive collateral damage of people who are not involved in a conflict happens every day, every other day, all over. There’s every reason to believe that the casualties from that have made us hated in Pakistan for keeping an eye in the sky with a Hellfire missile attached to it, over them, surveilling them at all times. But that has resulted in A) enormous killing of civilians, and B) and hatred of us, which in a nuclear armed country like Pakistan is not healthy for us or the world.

Dennis: Well now the policy is – I really like this phrase, “Over the Horizon” bombing. It’s like you watch a sunrise and a bombing at the same time. What do you think of that long-range bombing policy?

Dan: Well, obviously, we’re really telling the world or confirming that it’s up to the President to decide who in the world, and that is not a turn of phrase, who in the world is safe from a Presidential decision that that person or someone like him, somebody who seems to be that sort of person, should be killed by the US. We recognize no national sovereignty, no airspace, and this over the cover, over the hill, I’m sorry thing – Horizon means we never leave anywhere. The War is never over. We can continue a war in the air indefinitely. That’s what it’s telling not only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but every other country.

It is a new phase of imperial warfare with a capability – you know, it occurred to me the other day, and I hated to recognize this, it means that there is a death squad centered in the White House. President Obama used to look at a list [inaudible 21:00] people for assassination. This is Obama. Which included a number, scores, of American citizens on that list. And without any accountability, any due process, any indictment even, he can just pick people off. That’s a death squad operation.

And I said to myself for decades now since that concept came to our attention in places like Brazil and Chile and also Indonesia, I would – could not accept under any circumstances that my country operates death squads, as in the Philippines, for example, where Duterte has the police going around in police cars shooting at people, killing people. But no, my country has done some very bad things. This is something I would do anything to prevent. And what I had to recognize the other day with the Drone Killing in Afghanistan that we’re reading about now. The drone operators are death squads.

Dennis: They’re death squads.

Dan: And they haven’t to our knowledge, done that in this country, they haven’t done it in this country yet – yet, but there is no reason to think that with the emergencies and the all gloves are off and we’ve got to protect the American people by killing whoever we think is in the way, there’s no reason to think that that little imperial incident won’t come home. We’re already putting drones in police stations all over the country watching things. How long will it be before some of those drones are armed?

And this very context of Assange, which you haven’t mentioned yet, but we just learned, you know, folks at the CIA had plans, consideration of plans, which regarded it’s legitimate, but they looked at the pros and cons of assassinating him, kidnapping him or poisoning him as arose in my case. Well the idea that that would be Hillary Clinton is reported to have said about Snowden, “Now why don’t we just drone him?” And then she later said when that was questioned, “Well that was half a joke.” Other people there said it didn’t sound like a joke when she said it. Of course it comes to the mind of the President now who weekly..who to kill, and that’s an extremely dangerous situation for us at home and for the world.

Dennis: Could you talk a little bit to the nature of the killing, of the drone pilot, as you say, The drone pilot doesn’t see the results, the blood and guts of his murder or her mass murder. Is that a special kind of killing that does a special damage to the psyche? You know you pull the kill trigger, murder a bunch of people and then go home and have dinner with the wife and kids.

Dan: Well there’s different layers. my guess is that the people who just sign the name off or write it up, check it off, get this guy, are not subject to either guilt, anxiety, or sleeplessness, anything else. It’s too far away. They think they’re doing what’s in their right and so forth.

The people who watch this process on the screen as did Daniel Hale and others, many others, which would be true in the Kabul case, by the way, recent ones, what are those people feeling? They watched this guy carefully as he put what they thought were explosives in the back of his car which turned out to be jugs of water which he was taking to his boss. Now we can ask, you know, what are they – you thinking about? They saw this guy and 10 people, seven children, blown to bloody bits. And in a process of which they were a part, and they watched that.

Now that’s unusual in warfare as Hale has pointed out. He, by the way, is the ancestor of – or rather had as an ancestor, Nathan Hale, the first American tried for giving information to Americans. He was George Washington’s spy. I have to spell this out now because I’ve learned that whereas that was an everyday name, known to all school children when I was a kid, people don’t know it now. But anyway, he was Washington’s spy. He was hanged, and I sometimes say I’m the second person, fortunately not hanged, but tried for giving information to Americans, which is what Nathan Hale did.

So, Daniel Hale now has said that whereas somebody on the ground who’s getting shot at, even if he can see who he’s shooting at, and Hale for these under threat and now see in some cases under threat, they’re being fired at. You don’t think too much about whether it’s right or wrong to fire back. I can testify to that from my own experience. But then on the other hand, I am so glad that I never got close to killing somebody, let’s say somebody who looked like a 16-year-old or a 14-year-old, which is the kind of people we were actually fighting. I’m sure that would scar my life, but I didn’t see that.

But on the other hand, people who do it from 30,000 feet don’t see – and that’s where most of the deaths have been called, or lower, in the air, lower, they don’t see who they’re killing, so again, there’s no real evidence it causes them a lot of guilt or anxiety or anything. But the people who see it – who do see atrocities up hand, first hand, on the ground, suffer from PTSD as a result. There’s a category they have now I hadn’t seen before called a moral injury where they participated in things that they thought just totally violated their sense of rightness and decency.

Well the people on these screens see that all the time and a lot of them are suffering PTSD. And you could say, well, you know, why do they stay in it? And that’s what they ask themselves later. That’s what Daniel Hale expresses a great deal of guilt about that part of his life, not exposing it, but having been part of it, and rightly so. And I was part of this moral catastrophe of Vietnam, and but, you know, it wasn’t a question of seeing people up close, and here you have this face to face killing except that the face is 6,000 miles away, amazingly enough, and yet will haunt.

The people who did this in Kabul are almost surely not monsters. They are not volunteer Mafia hitmen, and who knows what they feel, but they are ordinary Americans who are in it for their college degree in many cases and as Hale was, among other things. And when they see up close on orders of the President coming down, they have commonly killed more civilians, untargeted civilians, than anybody else that they do feel guilt for.

But the wrong people, of course, end up being on trial, Daniel Hale, for example, or reality [phonetic] winner, Assange, Snowden, Chelsea Manning. One person goes to jail for the totally illegal criminal, vicious torture program under Bush, George W. Bush, and Obama, and one person, and that is John Kiaku who goes to jail for exposing the name of a torturer.

Dennis: Afinal question here just as a way of summing up:

What’s at stake if they go ahead, extradite Julian Assange, prosecute him? would you say that’s a major step in the wrong direction and towards the end of free speech and free reporting journalism?

Dan: Well, you know, it’s not from one day to the next that we’ll become a police state. That will happen with another big 9/11, if there is, or if we go to war and have a state of war. We have the infrastructure for an East German type police state, from one day to the next, as Snowden has called it, turnkey tyranny, just turn a key in effect and surveillance goes — puts hundreds of thousands of people in detention camps, the list for those exists, and the camps exist, and the surveillance now we know where those people on the lists are practically any time of the day when they’re carrying an iPhone or another phone around with them.

So, we have the potential for a police state with a great provocation. Of course, we’ve just seen a President with clear instincts to overthrow the Constitution, a domestic enemy of the Constitution, the kind that I swore an oath like everybody else in the government, to defend against and protect against, but so our democracy is an endangered and fragile state.

But one aspect of it, this secrecy aspect that’s raised, it is time now for the press at last – I’d say they’re derelict for not doing it earlier, to recognize that the actually existing secrecy system, the way it actually operates, is mainly to keep secrets from the American people to prevent accountability or resistance to extremely reckless or criminal or extremely ill-judged policies, interventions of its kinds, like Iraq or Vietnam or other aspects of our far-east policy. That secrecy system protects – keeps these wars going indefinitely we’ve just seen.

I think without leaks on Richard Nixon that brought him down we could still be bombing Vietnam. That would be 50 years later. But Afghanistan we’ve just seen 20 years. It could have gone on. So, the time is to really take seriously the First Amendment and recognize that what these presidents have been doing in the way of prosecuting whistleblowers endangers our democracy and very – it’s one of the things that endangers our democracy.

And notice, Biden was Vice President in an administration that chose not to indict Julian Assange. People say they would have to indict the New York Times as well. Not really. They can indict who they choose, but the point being that they would be – they are indicting Julian Assange for doing the same kind of thing the New York Times does at its best. So, it’s time for the press then to get together to realize that this endangers them all and to recognize that the secrecy system needs to be investigated.

Oh, I started to say, Biden was Vice President with Obama where they chose not to prosecute him because it was so blatant a violation of the First Amendment. But Biden as President is now extraditing him, following in the footsteps of Trump, who by the way appealed a judge’s decision in Britain not to extradite him. Trump appealed that on his last day in office, a little parting shot. Nothing could have been easier for Biden to come in and say that’s one of the things – after all he spent his first day I believe cancelling a lot of Trump Executive Orders, did he not? That’s what he was elected for, and he could have come in and put that among them and said, okay, we drop the appeal. We shouldn’t be appealing, you shouldn’t be indicted and dropped the charges. He didn’t do that.

So, I think we have to accept that if Biden’s appeal is successful and Assange is brought back here and tried, that will not be the last, and we won’t have to wait for a Republican either or for Trump. Even under Biden it will not be the last, and yes, the New York Times itself will find that it has to defend and maybe a little late because the precedent will have been set.