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Daniel Ellsberg Has Some Thoughts on Trump's Whistleblower

The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers talks Ukraine, blowing the whistle in 2019, and why you should never leak to the government.

by Leila Ettachfini
Oct 7 2019, 7:02pm

Collage by Hunter French | Image via Getty

Daniel Ellsberg may be nearing his 90s, but talk to him about the anonymous government official who first blew the whistle on Trump’s Ukraine scandal, and he sounds like the young and impassioned man he was when he first raised the alarm on another nationwide scandal half a century ago.

As an unknown military analyst in 1969, Ellsberg found himself in a terrifying position similar to the one the Ukraine whistleblowers are in now. After determining that U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had been spurred by a lie, Ellsberg decided to make photocopies of a study he’d been working on about the conflict.

The Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, helped expose the war in Vietnam for what it was: a costly, deadly and ultimately pointless endeavor. They would also make him among the most famous whistleblowers in U.S. history, and the first to be charged under the Espionage Act, after leaking the study to the New York Times. While the Nixon administration attempted to stop the newspaper from publishing the rest of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg leaked them again, this time to the Washington Post.

Exactly 50 years after Ellsberg first photocopied the Pentagon Papers, he can only watch from afar as the yet unnamed whistleblowers grapple with the effects of telling their government and country what they know about President Donald Trump’s relationship with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky.

The whistleblower revelations have led to calls for Trump’s impeachment and led to questions about the U.S. government’s handling of the whistleblower process and whether the public would have ever found out about the complaint without leaks to the press.

VICE spoke with Ellsberg over the phone last week about the Ukraine scandal, his advice for the original whistleblower, and the state of whistleblowing protections more generally. Two days after we spoke, a second anonymous whistleblower came forward with firsthand knowledge of the accusations in the original whistleblower’s complaint.

The interview with Ellsberg, which has been reproduced below, has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

VICE: What stands out to you in the Trump whistleblower case, based on your own experience with the Pentagon Papers?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I am struck by the dozen or so people who listened to that call and did not take any steps as far as we know either to report it to Justice Department officials or to Congress or to press. The only person who did was somebody who hadn't heard the call.

The president complains about that, which is ridiculous. Of course it doesn't take first-hand knowledge to report a crime if you hear about it. When I put up the Pentagon Papers, was I putting out stuff that was firsthand? I was putting out 7,000 pages about 23 years [of military involvement in Vietnam]. Most of that was not my personal knowledge, and that didn't keep me from being a whistleblower.

But here's another strange thing: There are no domestic crimes in those 7,000 pages. In this case, there is. In the Nixon case, there is. But generally, when the president commits crimes like that, it's not on a phone call that a dozen people are listening to. Who was it who knew enough to recognize that was a crime and work to cover it up rather than expose it? It's a really interesting question, not easy to answer. What should they have done when they heard that? That's not easy to answer. You've just heard the president, your boss, committed a crime, and a dozen other people have heard it. Who should you tell? What should you do? That's worthy of investigation.

This whistleblower is the one person in the administration who carried out her oath or his oath—the one.

The president says the [whistleblower is a] spy or traitor. There is close to zero chance in this case that even his Justice Department will be able to prosecute this whistleblower. But by calling a man that in the current climate, they put a target on the back of that person for every armed, violent, right-wing supporter of the president—of whom there are thousands if not millions in the country. So it's practically an invitation to his supporters [to attack], which he's done over and over in his campaign, saying these people should be hit in the face. When he says “traitor” or “spy,” he seems to be referring to the fate of traitors under British monarchs before the revolution, which was drawing and quartering. He's inviting violence. In this case, personal security is at stake. I would say that if you had to bet, given the bounty that's been put on the web—$50,000 for revealing the identity of this person—given the Republican desire to intimidate whistleblowers, I would think it's probable that the identity will come out. And that's a warning for for the whistleblower.

What advice would you give to the current whistleblower right now if you could?
They're obviously being very well-advised. Given the current opportunity to get this information to Congress without being prosecuted, they really used that route very well. They've done everything right. And that's contrary to what the president is saying, which is that it's not a legitimate whistleblower. Well, what could he say—“It's true that I violated the law”? He's the defendant in this case. And he's not saying it under oath. If he were saying it under oath, I think he'd be headed for consequences.

Okay, here's the contrast. The whistleblower sought advice from the congressional aide to the intelligence committee, and they gave him or her good advice: go to the [inspector general], which normally wouldn't work. If it hadn't gotten to Congress by this time, I would then say to the whistleblower it'd be different. I'd say it's up to you to decide whether this is important enough to the public and our democracy that you take great personal risk. And it could be worthwhile. In this case, it appears to be worthwhile. The risk is great, but it can be worth it.

In the case of a war, you can save lives. In the case of the Constitution here, you can keep a lawless White House accountable and protect our democracy. But in this case, they're doing fine. So they don't need any advice from me. And remember, there'll be lots of attention on this whistleblower when they testify, or if their name comes out. But the case will not depend on this whistleblower. It doesn't depend on who they are, what their motives were at all. Their motives could be anything you could imagine. And that wouldn't change the case here. This is a very unusual case, where a blatant criminal act appears to have been committed in the hearing of more than a dozen witnesses to that call, including the secretary of state, the lieutenant general assistant, the military assistant, [and] the vice president.

What advice would you give to future whistleblowers in general?
Go first to the newspaper of record, the New York Times, in hopes that they'll put this stuff out. They may not do it, then you might try somebody else. But don't give them too long. If it needs to get out, put it on the web or go to Wikileaks.

In my day, of course, the internet didn't exist. So that wasn't available. I couldn't publish it myself. I actually did consider hiring the [Harvard] Crimson. Tony Russo, [Ellsberg’s coworker who helped copy the Pentagon Papers], had once dropped some ads or something from a helicopter, and he liked that idea. He said if nobody puts this out, we could take a copy of it and distribute it all top secret over Los Angeles from a helicopter. And it would be hard for them to get it back. Everybody [who] picked up a page would be a co-conspirator. That was our problem—how to get it out.

Would you advise a whistleblower under today’s law to blow their whistle to the Inspector General, rather than the press, as the Trump whistleblower has done in this case?
I wouldn't advise it for somebody who wants to be anonymous and wants to get the information out. Even now, that route rarely works. Going to the IG generally fails on both those counts: It doesn't get out to the public or the Congress, and it does reveal you to your superior. That's common. Even in this case, for example, the director of special intelligence, [Joseph] Maguire, did immediately go to the White House and the Justice Department to reveal the whistleblower, although apparently not the name. And so that held it up. And the White House and the Justice Department both acted to bottle it up, and that is normal. That's what usually happens. But usually, the name does get to the superior.

So don’t go to the government?
No, they're the ones you're exposing. They are either embarrassed [of] or incriminated by this information. So don't count on them to put it out. And it might work, as in this case. It's not impossible, but it's unlikely. It was unlikely this would get out, but it did, thanks to some leaks. Without actual bona fide leaks in the course of this after the whistleblower, it would not have gotten out.

What assurance did you have at the time that your identity would stay anonymous?
When I gave the information to the Times, and earlier to Senator [J. William] Fulbright, Senator [Charles] Mathias, Senator [George] McGovern, all of them assured me that they could not be forced, compelled, or even asked to tell the identity of the person who had given them these documents. They all assured me. I told each one I would prefer to stay anonymous, but if it serves the cause for any reason, if you have to identify me to show that these are real documents, call me to testify.

There's no guarantee of anonymity, whatever you do with this [information]. There was no federal whistleblower statute at that time. And that route of going to the [inspector general] and getting it to Congress that way was not open to me.

You went the route of blowing your whistle to the press. What protections were offered to you by the New York Times to help keep your identity a secret?
[Times reporter] Neil Sheehan told me my anonymity would certainly be protected. They didn't put it out, but they did make it easy for Sydney Zion, [the reporter who identified Ellsberg in 1971], to find out. In other words, lots of people did know and people poking into it quickly identified me. So they didn't protect it wonderfully.

The second thing was once I was identified, I asked the editor, “Abe” Rosenthal, Mr. Rosenthal what is your policy about supporting the defense of a source? He said, I'm not sure we have a policy. I said, Mr. Rosenthal, I'm sure you don't have a policy because no source has ever been prosecuted. But, I said, you better get think of a policy about that.

The Times did not lift a finger to help my defense. They never published the name or the address of my defense fund or the fact that I had a defense fund. Nobody at the Times picked up a phone and said to a funder, ‘This would be a good trial to fund, to support,’ all of which they could have done and they didn't at all. On the contrary, the Times Magazine published a story about me with so many defamatory falsehoods that my funder had to cancel two fundraising events because people were so dismayed by that article, which was absolutely full of false statements. They want to stay at such [an] arm's length and not be accused and subject to prosecution themselves that they deliberately defame their sources. That's an answer to your question.

I just heard [journalist] James Risen on a taped interview with the Intercept. They asked him, what do you think of the Times revealing or trying to reveal the name of the source of this person? The whistleblower who they revealed was a CIA official assigned to the White House, which goes pretty far to revealing him or her to Trump. I hope it's a woman just to show everybody [they were] wrong for assuming that it was a man. I hope it comes out it was a woman.

But Risen said, Well, what that meant to me was that it was not a source to the Times. They were happy to reveal somebody else's source. [Former Washington Post publisher] Kate Graham never revealed that I was the source to the Washington Post, which I was. But she did reveal in her memoir that I was the source to the Times.

The Times used to refer to me when my name came up in a demonstration [as] “Daniel Ellsberg, who claims he was the source to the newspapers of the Pentagon Papers.” So people would ask me, Are they saying that you weren't the source? I called the Times twice and said, Would you please change that for me? And they said, We don't reveal our sources. I said, But I was prosecuted for this and I revealed myself! They said, nevertheless, We don't reveal sources. After about 30 years, they began saying that I was the source.

Do you think it’s safer to be a whistleblower now than it was for you in the 70s?
No, no, no. The whistleblower laws are like tissue paper in terms of protection. The whistleblower process generally works to identify you to your superiors. So they really are not.

It was very interesting to hear James Risen on this interview with the Intercept say he didn't think [whistleblower laws] could ever be made to work. I would agree with that. The determination of bosses to find the whistleblower and punish them is so strong. It's very hard to protect against that. And he made a very good point, which I would agree with: the only thing you can do to make it so much safer from prosecution or conviction is to change the law so that you do not apply the current Espionage Act to actual whistleblowing without amending it or revising it to make it possible to present a public-interest defense. None of that is allowed under the current Espionage Act. Because it was never intended to be applied to whistleblowers. It was intended to be applied to spies.

This president deserves impeachment, just as President Lyndon Johnson deserved impeachment, but he wasn't caught the way Nixon was caught, and he wasn't caught the way he should've been. Johnson should have been impeached for the way he got into Vietnam with my help—my silence, and the silence of all these other officials. We were all guilty of violating our oath of office. The Republicans so far have heard this call and the ones who are supporting the president are in exactly that same position.

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