Q&A: Daniel Ellsberg on US surveillance
The famed American whistle-blower discusses US national security, and those who expose its overreach.
Al Jazeera, 24 February 2014
Huntingdon, United States – In 1971, US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of a top-secret study on the Vietnam War to the American press. The Pentagon Papers, as the leak would come to be called, revealed previously shrouded layers of deception on the part of the US executive branch regarding decades of military involvement in Indochina.
The famed whistle-blower has since remained active politically, and is a vocal supporter of WikiLeaks and other government challengers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden. US Army Private Manning leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, and was convicted in 2013 of violating the Espionage Act.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, released classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in 2013, and is currently residing in Russia.
Citing a wide array of historical and contemporary American intelligence programmes and policies, Ellsberg advocates critical consideration of the privacy needs of a free press and an active citizenry.
Nearing 83 years old, Ellsberg’s political energy shows no sign of atrophy. He spoke to Al Jazeera after giving a speech at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
Al Jazeera: For a lot of Americans it seems obvious that national security requires secrecy, but you have described some of the dangers of “secrecy culture”. Why is secrecy culture problematic?
Daniel Ellsberg: “Well I certainly don’t take the point of view that no secrecy is justified, or that national security never required secrecy. For example, in the Second World War, the time and place of the Normandy invasion was a very well kept secret, and moreover secured by lies as well as secrecy. It’s an interesting example, by the way – which people often bring up – because, of course, the necessary secrecy for that date and place expired rather rapidly in the course of June 1944. And yet, my guess is that there still are thousands of pages, perhaps more, tens or hundreds of thousands, that are still classified from that period. I could be wrong, by this time maybe it’s all been declassified; but it could have all been declassified certainly by 1946-47, and was not until many years later, if ever.
“Most of the documentation still called classified by this country, and I’m talking now about billions and billions of pages, most of that has long ago lost any justification for being held secret from the American people. The need is generally measured more in weeks, months, or a year or two, and yet it remains classified indefinitely. Why?
“Really, if you want to know the answer to that, my best guess as someone who worked inside the system, is that they never know what part of that may become embarrassing at some point in the future. What prediction will turn out to look absurd? Not merely wrong, but discreditable. What action may appear as part of the programme that all in all is unconstitutional, or illegal? What policy will appear to have been not only unsuccessful, but undertaken for unjustifiable, self-interested motives? It’s very hard to predict that, so simply keep it all secret, if possible, forever.”
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