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Legendary Leakers at PDF2010

Micah Sifry hosts a conversation between two legendary leakers: Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking the Pentagon papers, and Julian Assange, the founder and spokesman of Wikileaks, who’s participating from Australia via Skype. Ellsberg begins by mentioning that going into psychoanalysis ultimately helped get rid of Richard Nixon, as Nixon broke into his psychiatrist’s office… and that having Julian over his shoulder on a screen feels like being back in therapy. Julian suggests that, despite his dapper appearance, he’s naked from the waist down. And away we go…

Micah Sifry notes that Daniel Ellsberg has said that, if he were leaking the Pentagon Papers today, he’d simply have “gotten a scanner and put them online.” If you’d just put those papers online, Micah asks, would they have had the same impact? Did the press add value by adding context?

Ellsberg offers his suspicion that the real value of putting the papers in the newspaper was that it drew attention to the government’s inability to stop the flow of information. In many ways, the government’s failure to stop the secrets from being released (after enjoining the New York Times, 19 other papers published parts of the Pentagon papers) became the story, rather than the content of the papers. Had he released them on the internet, governments wouldn’t have been able to try and stop them, and that story of government disempowerment wouldn’t have had traction. He suggests that the newspapers offered very little context and interpretation – they basically just shared the documents.

Micah asks what impact raw information – as brought to light by sites like Wikileaks – can have? Julian begins to offer an answer: “It creates bait to draw the dragons out of their caves.” Positioning Wikileaks as unblockable is a way to draw a response from the powers that be. Alas, the powers that enable Skype connections between here and Australia fail, and we lose him.

Ellsberg praises Wikileaks for the Collateral Murder video, and particularly the title: “It was murder… While not all killing in war is murder, a lot of it is.” But he’s dissapointed with how little information is actually being leaked: “Looking at the index of what Wikileaks has, I’m struck by what a miniscule fraction of the info the people should have from the government, what a small fraction of what the government has and what the people need has gotten out.”

That information can get out with less risk to whistleblowers now that there’s Wikileaks, But officials, he asserts, from Obama on down know that they can lie to the public in very public ways. Ellsberg believes that Obama was lying in the State of the Union address when he said that there was a limit to the troops he’s going to put into Afghanistan. “I don’t believe that Obama is truthful about limiting troops to Adghanistan and I believe he doesn’t believe it.” Further, Ellsberg says that he believes that people in power won’t risk their careers to tell the public where our military planning is actually going. “If Wikileaks can make it less possible for politicians to lie with confidence,” it can have a real effect on governance.

Julian is asked by Micah Sifry whether an apparent US crackdown on whistleblowers is a reaction to Wikileaks. Julian suggests that it’s not his site – his whistleblowers, while celebrated as heros, are quite well protected and haven’t been publicly exposed. Instead, he offers, what’s going on is that the Democrats are merging with the bureacracy, military establishment and the CIA – an inevitable consequence of coming into power – and being captured by those entities. The only real restraint on government, he offers, is political opposition… and the Republicans are so wedded to the military and intelligence establishments, they’re not a restraint on the military and intelligence complex. All levers of power pushing in the same direction – a direction of increased secrecy. One possible response is to amplify those who are brave enough to leak secrets and to ensure that anyone who is caught leaking becomes extremely visible and famous.

Ellsberg offers his initial reaction to Wikileaks – he thought it was either being put together by the NSA as a honeypot or by people who were extremely naive. Now he’s just amazed that Wikileaks is somehow able to keep secrets away from the NSA.