Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pentagon Papers Redux

The other day, I voted in a Time magazine online poll for Julian Assange as my choice for the magazine’s annual “Person of the Year.” (He’s currently in the lead. The other nominees are predictably boring: Lady Gaga, Glen Beck, Stewart and Colbert and that damn Facebook creator.)

Time’s brief blurb calls Assange, “a new kind of whistle-blower: One made for the digital age.”

The co-founder is currently being held in British custody, having turned himself in for questioning regarding allegations of rape and sexual misconduct by two Swedish women. There is now speculation the U.S. government will attempt to extradite him, and try him under the Espionage Act for his website’s recent disclosure of over 250,000 classified U.S. military documents.

Of course, White House officials and elite opinion makers wasted no time in denouncing WikiLeaks’ actions. Upon hearing of Assange’s arrest, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates quipped, “Sounds like good news to me.”

The more extreme members of the Right ratcheted the rhetoric even further. Incoming Republican Congressman Peter King wants WikiLeaks to be designated a “terrorist organization,” while Fox News host, Bob Beckel has called for Assange’s assassination.

For his own part, Assange describes himself as a journalist. He told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman earlier this summer, “We have clearly stated motives, but they are not anti-war motives… We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government.” (Democracy Now!, July 28, 2010.)

The attacks on Assange are hardly surprising. This tactic of shooting the messenger, while ignoring the message is the same one conservatives employ on the issue of global-warming. (The Right lodges personal attacks against Al Gore, for instance, yet ignore all the science, facts and empirical evidence of his warnings on climate-change.)

As Congressman Ron Paul points out in a recent radio message to supporters, “At its core, the WikiLeaks controversy serves as a diversion from what our foreign policy should be. But the mainstream media, along with neoconservatives in both parties insists on asking the wrong questions. When presented with embarrassing disclosures about U.S. spying and meddling, the policy that requires so much spying and meddling is not questioned.”

Indeed, it seems Americans should be more upset about the recent disclosures of covert U.S. activity WikiLeaks has disclosed—including the U.S. military’s pressure on Iraqi soldiers to cover-up instances of torture during the Iraq war. Instead, the media focuses exclusively on Assange himself, painting him as a sort of cyber-terrorist, and recklessly endangering U.S. military endeavors. Consider the irony of the Obama administration’s Justice Department drafting a criminal case against Assange and WikiLeaks, while it has to date refused to bring similar charges against members of the previous administration for authorizing torture and other heinous, un-constitutional crimes.

According to Daniel Ellsberg, the media launched the same sort of attack on him when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press some forty years ago. (If Ellsberg was never publicly called a “terrorist” at the time, it was only because the post-9/11 derogatory term was not as thoroughly embedded in the political vernacular as it is today.)

Ellsberg was a military analyst for the RAND Corporation during the height of the Vietnam War. When an epiphany of anti-war sentiment caused him to re-think his involvement in the war, Ellsberg stole the massive collection of classified CIA documents chronicling the United States’ Vietnam War plans known as the “Pentagon Papers” and sent them to the New York Times.

(Ellsberg’s story was recently chronicled in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s superb documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America.)

The Pentagon Papers detailed, amongst other revelatory insights that the United States’ Vietnam policy had been in place as early as 1945. The documents’ authors were also surprisingly candid in their bleak assessment of the prospects for military success in Vietnam. One chart, drafted long after the war was underway, conceded U.S. persistence in Vietnam was driven:

“70 percent to avoid a humiliating defeat.
- 20 percent to prevent South Vietnam from [falling into] Chinese hands.
- 10 percent to help the [people of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.”

The writers went out of their way to note the war was not being fought to “help a friend.”

The New York Times began publishing the documents on June 13, 1971. In retaliation, the Nixon administration sued the Times, insisting the paper cease publication of the documents immediately. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court shortly thereafter.

In the ensuing legal battle, “New York Times Co. v. U.S. Government (403 U.S. 713),” the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the Times and Ellsberg. The Court deemed the Nixon White House had failed to meet the heavy “burden of proof” to demonstrate the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers had caused a significant threat to security. (The case is considered one of the hallmark First Amendment decisions, intricately linked with freedom of the press.)

In his passionate majority opinion statement, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

“I believe that every moment’s continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment… Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.”

Justice Potter Stewart concurred, adding, “In absence of governmental checks and balances, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may lie in an enlightened citizenry—in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”

It should come as little surprise then, that Ellsberg has emerged as one of the strongest supporters of both Assange and the imprisoned PFC Bradley Manning—widely believed to be the original source of WikiLeaks’ extensive military files.

Regardless of what one personally thinks of Julian Assange’s actions, there is little doubt he has done more to promote freedom of information, freedom of the press and democracy than anybody else on Time’s “People of the Year” list. And for that reason alone he deserves both our praise and support.

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