It was a meeting across generations and technology. Daniel Ellsberg, who made his name nearly forty years ago by providing copies of the highly classified Pentagon Papers to Congress and the press, was sharing a bill with Julian Assange, a principal in WikiLeaks, the newly prominent Web outfit that publishes documents others would rather keep hidden.
This morning’s meeting was the first time the two had spoken. It was arranged by the minds behind the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), an annual New York City conference that brings together technologists, activists, developers, journalists, thinkers, and others interested in the intersection of the Internet, politics, and policy.
Assange hadn’t been brought together with the crowd, in the strictest sense—he appeared by Skype from his native Australia, where it was nearing midnight, wearing the black shirt and red tie combination that he often favors. And while WikiLeaks relies on a robust suite of technology to protect the anonymity of their leakers, the video stream left a little something to be desired, depriving the audience of a robust exchange.
Micah Sifry, the onetime Nation editor who along with Andrew Rasiej makes PDF come together each year, was moderating, and did his best to deal with the many “can-you-hear-mes” coming across Assange’s feed.
Ellsberg started with a joke, saying that having Assange’s face projected behind his head made him feel like he was back in psychoanalysis, with a shrink over his shoulder. (The joke had a historical fillip, as Ellsbergs psychoanalytic records were stolen in a government smear campaign against him.)
“Well, I’m naked from the waist down,” Assange volleyed back, before turning serious. “Dan is a hero of mine,” he said, offering that he was being born while Ellsberg was releasing the Pentagon Papers. (Until very recently, Assange had been cagey about his birth date.)
Sifry asked Ellsberg to elaborate on a quote of his that appeared in The New York Times after WikiLeaks released the headline-grabbing video showing the deaths of journalists, civilians, and children at the hands of a U.S. helicopter in Iraq in 2007. Ellsberg had said that rather than go through the laborious work of photocopying the papers on primitive machines, and then schlep them across the country, he wished he had been able to use the Internet to leak the documents.
“If it had all been dumped out on the Internet, which a scanner would have allowed me to do,“ Ellsberg mused, “they’d have said, ‘Well it’s out,’ and not attempted to enjoin it”—as the Nixon White House tried to, going all the way to the Supreme Court, once they knew that the Times was moving to publish the articles around the documents.
In turn, Assange said that his organization had done its best “to set up ourselves to be an unsueable publisher.” Their most significant lawsuit to date came when a Swiss bank tried to stem the dissemination of a collection of their offshore account records in a San Francisco federal court.
“We deliberately set up shop there hoping to be attacked in the free speech hotbed of the United States,” said Assange, noting that it had been an instance where WikiLeaks had worked to “draw those dragons out of the cave.”
“Every organization,” said Assange, “rests on a mountain of secrets.”
“We are just starting to take it on,” he added. “It is inherently an anarchist act.”
“Dan has a wonderful statement that we’ve used. And that is that courage is contagious,” said Assange, citing a leaker who spoke to Ramparts magazine in 1972, who credited Ellsberg as his inspiration.
Sifry asked Assange if he thought the unprecedented spate of leak investigations launched or carried on by the Obama administration was a response to the ease of dissemination of classified information via WikiLeaks, and more generally the Internet.
In response, Assange defended his organization’s security record, and offered another explanation behind the uptick.
“All our sources have not been exposed, as far as we know. Certainly none have been publicly exposed,” said Assange. “The Democratic party is now the government. The democratic party is taking on the bureaucracy merging with the bureaucracy, is merging with the military establishment, is merging with the CIA, and has become captive by those organizations, who as bureaucracies, they are meant to control.”
“Almost no one gets caught. The United States has how many million people? And how many prosecutions are we talking about? Five? Out of 300 million people. Almost no one gets caught. Almost everyone is successful in leaking the material. But the people who are caught become extremely visible,“ argues Assange. “And we are inspired by them. We promote their visibility. Similarly, people who want to stop leaks also promote the visibility of people who have been caught. So there is a sensory illusion that it’s actually very dangerous to do.”
Ellsberg raised the case of Thomas Drake, a recently indicted National Security Agency official accused of giving classified information unmasking a wasteful program to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. According to the indictment, Drake had tried to cover his tracks by using a purportedly confidential e-mail system.
“The very fight you’re having now, over the video and the other things, probably will impress people, as it impressed me, that you really do have a technology that makes it hard for them to break into and that you’re not giving them access to, and over time, I hope that could give people confidence to use your approach,” said Ellsberg. “It’s the very video that brought you to peoples attention. I gave my first contribution to WikiLeaks having seen that.”
As the time allotted to their conversation expired, the participants waved goodbye over their video link. Ellsberg leaned into laptop where he’d been watching Assange.
“Let’s be in touch,” he said.
UPDATE, 3:40: Due to an editing error, several distinct quotes from Julian Assange were rendered as a single blockquote. The text has been corrected.
CORRECTION, 5:00: In his talk before PDF, Assange suggested the Ramparts article was published in 1973. In fact, it ran in 1972. The text has been corrected. WikiLeaks has more on this interesting story here.Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.