The most famous whistle-blower of the Vietnam era hailed the leading figures behind the WikiLeaks document dump as heroes today, before heading off to chain himself to the White House fence as a protest against efforts to prosecute them.
On the day WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange made bail to win release from the London prison where he has been held on sexual assault charges, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg defended Assange and his alleged source, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning is being held in a military prison at Quantico, Va.
"I see Bradley Manning as a patriot, and I'm sure Julian Assange is an Australian patriot," Ellsberg said in a press conference today. "To call them terrorists is not only mistaken, it's absurd and slanderous. Neither of them are any more terrorists than I am, and I'm not."
Afterwards, the 79-year-old Ellsberg headed to the White House to be chained to its snowy gates as part of a protest organized by Veterans for Peace, which also organized the press conference along with GetUp!, an Australian activist group.
The groups ran full-page advertisements today in the New York Times and Washington Times calling on the administration to protect the civil rights of Assange and Bradley against calls for their heads.
Ellsberg's decision in 1971 to release reams of secret documents, detailing U.S. covert efforts and private doubts about the conflict in Vietnam, helped build public sentiment for the end of the war and led to his indictment. A judge ultimately dimissed all the charges.
He said there were "fundamental similarities" between his actions and Manning's. Ellsberg said that if Manning were to be executed for treason, as some members of Congress have urged, he would be the first put to death for giving information to other Americans since British colonial days. "It would mean the crown had returned to America," Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg called the public's reaction to WikiLeaks' document release "hysterical" and compared it to the outcry after his release of the Pentagon Papers, when he was called a traitor. "I have no doubt if I put out the Pentagon Papers in every detail, same as before, I would now be called a terrorist," Ellsberg said.
He acknowledged the first WikiLeaks release had been insufficiently redacted, but argued that no one's safety was compromised. Subsequent releases have been properly vetted to ensure no lives would be risked, Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg was sharply critical of President Obama, who he said "has a very personal reason to be concerned" about the exposed information. Ellsberg contended that the documents reveal torture and unnecessary fatalities at the hands of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan -- alleged atrocities that Ellsberg says Obama should be investigating.
The Espionage Act may allow some legal room to prosecute Assange, Ellsberg said, but he added that it would be impossible to mount a case without also targeting the New York Times, one of several media outlets around the world that published the leaked documents. The administration, "for political reasons, does not want to take on" one of the nation's leading newspapers, Ellsberg contended.
"Our Justice Department is searching hard for a law that these acts can be said to have violated," said Ellsberg, who asserted that Obama has already prosecuted four leakers, more than all other presidents in history combined, which he called an "ominous trend."
Ellsberg said the coverage of the gossip contained in the leaks did a disservice to the important information the documents contained, including indications that the United States is currently engaged in ground operations in Pakistan, which the Pentagon has denied. Nothing could be more dangerous, Ellsberg argued, because it could destabilize the country, leading to the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaida.