I remember the weekend the Pentagon Papers were first published. I know it was a weekend, because Dad took us to visit Grandpa, and he only had custody of us on the weekends. I was too young to understand the full import of the story at the time. But there was no doubt this was big news.
It wasn't just the fact this story was plastered across the front page of the New York Times. Something is plastered across the front page of the New York Times every day. However, this was the first time I saw something on the front page of the New York Times that made adults go nuts.
Dad was furious. He'd read a bit of the story, then he'd start shaking the paper and yelling about how outrageous and irresponsible it was. Grandpa just kept pointing at the paper and saying, "Keep reading. It gets worse."
I knew it was something about the war, but in 1971 I didn't need the New York Times to tell me the war in Viet Nam was bad. Mom had been taking us to protest marches since I could remember. This was clearly something different because I'd never seen Dad so upset about the war before.
While Dad was reading and seething, I asked Grandpa what all the fuss was about. It took me awhile to understand what was driving people nuts was the fact they'd been lied to about something very important. I asked Grandpa who lied and he said, "Everybody."
When you're a kid you know adults are lying to you. They lie to you about Santa Claus. They lie to you about the Easter Bunny. They lie to you about the Tooth Fairy. They lie about how much they loved your artwork. But those were lies to spare your feelings. Everybody did it. Except Grandpa. He didn't believe in sugar coating stuff.
Grandpa's answer floored me. "Everybody? If everybody's lying...." I tried to wrap my little head around the implications of that concept. If everybody was lying, who do you trust? There was only one answer to that question. If everybody is lying, then you can't trust anybody.
This was the first time Daniel Ellsberg scared the hell out of me, and I didn't even know he existed.
It wasn't until I was in college that I started to put this stuff in context. By then, the war was long over. Nixon was out of office. Watergate had come and gone. I finally understood that when Grandpa said "Everybody," he really meant "Everybody in positions of authority." That's not a hard concept to grasp. I grew up as cynical as the rest of my generation. Reagan didn't surprise me. I saw Bush's threat to the constitution clear as a bell, even before congress abandoned its constitutional duty in October, 2001. After all this time I thought I was pretty jaded. In spite of that I dared believe we had turned the tide in 2006 and stopped the slide in 2008.
So you can imagine my surprise when Daniel Ellsberg made an unscheduled appearance at the recent Wikileaks press conference shown on CSPAN and scared the hell out of me all over again. When you listen to what Ellsberg is saying, I'm sure it will scare you, too. Here's what he said starting around 1:05:30 on the tape:
Secrecy is essential to empire... Under Obama, as under Bush, we are moving more toward the British system of control of information, which is after all, The Official Secrets Act, which is a legacy of empire and that torch is passing. A Republican administration -- a Republican House and Senate, if that comes in to being in the next month is almost certain to pass a British-type Official Secrets Act. Essentially ending leaks of the sort we have seen over the last forty years, sixty years.
A reasonable person might wonder why he would make such an incendiary statement without backing it up? Ellsberg did back it up when he first spoke at 29:01 and laid out the explicit reasoning behind that assertion.
The threat that is being made by the Pentagon, as we read over the last few days, of warning news men to stand away from this material, to refuse to receive it, if they do receive it to return it, seems absurd on its face. We're not dealing with the 7,000 pieces of paper, top secret pieces of paper that comprised the Pentagon Papers...with cyber material its all over the world right now and in several papers right now. The demand seems absurd.
At 29:49 he explains why this seemingly absurd demand is so chilling.
I understand the reason for those words. Because they echo the words first used against me the legal words of 18 UCS 793 paragraphs D and E. Which for the first time used the so-called Espionage Act as if it were the kind of Official Secrets Act that you have in Britain which simply criminalizes the release of classified material to any unauthorized person.
We don't have such a law. And the irony now is that President Obama in making these clear threats of applying this law to anyone who deals with this information -- including not only the journalist -- the words apply to any of the people who read it and don't return it to the proper authorities, actually. President Obama's threats are not entirely without credibility here because he has started as many prosecutions for leaks as all previous presidents put together.