WASHINGTON — The man who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War defended both WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the Army private suspected of providing the site with thousands of sensitive government documents.
Daniel Ellsberg said Thursday that Wikileaks' disclosure of government secrets on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and thousands of diplomatic cables was "exactly the right thing" to do.
"I think they provided a very valuable service," Ellsberg said, also referring to man suspected of leaking the documents, Pvt. Bradley Manning. "To call them terrorists is not only mistaken, it's absurd."
Ellsberg said he frequently hears people praise his 1971 leak of the Pentagon's secret history of the Vietnam War while condemning the WikiLeaks disclosures. The 79-year-old former military analyst rejected that argument, calling Manning a "brother" who, if he indeed provided the documents to WikiLeaks, committed "a very admirable act."
And he said the government is wrong to pursue criminal charges against Assange, comparing him to New York Times and Washington Post journalists who have published information from classified documents.
"Anybody who believes Julian Assange can be distinguished from The New York Times ... is on a fool's errand," Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg once faced criminal charges over his leak, but they were thrown out by a judge.
While generally praising Assange, Ellsberg said Assange should have done a better job in his initial document releases of redacting names of people and sources who could be subject to violence if their names were discovered, such as Afghans who could be targeted by extremists for helping the U.S. He said WikiLeaks has modified its policies to release only documents that are also released by mainstream news outlets.
Ellsberg acknowledged that the government needs to keep some secrets, but said the WikiLeaks documents expose information that the public needs to know, including cables showing that U.S. special forces are engaged in operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Ellsberg's comments came as a House committee held a hearing on what laws could be used to prosecute Assange. Attorney General Eric Holder has said a criminal investigation of WikiLeaks is ongoing.
After his news conference – sponsored by the Australian activist group GetUp!, which released a petition with more than 90,000 Australian signatures supporting Assange – Ellsberg joined hundreds of protesters at an anti-war rally in Lafayette Park. He was one of dozens of demonstrators arrested in front of the White House for failing to obey police orders to clear the sidewalk. Ellsberg said it was the 80th time he was arrested.