DANIEL Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers 35 years ago, said last Friday that whistleblowers shouldn't be afraid to reveal government secrets in an effort to save people's lives, even if it means going to jail.
"Don't do what I did," Ellsberg said. "Don't wait until the bombs are falling in Iran. Don't wait until people are dying. Go to the press and reveal."
Ellsberg told the American Bar Association's Forum on Communications Law that he waited nearly two years before handing over the top secret study of the Vietnam War to The New York Times in 1971.
"I wasted 22 months," he said, advising others planning to leak materials to "take your risks and go to prison if it means saving lives."
He compared the Pentagon Papers revelations to the recent New York Times disclosures that President Bush had authorised wiretapping the phone conversations of U.S. citizens without court authorisation.
He also noted that the Times has acknowledged holding that story for a year at the White House's request.
In an interview following his talk, Ellsberg said he believes that by withholding the story the Times played a role in Bush's re-election.
"We had a lawbreaking president here and they helped to re-elect him," he said.
He added, however, that it was fortuitous the story appeared before a congressional vote on extending the Patriot Act, adding the Times should be commended for that. The act was temporarily extended until next month while debate on it continues.
Ellsberg shared the stage at the gathering of some 250 First Amendment lawyers with other players in the Pentagon Papers drama, including former New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel and former Times attorney James C. Goodale. They gave vivid recollections of key decisions that shaped the historical case.
Frankel said Goodale immediately feared the government would seek an injunction claiming national security dangers, which it did.
Asked about his newspaper's concerns about exposing a secret government report, Frankel, then the Times Washington bureau chief, said he was more concerned about the consequences of not publishing.
"The frame of mind of people at my level was, 'It's a hot story and how do we get it out and damn the consequences,"' he said. "The first instinct and the last instinct is to get it out.
"What you judge are what are the consequences of not publishing," he continued. "What happens when your readers find out you had it and you didn't publish it?"
Goodale said he did some quick legal research, determined there was no law against leaking and that Ellsberg's actions did not fall under espionage statutes. While he at first urged caution, he said that his attitude changed after reading the Pentagon Papers.
"I got so darned angry at the documents and the history that I decided they had to be published," he said.
He added that there was so little legal precedent on the issue that, "I felt rather certain that the government didn't know what it was doing."
Ellsberg's case was dismissed because of government misconduct after it was disclosed that a group working for the White House had broken into his psychiatrist's office in an attempt to gain information it could use to embarrass him.
Shortly after last Friday's panel discussion, Ellsberg learned that the judge who dismissed the charges, William Matthew Byrne Jr., had died Thursday at age 75.
"His dismissal of all charges against Tony Russo and myself with the eloquent denunciation of government misconduct, in which he said it offends a sense of justice, gave my wife and me one of the best days of our lives," Ellsberg told the news agency.
The Associated Press from
Palm Desert, USA