“All presidents lie all the time,” a self-assured Daniel Ellsberg told the audience in the ICC auditorium.
The Berkley Center’s two-day symposium entitled “Free Speech Legacies: The Pentagon Papers Revisited” featured a conversation with Mr. Ellsberg, the infamous leaker of the Pentagon Papers and a series of distinguished panelists that sought to contextualize Ellsberg’s remarkable act.
Ellsberg, a government analyst who helped author the thousands of pages that detailed the U.S. government’s long, clandestine involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, later leaked documents for a very specific goal.
“My reason for doing what I thought would put me in prison for life was not just to inform the public,” he said. “I wanted there to be an effect.”
Dismayed by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the misinformation from the White House, Ellsberg wanted the American people to draw a suspicion of government from the Pentagon Papers. He wanted the American people to conclude that then-President Nixon was, in Ellsberg’s words, “lying” about the war.
Ellsberg also reserved some headline-grabbing criticism for the current president. Owen Eagen, a writer for The Hill, remarked that Ellsberg “suggested that the leaking of certain information might be justified in the Trump administration.”
Ellsberg’s critique of President Trump was, in fact, harsh.
He exclaimed, “[Trump] is going to lie more blatantly about domestic matters than probably any other administration in history.”
Mr. Trump, a president with a Nixonian contempt for the press and a disdain for the leaks emerging out of his own administration despite showing a fondness for “Wikileaks” on the campaign trail, was an early and easy target for Ellsberg and distinguished panelists like Bob Woodward.
As the conversations across the two-day symposium became more nuanced, there emerged a sense from those in the loosely congealed “pro-leak” camp that examples of the excesses of government power could be found in all administrations.
A deep skepticism of the power compelled Ellsberg to criticize former President Obama, noting that the Obama administration had “prosecuted [more whistle blowers] under the Espionage Act” then all former administrations combined.
Woodward, an investigative journalist for The Washington Post, expressed concern about the precedent the Obama Administration established.
Woodward’s characterization of presidential power as “awesome” and talk of his journalistic exploits dominated the second day of the symposium. With David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, at his side Woodward explained why he supported Ellsberg’s call for “more leaks.”
Sanger suggested that major media institutions were more responsible about handling information than organizations like Wikileaks.
“We are not doing what Wikileaks does,” he said curtly.
The driving force behind the pro-leak camp was that information from classified documents could be redacted, if it jeopardized national security.
Former ODNI General Counsel Benjamin Powell expressed skepticism about Ellsberg’s call for “more leaks,” citing its potential to jeopardize national security.
The dialectic that pins an administration against the press will always center on the trade-off between national security and governmental accountability. As President Trump vows to go after “low-life leakers” and the United States wrestles with the legacies of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the debate over leaks only continues to spiral.