Ellsberg admires Briton as fellow whistle-blower


Leak: The famed U.S. spiller of secrets from the Vietnam era says the woman who released an NSA communique before the Iraq war did the right thing.

February 01, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It is a different time, a different war and a different country. But America's most famous leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, senses a kindred spirit in a 29-year-old British intelligence officer now facing criminal charges for leaking a top-secret National Security Agency document a year ago in a failed attempt to derail the looming war on Iraq.

Last week, shortly after Katharine Gun pleaded not guilty to violating Britain's Official Secrets Act, Ellsberg and other anti-war Americans launched a public campaign defending her actions.

In interviews and an article for the British newspaper The Guardian, the 72-year-old activist spoke out in defense of Gun, a Chinese-language translator and analyst at Government Communications Headquarters until her arrest in March. GCHQ, in the small English city of Cheltenham, intercepts phone calls, faxes, e-mail and the like and collaborates with the NSA, the mammoth eavesdropping agency at Fort Meade.

"I really admire and appreciate what Katharine Gun's done," Ellsberg told The Sun from his Berkeley, Calif., home. "I was in the same position as she was, being on trial for doing the right thing."

In fact, Ellsberg, 72, said Gun's act in releasing the NSA memo to the London newspaper The Observer last February was "more timely and potentially more significant" than his own leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg said his only regret from the Vietnam period, when he was a defense analyst for the government and the Rand Corp., was that he didn't start leaking as early as 1964 or 1965, when embarrassing revelations might still have halted the buildup to the Vietnam War. By 1971, when he gave the Pentagon Papers to U.S. newspapers, the war was already a bloody and divisive affair.

Gun's NSA memo, by contrast, came out about two weeks before U.S. and British forces began the air assault on Baghdad last March. By revealing that NSA was launching a "surge" of extra eavesdropping aimed at the U.N. delegations of six countries that the United States was trying to persuade to back the war, the memo's release might just have provoked sufficient fury to slow or halt the march to war, Ellsberg argues.

"It didn't prevent the war, obviously, but it could have and should have," Ellsberg said. He pointed out that none of the six targeted countries - Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Chile, Bulgaria and Pakistan - agreed to support the U.S. war effort, and the Bush administration gave up on seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution backing the war.

"The U.S. feared a vote, thanks in part to Katharine Gun," Ellsberg said.

Gun, who could be sentenced to two years in prison if convicted, has given no interviews. But in statements released by Liberty, the British civil liberties group that is handling her legal defense, she admitted being the source of the leaked memo and explained her motivation.

"I will defend the charge against me on the basis that my actions were necessary to prevent an illegal war in which thousands of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers would be killed or maimed," said Gun, who had worked at GCHQ for two years.

"No one has suggested (nor could they) that I sought or received any payment. I have only ever followed my conscience. I have been heartened by the many messages of support and encouragement that I have received from Britain and around the world."

Ellsberg and other anti-war celebrities, including actors Sean Penn and Martin Sheen and singer Bonnie Raitt, embraced Gun's stance in a statement released last week:

"We honor Katharine Gun as a whistle-blower who bravely risked her career and her very liberty to inform the public about illegal spying in support of a war based on deception. In a democracy, she should not be made a scapegoat for exposing the transgressions of others."

None of the signers, however, was a current or former intelligence professional. The delicate art of eavesdropping depends in part on unsuspecting targets. Anyone who is fully aware that his secrets are being overheard can take steps to defeat the eavesdroppers: encrypting communications, relying on written messages carried by couriers, or simply avoiding sensitive topics on the phone. That's why leaking eavesdropping plans is considered not just a violation of the law but a cardinal sin against the profession, intelligence experts say.

That NSA's electronic vacuum cleaner was pointed at allies is not surprising in the least, said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian in Washington. He said that U.S. eavesdroppers listened in on allied delegations to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations in 1945.

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