Vietnam War whistleblower defends WikiLeaks 'hero'

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg waited decades for someone like Bradley Manning to follow in his footsteps.

He hails the US Army private accused of spilling secrets to website WikiLeaks as a champion of truth and not a betrayer of his country.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 on 22 charges of giving classified material on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to WikiLeaks.

Military prosecutors have accused Manning of the capital crime of aiding the enemy, saying they will not seek the death penalty for the 25-year-old man but want him to spend the rest of his life in prison.

"I have significant identification with all whistleblowers, but with Bradley above all," said Ellsberg.

"I'd like to see him get the Nobel Peace Prize," Ellsberg continued, tossing in a military Medal of Honor and a Congressional Gold Medal.

"He deserves to be seen as a hero. Certainly, he is a hero of mine."

Ellsberg sees Manning's case as mirroring his history-making move in 1971 to leak what became known as the Pentagon Papers, a report about US political and military machinations involving the Vietnam War.

"It is the first time since the Pentagon Papers that someone has put out a large raft of material," Ellsberg said in an interview at his home in the wooded enclave of Kensington across the bay from San Francisco.

"I think Bradley has done the right thing," continued Ellsberg, who will be 82 in April. "We've needed this kind of revelation frequently."

The Pentagon Papers were finally published in full in June 2011, 40 years after then US military analyst Ellsberg slipped excerpts of the classified report to the media.

Ellsberg's act of defiance revealed evidence that successive US administrations had lied to the public about Vietnam.

Pentagon Papers leaks led Nixon to set up a covert White House investigations unit, known as The Plumbers, to prevent further leaks to the media.

Members of the unit were subsequently implicated in a 1972 burglary at the Watergate complex in Washington -- sparking the scandal that eventually forced the president derisively nicknamed "Tricky Dick" to quit in 1974.

A set of Pentagon Papers books were prominently displayed in wall-to-ceiling bookshelves in Ellsberg's home.

"I couldn't have done that without Xerox," Ellsberg said, referring to how he photocopied thousands of pages from the report.

"Manning couldn't have done what he did with access to a thumb drive."

Manning told a military tribunal in February that he leaked secret files to WikiLeaks in order to start a "public debate."

Manning, who remains in military custody pending trial, pleaded guilty to misusing classified information but denies the damning charge of aiding America's enemies.

He sent WikiLeaks, which campaigns against government secrecy and publishes leaked information on a secure website, two military logs of daily incidents during the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also provided a vast trove of US diplomatic cables and cockpit video from a US helicopter gunship involved in an incident in which Iraqi civilians died.

Ellsberg also gave hero status to WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange.

"Julian Assange was in uncharted territory, by himself, and no one had ever set out to do what he did in the form of facilitating leaks by people like me or Manning," Ellsberg said.

"Using digital age tools to do it and offering anonymity."

After being hit with criticism for putting people in danger with information in an initial release of Afghanistan war log data, WikiLeaks teamed with major newspapers to vet information being made public.

"The charges that WikiLeaks had blood on their hands the very first day that they put it out have proven not to be true," Ellsberg said.

"Ironically, they were made by people who were up to their chins in innocent blood of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere."

Ellsberg argued that the charges against Manning should be dropped for the same reason the case against him was dismissed, namely governmental misconduct that "offends the sense of justice."

Ellsberg told of warrantless wire taps, the burglary of his former doctor's office and even efforts to have him "completely incapacitated."

He put those tactics on par with Manning being held incommunicado for three years, more than 10 months of that time in solitary confinement, and part of the time deprived of clothing and sleep.

Ellsberg contended that instead of betraying the trust placed in him, Manning was true to his vow as a soldier to support and defend the US Constitution.

"It is not an oath to the president nor is it an oath to secrecy, but to the Constitution, which the government then and now continually violates in secret," Ellsberg said.

"Manning may be the only member of the armed service who fully lives up to that oath to the US Constitution."

Ellsberg was not worried about rampant whistleblowing plaguing operations that rely on legitimate secrets.

"We'd be much better off if people would look at something and question whether they had a right to keep it secret," Ellsberg said.

"The widest form of participation in evil-doing is keeping it secret."

Despite his open support for Manning, Ellsberg has never spoken with him. Ellsberg was escorted out of court in December after trying to introduce himself to Manning during a break in proceedings.

Ellsberg said he was told he violated an "implied" rule of not speaking with the accused.

"There is, in effect, a war on whistleblowers," Ellsberg said. "Call it a war on truth-telling, especially truths about government crimes, lies, war and recklessness."

Ellsberg sadly noted that Manning is likely to spend a long time in prison. Charges Manning already pleaded guilty to carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

"I am sure that he will never regret doing what he did," Ellsberg said of Manning.

"We need the kinds of civil courage and moral courage that we see in terms of physical courage on the battlefield."