2024, the year that four billion go the polls

Happy New Year – I hope…

Entering a new year typically encourages us to reflect on the past 12 months and consider the impact of what is likely to happen in the next 12. Depressingly, 2023 was yet another year marked by authoritarians clamping down on freedom of expression and harnessing the power of digital technology to persecute, harass and undermine those who challenge them.

Not only did the tyrants, despots and their allies attempt to again crack down on any seemingly independent thought within their own territories, several also sought to weaponise the legal system at home and abroad through the use of SLAPPs. Several EU member states, especially the Republic of Ireland, as well as the United Kingdom have found themselves at the centre of these legal attacks on freedom of expression.

SLAPPs weren’t the only threat to freedom of expression in 2023 though – from the crackdown on protesters in Iran, to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the continuing repressive actions of Putin and Lukashenka, the end of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, the increasingly restrictions imposed by Modi, the latest war in the Middle East and the ongoing attacks on journalists in South America.

My depressing list could go on and on. However, we desperately need to find some hope in the world, so Index on Censorship ended 2023 with our campaign entitled “Moments of Freedom”, highlighting the good in the world so let’s carry on with that optimism. A new year brings new beginnings after all. So let’s focus on the new moments of light which will hopefully touch our lives this year.

Half the world’s population will go to the polls this year. That’s an extraordinary four billion people. Each with their own aspirations for their families, hopes for their country and dreams of a more secure world.

As a politician it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love elections. The best campaigns are politics at their purest, when the needs and aspirations of the electorate should be centre stage. Elections provide a moment when values are on the line. How people want to be governed, what rights they wish to advance and how they hold the powerful to account. These are all actioned through the ballot box.

There are elections taking place in countries significant for Index because of their likely impact on freedom of expression and the impact the results may have on the current internationally agreed norms, including Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Russia, Brazil, the European Union, the USA and the United Kingdom. And given current events we can only hope for elections in Israel to be added to the list. The list goes on with each election posing different questions and the results having a different impact on the current world order.

Many other human rights organisations will talk about the importance of these elections for international stability, and rightly so. At Index we will focus on what these elections mean for the dissidents, journalists, artists and academics. Our unique network of reporters and commentators around the world will allow us to bring you the hidden stories taking place and will highlight the threats and opportunities each result poses to freedom of expression. As with 2023, 2024 will be a year where Index hands a megaphone to dissidents so their voice is amplified.

The rallying cry for 2024 must be: “Your freedom needs you!” If you are one of the four billion remember that your ballot is the shield against would-be despots and tyrants. It is the ultimate democratic duty and responsibility and the consequences go far beyond your immediate neighbourhood – so use it and use it wisely.

The unravelling of academic freedom on US campuses

In 1970, the British socialist Mervyn Jones addressed the peculiar, indeed unique, passions that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspires, far more than any other. Jones was addressing fellow socialists, though his remarks apply to left-liberals too. He termed the conflict a “labyrinth” and wrote, “One cannot easily recall another problem over which Socialists of good faith have disagreed so much” – disagreed over everything from “sympathies” and “possible solutions” to an “analysis of the very nature of the problem.”

Almost from the moment that Hamas’ attacks of 7 October unfolded, the USA has been roiled by vitriolic debates that prove Jones’ observation – debates that, frankly, I have never witnessed in my lifetime. (The country was also torn by the Vietnam War, but that was a conflict in which tens of thousands of US soldiers were dying.) Both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel (reductive terms that I try to avoid) advocates have been punished: A magazine editor and a leading university president have been fired, speakers have been cancelled, medical school doctors have been relieved of their posts. Legal organisations, non-profits, unions, businesses, publications and city councils have been wracked by extraordinarily hostile internecine discord. Job offers have been rescinded. Even a Santa Claus was fired.

But much of the attention has focused on the country’s most elite and influential universities, which train our future leaders and are the object of both awe and resentment. And just as the Israel-Hamas war revealed long-standing rifts between what I would call the anti-fascist and anti-colonial Lefts, it also revealed trends and practices that have been distorting academic life for at least the last decade, and that have been decried by some on the Right and a smaller minority on the Left.

In the most immediate sense, the problem started with a plethora of statements – some shockingly bloodthirsty – that issued from students at Harvard and other universities, which praised the 7 October attacks, blamed Israel for them, exalted the Hamas “martyrs” and eagerly anticipated future violence against Israel. Demonstrations calling for the elimination of Israel, which some regard as a genocidal aim, became frequent. Many university administrations were either silent about the attacks themselves or issued anodyne statements: a sharp contrast to their heartfelt condemnations of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and to their support for the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

The atmosphere at some campuses soon turned more ominous as some factions of the pro-Palestinian movement became more extreme: Jewish students were threatened with death; violently antisemitic messages flooded social media; classes were disrupted by students chanting Palestinian slogans; public spaces were defaced; speakers were shouted down; classrooms and faculty offices were blocked. What in the world was happening and, more important, why did university administrators seem to be paralysed? The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – three of the country’s most selective institutions – were called before a congressional committee to explain.

It did not go well. Disaster, fiasco, pathetic, embarrassing, feeble, infuriating, hypocritical: the presidents’ testimony elicited a tsunami of outrage from various political quarters. The hearings were conducted by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a right-wing Trump supporter, but the criticism was hardly confined to the right. Laurence Tribe, who taught at Harvard Law School for decades and whose defense of constitutional rights has made him a hero to the liberal-left, described the Harvard president’s testimony as “hesitant, formulaic”, “bizarrely evasive” and “deeply troubling”.

At the hearings, the academic leaders offered bloodless, legalistic answers to the question of whether advocating the genocide of the Jewish people contradicts the schools’ codes of conduct. (Let’s not lose sight of how extraordinary it is that this question needs to be asked.) “To call their performance robotic would insult robots,” Heather Mac Donald wrote in City Journal. The three presidents might as well have been discussing a physics equation; they manifested little understanding of the fact that for many Jews, genocide is hardly a theoretical issue. In response to often hostile questioning, the academic leaders insisted that the First Amendment, and the academy’s longstanding commitment to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, meant that only harassing conduct, not heinous speech, could be subjected to disciplinary action. In essence, they argued that “context matters”: speech and action are not the same. In this, they were right.

The problem, however, is that academia, and especially elite academia, is the place where free speech goes to die. In fact, the nonpartisan free-speech organisation FIRE ranks Harvard as last among 248 US universities when it comes to protecting free speech. (University of Pennsylvania is second to last.) And that, too, has a long context.


The First Amendment is often misunderstood by outsiders, and by many Americans too. Its defense of free speech – and more important, free thought – was extremely radical in the 18th century and still is. It is the first clause in our Bill of Rights because the founders believed that in its absence no other rights would matter or, even, be possible. It prohibits any governmental body from either prohibiting or mandating speech. (Private universities are not required to adhere to First Amendment principles, though they claim to do so; as recipients of federal funds they are, however, subject to federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.)

There are many exceptions to the amendment. Calling for imminent violence is not protected. Death threats and extortion are not protected. One cannot falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre or blare music at four in the morning in a residential neighbourhood. Defamation is not protected, which is why a jury recently decided that Rudy Giuliani, one of Donald Trump’s former lawyers, must pay $148 million to two African-American election-poll workers whom Giuliani falsely accused of electoral fraud – accusations that led to years of horrifically violent, racist threats against them and that ruined their lives. But political speech – even burning the American flag – is protected.

Despite their stated dedication to First Amendment principles, many universities spend a lot of energy curtailing speech. Sometimes this emanates from the Right, and has the force of the courts and the government behind it. In some Republican-controlled states, most notoriously Florida, prohibitions on how teachers can, and cannot, address gender-related issues or teach the history of slavery have been legislated. Professors are leaving the state’s universities. Conservative groups like the erroneously-named Moms for Liberty are busy banning books, especially those dealing with LGBTQ or racial issues.

But at the elite universities, the assaults on free speech stem almost entirely from the Left, resulting in a culture of anxiety that muffles professors and students alike. So-called hate speech codes, which are both vague and capacious, dominate. Controversial views are frequently punished: at Harvard, a law school professor was stripped of his faculty deanship because he joined the defense team of an alleged sexual predator, which offended feminists, and an evolutionary biologist was vilified for asserting that there are “two sexes,” which outraged trans activists; she eventually left the university. At MIT, a noted geophysicist’s public lecture was cancelled because he had critiqued some aspects of affirmative action. These and other incidents are well-known within academia, and to some outside it, which is why the presidents’ sudden championing of free speech struck many as ludicrous or worse. Time and again, university administrators have placated angry students rather than defend either their own faculties or the free circulation of ideas; the word “feckless” comes to mind.

Talk of “privilege” abounds; in fact, in a sharp departure from its courageous history of defending political dissidents, many on the Left now argue that the First Amendment itself is a form of privilege and therefore needn’t be defended. A bizarre campus culture of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” has emerged. Underlying all this is the premise that offense is synonymous with actual danger – that speech and action are the same – and that students must therefore be protected from ideas that don’t accord with their own. Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist and robust free-speech advocate (who was the target of an attempted cancellation), has described the terrain: “Vast regions in the landscape of ideas are no-go zones, and dissenting ideas are greeted with incomprehension, outrage, and censorship.”

Complicating this situation has been the emergence of a group of ideas and practices called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), which gained steam after George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matters protests. It is difficult to separate the criticism of the presidents’ testimony from the DEI context. Though DEI aimed to increase minority representation, it is also associated with a range of highly contested ideas and has, perhaps ironically, created an intellectual monoculture: the very opposite of the multiplicity that diversity implies.

DEI is a constellation of ideas, but certain themes predominate. Many of its proponents consider any racial disparities in academic test scores or grades to be ipso racist, and argue for discarding such assessments. Some push for virtual quotas in hiring and student acceptances as the sign of “equity,” which they contrast to equality of opportunity. Others posit that US history should be taught as, primarily, the story of “structural racism”. All these ideas are debatable: except that, often, they are not. Throughout the country, DEI has become the reigning ideology at numerous universities, colleges and even elementary and high schools. Combatting “white hegemony” and “neo-colonialism” is a pedagogic aim; the Columbia School of Social Work’s framework for its entire curriculum focuses on “power, race, oppression and privilege.”

Faculty fear committing “micro-aggressions”, which can include anything from mispronouncing a student’s name to introducing an idea that makes them uncomfortable. (No one actually knows what a micro-aggression is, so everyone is kept on their toes.) All this has made faculty nervous, but far more important is that students are too: they tell me that they fear using the wrong word, expressing the wrong idea or posting the wrong thing on social media. As one explained to me, “We’re policing each other.”

Administrations are policing them too. Students and faculty at some universities attend mandatory anti-racist training sessions. Fealty to DEI principles is a stated prerequisite for hiring or promotion at some universities (including, at times, mine).

Meanwhile already hired professors can be required to post “anti-racist” affirmations, an eerie echo of the anti-Communist oaths required during the McCarthy era. Many of DEI’s critics emanate from the Right, but there are liberals and leftists, including prominent black intellectuals, who also reproach it: Randall Kennedy, a leading legal theorist at Harvard who identifies with the Left, has observed that “the DEI regime has a big problem, and that big problem is the problem of coercion.” Danielle Allen, an influential democracy theorist (also at Harvard) who was a member of the university’s initial DEI committee, has lamented the fact that like so many political projects, the positive intentions of DEI morphed into their opposite. In the wake of the Congressional hearings, she wrote, “Counter to the anti-racism agenda, we cannot create a framework for inclusion and belonging that is focused on accusation. . . Somehow the racial reckoning of 2020 lost sight of that core goal of a culture of mutual respect… A shaming culture was embraced instead.” 


A crisis can be an opportunity, and it is unclear what direction universities will take in the wake of the Congressional hearings and the debates – welcome debates, in my view – that they have inspired. The University of Pennsylvania’s president was fired (cancelled, in effect), which strikes me as exactly the wrong response, if only because it implies that the problem lies with an individual rather than with a culture. Some have called for universities to expand the definition of hate speech to more specifically include antisemitism and to fold antisemitism into the DEI project: another wrong turn. (As David French, a conservative New York Times columnist and Harvard Law School grad argued, “Censorship helped put these presidents in their predicament, and censorship will not help them escape.”) Conversely, others have argued that DEI has proved to be inherently anti-democratic and should be abolished, though it is extremely unlikely that many universities will accede to that.

At the moment, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students feel beleaguered, victimised and unsafe, particularly on highly-politicised campuses in New York City. Jewish students feel intimidated when they walk through a gauntlet of masked protesters shouting “From the river to the sea!” as they go to class or see signs saying “Zionism is Fascism”. Pro-Palestinian students have been doxed – an indefensible attack on their right to expression. Anti-Israeli events have been cancelled, and Students for Justice in Palestine, the most extreme group, has been suspended by several universities: sometimes for speech, sometimes for actions. Dueling headlines in a recent edition of the New York Times capture the atmosphere well: “Defenders of Palestinians Feel Muzzled on Campus” and “Feeling Estranged, Some Jews Wonder if They Have a Place at Harvard”.

Allen has stressed the urgency of the situation: “The health of our democracy requires renovation of our colleges and universities,” she wrote. My own dream is that faculty and students will become unfettered, that an atmosphere of robust intellectual debate will be fostered, and that faculty can raise a generation of students to be fearless, independent critical thinkers unburdened by dogma, which is the prerequisite for an informed citizenry. But changing a culture is a difficult task, far more so than issuing new guidelines. And it is actually quite hard to get the balance right between speech and harassment, and to figure out if, say, overt support for terrorist acts crosses the line from one to the other. Allen admits, “We do not know how to protect intellectual freedom and establish a culture of mutual respect at the same time. But this must be our project.”

Speaking for my silenced sister Reality Winner

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This story should be told by Reality Leigh Winner my sister. I am telling her story because Reality, despite being released from federal prison and in home confinement, is still not allowed to speak to journalists about her case. Reality is being censored and silenced by a government that is afraid of what she might say.

Reality was incarcerated on 3 June 2017. By the time she was released from federal prison in June, she had spent most of the last half of her 20s in prison. For a commended US Air Force veteran with no criminal record, no history of violence, no intent to harm anyone, no plan to financially benefit from a crime and only the best of intentions, every day that she has spent in prison has been a travesty.

As a National Security Agency contractor in 2017, Reality anonymously mailed a classified document detailing a Russian government spear-phishing campaign directed at the voting systems in 21 states around the time of the 2016 US presidential election. She sent the document to a media organisation called The Intercept, which has been known to solicit information from whistleblowers.

Many people ask me why Reality leaked the document. She had everything to lose and nothing to gain. I can speculate that she thought that the American people desperately needed to know that their voting systems were targeted by Russia so that steps could be taken to make the next presidential election more secure.

She helped achieve that goal: the 2020 election was the most secure presidential election in US history.

I can also speculate that Reality wanted to set the record straight about Russian interference in 2016. As the person who knows her best, I can say that she did not intend to harm the USA or undermine national security by leaking the document and, in fact, there is no evidence that the disclosure tipped off Russian hackers to “sources and methods” of US intelligence.

However, it is possible that I will never really know Reality’s true reasons or motivations for leaking the document because she is not, and never will be, allowed to speak about it.

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Since she was charged with “unlawful retention and transmission of national defence information” under the Espionage Act of 1917, she has not been allowed to talk about the document or even say during her trial why she leaked it. The jury or judge were also not able to know the contents of the document or whether the release of the document actually harmed or exposed the USA. The only two factors pertinent in a trial under the Espionage Act are whether the individual is authorised to share the information and, if not, whether the individual has shared the information with someone who does not possess a relevant security clearance.

Reality was convicted almost certainly because of her alleged confession in the interrogation conducted by armed FBI agents in her home who did not inform her of her rights while a warrant was being served on her home, her car and on her.

As part of a plea deal, she pleaded guilty to a single charge and received a record-breaking 63 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release. Her plea deal also broadly prohibits her from future “communication of information relating to classified subject areas” that she had experience in from her time in the Air Force or while employed as an NSA contractor “without first obtaining the express written permission” from the US government.

The plea paperwork says: “This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, any interviews… papers, books, writings… articles, films, or other productions relating to her or her work as an employee of or contractor for the United States Government.”

The language of the plea agreement appears intentionally vague, as though even a casual mention of Russia (which could be construed by the US government as a “classified subject area”) by Reality could violate it and send her straight back to federal prison.

Moreover, the exceptionally vague reference “to her or her work” almost seems laughably broad – as if she is no longer allowed to talk about herself or her personal life story. If these stipulations in the plea agreement do not constitute censorship of a US citizen by her government, I do not know what would.

Reality was released from federal prison in June 2021 for good behaviour which is not surprising because she is a good person. However even thought her physical body is no longer behind bars the draconian prohibitions on her speaking to the media continue. Therefore I think that Reality’s mind is still stuck in prison and she is far from free.

As someone who pled guilty to a federal crime, Reality is facing more than just the loss of the right to speak freely. She will also have a criminal record that will follow her for the rest of her life, making it more difficult for her to seek gainful employment and enjoy the rights and freedoms that Americans take for granted.

She has also, ironically, lost the right to vote, which is especially harsh considering that she helped protect the votes of her fellow Americans. Reality will continue to suffer the unfair consequences of her brave and selfless actions for the rest of her life without intervention from President Joe Biden

Although we cannot restore the more than four years of her young life Reality Winner spent incarcerated by the time of her release, we can attempt to right this grievous wrong by appealing to President Biden to grant Reality Winner a full pardon.

With a presidential pardon, Reality could live her life without the burden of a felony conviction on her record.

A pardon would also end the continued censorship of Reality Winner following her release and finally allow her to speak out about why she leaked the document exposing the truth about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The American people deserve to know the brave patriot who stood up for them against her own government.

For President Biden, who appears committed to righting the wrongs of the previous administration, pardoning Reality Winner seems to be the least he should do, considering that Reality’s bravery is one of the reasons that Biden was elected as US president in a free and fair US democratic election. We ask the President to carefully consider Reality’s case and pardon Reality Winner.

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Daniel Ellsberg: The original whistleblower

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Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, whose leaks 50 years ago this summer aimed the spotlight at the US government’s secret escalation of the conflict in Vietnam over the course of five presidential administrations, is clear that such shattering revelations should not happen just once in a generation.

“There should be something of the order of the Pentagon Papers once a year if not more often,” he said.

Ellsberg speaks to me over Zoom from his home in California’s Bay Area shortly after celebrating his 90th birthday. His mind is as sharp as ever and his belief that government wrongdoing should be uncovered is as strong as it was more than five decades ago. His leaking of thousands of pages of critical failings of presidents from John F Kennedy through to Richard Nixon in US involvement in Vietnam – the Pentagon Papers – proved damning, and ultimately led to Tricky Dicky’s impeachment.

Instead of such yearly disclosures of wrongfully withheld information, Ellsberg says it took 39 years before there was a leak of a similar scale – Chelsea Manning’s disclosure of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables and their subsequent publication by Julian Assange on Wikileaks in 2010.

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On US foreign policy

Ellsberg is of the belief that the world needs a new generation of whistleblowers to keep his government in check.

“US foreign policy is largely conducted as a covert, plausibly denied, imperial policy,” he said.

“We deny we are an empire, and we deny the means we use, the means which every empire uses to maintain its hegemony – torture, paramilitary invasion, assassination. This is the standard for everybody who seeks a global influence over countries and gets involved in regime change the way we do.”

But a career as a whistleblower is unlikely to be recommended to young people emerging from education any time soon.

“I have never heard of anyone wanting to be a whistleblower,” said Ellsberg. “People admire it when they see it, but it is a strange career to set out on – and it’s not a career because you generally only get to do it once. Employers believe you won’t tell their dirty secrets no matter how criminal, illegal, wrongful or dangerous your bosses may be.”

He says that people entering the world of work for the first time need to understand what they are signing up for.

“When young people sign agreements [with their employers] under which they will be asked to not reveal any secrets they become privy to in their job they should take into account that they don’t really have a right to keep that promise in all circumstances,” he said. “Circumstances may well arise where it is wrong to keep silent about information that has come to your attention because other lives are at stake, or perhaps the constitution is being violated and it is wrongful to keep that promise.

“It doesn’t occur to you that you could be asked to take part in very wrongful or criminal activities. In your eyes you are not joining the Mafia, yet you make a promise of secrecy like the Mafia without knowing what you are going to be asked to do. This is why you should have your fingers crossed when you make that promise.”

Ellsberg relates being invited to a meeting in Stockholm to give an award to Ingvar Bratt, who had exposed illegal sales by arms dealer Bofors.

“Bratt told me that he was explaining to his young son – who was 10 or so – that he was meeting me and explained what I had done. He said to his son: ‘Wasn’t that a good thing to do?’ His son said very soberly: ‘Oh no. He shouldn’t have done that; you should never break a promise’. That is how we are all brought up.

“Young people should remain open to the idea that you may be called on to risk your job, your career, your relationships with other people by telling the truth even if you have promised not to do that. It is very unusual advice for young people to hear; it will not improve their career prospects, but it will possibly save a lot of lives.”

On what distinguishes whistleblowers

Ellsberg is in regular contact with other whistleblowers – a club with a very exclusive membership.

“Whistleblowers believe themselves to be quite ordinary,” he said. “They don’t think that what they did is particularly unusual. They think what they did was the thing anyone would have done in the circumstances.

“But stepping back from their views, it is very unusual for people to do what they did in those circumstances. In almost every case their colleagues knew what was happening and that [the wrongdoing] should be known, but they did not ask themselves if they should be the one to tell.

“There is something unfortunately quite rare about whistleblowing, and that is not good for the future of our species. It means that when terribly dangerous processes are at work, like wrongful wars or the climate crisis, we can’t count on people to step forward and tell us what we need to know.

“Very few people get beyond the point of saying ‘This should be known’ to the point of saying ‘No one else is going to do it, so I have to do it’. That turns out to be an almost unpredictable reaction. It is a matter of personal responsibility and moral courage.”

Moral courage is a vital attribute of a whistleblower, since being ostracised is a frequent outcome.

“People will do almost anything and go along with anything rather than be expelled from a group that they value,” said Ellsberg.

On Assange and Manning

But being cast out is often the least of the worries of would-be whistleblowers, as the act comes with significant costs.

“Chelsea Manning said she was willing to face life in prison or even death,” said Ellsberg. “[Edward] Snowden said at one point there were things worth dying for and he hadn’t been killed for it yet, but he was at considerable risk of that – and it could still happen.

“The government does everything it can to magnify those costs both for the whistleblower and anyone who might want to imitate her or him. There is the stigma of being called crazy, being called criminal. The government really goes into trying to defame the whistleblower in different ways, and often quite successfully.

“Assange and Snowden have been made into real pariahs. I was called a lot of names at the time and if you are not willing to be called names that are painful but inappropriate and unearned then this is not something you should go into.”

On Reality Winner

Being a whistleblower today is different from how it was 50 years ago. Technology has made it easier to share information but has also made leaks easier to trace.

“Reality Winner’s case is a classic example of the technical possibility of tracing the source. They were able to see who had probably released it. It illustrates that it is easy to get the information out, but it is relatively hard to hide the fact that you were the one who was the source.

Ellsberg says Winner, who leaked classified information about Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, “did what she should have done”.

Should she have been sent to prison? “Absolutely not.”

“There was evidence of Russian involvement [in the election] which the administration was denying. It was important for the public to know that,” he said.

Winner has now been released from prison early thanks to good behaviour but is still prevented from speaking about the case.

Ellsberg believes a pardon for Winner from president Joe Biden looks unlikely, especially as he has not done the same for Julian Assange.

“Biden, or someone under him who was a holdover from the Trump administration, has renewed the appeal to extradite Julian Assange and that is not entirely surprising. Biden called Assange a ‘hi-tech terrorist’ at the time of the releases that he is indicted for in 2010,” he said.

“It goes against the fact that the Obama administration declined to indict Assange on the very good conclusion [that he was] a journalist releasing information to the American public. Biden could have gone along with that. I still have some small hope that he will [pardon him] as he should, but I don’t count on it.”

Ellsberg is convinced that Assange deserves protection for leaking the Manning cables.

“He certainly acted as a journalist, as a publisher specifically – as much as any of the publishers with whom he shared the Chelsea Manning documents. [Assange’s] philosophy of journalists is actually broader than some others and reflects a relatively new digital age philosophy which I don’t entirely share. He believes in almost absolute transparency with the government, but not of private people. Although I think there are secrets that I am in favour of not releasing, that’s not true of the material he is indicted for in 2010.”

I ask Ellsberg whether he would do the same today as he did 50 years ago and he says he wouldn’t be happy sitting around for months waiting for a paper to dare to publish.

“I would still go first to The New York Times, but If I didn’t hear from them I would go elsewhere. If I felt that the Times was holding back, as it seemed to be doing for several months when I was dealing with [then NYT reporter] Neil Sheehan, I would have to gone to another channel such as Wikileaks or the web directly. Of course, that didn’t exist then.”

He says “the chance of being fingered is greater than it was before”, but concurs that he would do it again.
In one sense, he already has, with the publication of The Doomsday Project on US nuclear policy in 2017 that was based on further material he had copied in his time at government- funded military research organisation Rand Corporation in the 1960s.

That makes Ellsberg that very rare thing: a career whistleblower.

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago in 1931. After graduating from Harvard in 1952 with a BA summa cum laude in economics, he studied for a year on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge.

From 1954 to 1957 he served in the US Marine Corps and in 1962 he earned his PhD in economics at Harvard.

Ellsberg joined the Rand Corporation – a policy thinktank offering research and advice to the US armed forces – in 1959 as a strategic analyst. As part of this role he acted as a consultant to the White House and US Defence Department, specialising in problems of the command and control of nuclear weapons and drafting the operational plans for general nuclear war.

In the mid-1960s, he joined the Defence Department for a year as special assistant to assistant secretary of defence John McNaughton, working on the escalation of the war in Vietnam before serving two years with the US State Department in Saigon.

He returned to the Rand Corporation in 1967 where he worked on the top-secret McNamara study, looking at US decision-making in Vietnam between 1945 and 1968.

Ellsberg says the material that became known globally as the Pentagon Papers did not at first appear to be anything special.

“They didn’t look that effective as they ended in 1968. I assumed that the president [Richard Nixon] would say ‘This is old history and doesn’t have anything to do with me’. It was just a fifth president following in the footsteps of four previous presidents,” said Ellsberg.

The 7,000-page report was duplicated on a Xerox photocopier with the help of his Rand colleague Anthony J Russo.

“In those days it was a fairly slow process, copying just one page at a time,” he said. “Keeping it secret wasn’t a problem. In those days, the guards at the Rand Corporation who checked everyone in and out didn’t get to check in your briefcase. It made my heart pound when I went past them the first few times with a briefcase full of top-secret documents.”

If 7,000 pages were not enough, he also copied thousands more pages of documents relating to US nuclear policy, which he revealed in his book The Doomsday Machine, published in 2017.

The decision to leak came after listening to anti-Vietnam War activist Randy Kehler.

“It was seeing someone with whom I could identify who had a career and who was willing to go to prison,” he said. “It made me ask myself ‘What can I do now that I am ready to go to prison?’”

Ellsberg leaked the report in 1971 to The New York Times, The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers but it was the Times which took the plunge after sitting on the explosive material for months. On Sunday 13 June 1971, it published its first excerpts from the report, but its wider circulation was held up for 15 days due to a court order requested by the Nixon administration.

The release of information showed that the USA had illegally expanded the scope of the Vietnam War and that the administration of president Lyndon Johnson had lied to the public and Congress.

In early 1973, Ellsberg surrendered to the authorities and faced eight charges of espionage, six of theft and one of conspiracy which, if convicted, carried a possible sentence of 115 years.

In the event, Ellsberg did not go to jail for even a single year.

After a four-and-a-half month trial, the charges against him were dropped after the presiding judge, William Matthew Byrne Jr, ordered a mistrial over “improper government conduct” in relation to illegal evidence-gathering.

It was revealed during the trial that representatives of the administration had illegally broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and attempted to steal files in order to discredit him. The FBI had also set up illegal wiretaps on the home phone of security consultant Morton Halperin, through which the FBI overheard his conversations with Ellsberg about the papers.

Indirectly, the Pentagon Papers would lead to Nixon’s impeachment. His anger at constant leaks led to the illicit wiretapping and burglaries that ended with his downfall over the Watergate scandal.

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