SAN FRANCISCO — Daniel Ellsberg, the former defense worker who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, has said he is against a bill awaiting President Clinton’s signature that would expand criminal penalties for such acts by government employees.
Ellsberg told The AP in a telephone interview Thursday the bill is “unconstitutional” and that Clinton would essentially be repealing the First Amendment if he signed it into law.
“To sign it, he must know this bill is unconstitutional and he would be violating his oath of office to uphold the Constitution,” Ellsberg said from his Berkeley home.
The bill would dramatically increase criminal prosecutions for those who leak classified documents, according to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Ellsberg, who was eventually cleared of theft and conspiracy charges under the Espionage Act, said he would have defied the leaks law had it existed during the Vietnam War years.
“I assumed that I would be sent to prison for the rest of my life,” Ellsberg said. “I was in a situation where 30,000 Americans had been led to death. But there could have been a lot more. It was worth my going to prison to do something to enlighten the public.”
He pointed to the Iran-Contra affair and the Watergate scandal as examples of governmental misdeeds that might have remained under wraps if whistle-blowers had to fear criminal penalties for divulging them.
“That’s exactly what these officials want to conceal. Evidence of their own failures,” Ellsberg said. “There should be a hundred times more unauthorized disclosure.”
CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Newspaper Association of America have all asked Clinton to veto the bill, fearing it could have a chilling effect on daring whistle-blowers and stymie efforts of the press to inform the public.
Ellsberg worked for the U.S. Defense Department in 1964 and later was employed by the State Department. Troubled by U.S. policies in Vietnam, he copied a classified 7,000 page, 47-volume study of the U.S. role in Indochina and gave it to the Times, which published the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971.
The case against Ellsberg was thrown out for government misconduct after burglars tied to the White House broke into his psychiatrist’s office. Ellsberg says they were searching for blackmail material.
Now 69 and living in Berkeley, he’s writing a memoir of his Vietnam and Pentagon Paper experiences. He’s spent years campaigning against nuclear weapons proliferation, and recently joined protests against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“I can just see politicians saying ‘Let them blow their whistles in jail. They’ll find lots to complain about in there,’ ” Ellsberg said. “That’s not the kind of power we want to give officials in a country that wants to be a republic.”
The bill number is H.R. 4392.
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