BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. At the beginning of March, The Observer of London ran with the scoops that the U.S. National Security Agency had wiretapped several officials at the U.N. whose nations would be crucial votes on whether to support an invasion of Iraq. A leaked report suggest that Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea, and Pakistan were bugged, presumably the give the U.S. a leg up in precarious negotiations where few votes for war can be entirely relied upon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Big news? Seemed so. Most of the networks and the cable news channels booked interviews with The Observer reporters, but abruptly canceled them the Drudge Report and The Washington Times, both news outlets with a strong right wing tilt, cast doubt on the leak's authenticity. After experts weighed in suggesting that it was, in fact, genuine the networks never called back. Some major papers have reported the story but the prevailing take is that this is business as usual at the U.N., nothing to get worked up about. As of Friday it had yet to appear as a story in The New York Times or on NPR. Daniel Ellsberg joins me now, an unauthorized docu-drama of his historic leak of the Pentagon papers aired last week on the FX cable channel. Dan, welcome to the show.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Thank you. Nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me where you were when you first saw this story about the bugging of the U.N.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: In fact, I was working late and looking at the Internet and I was absolutely thunderstruck by this story because it wasn't just a scoop, it was a reproduction of an actual operational memo from NSA indicating that somebody, probably in British intelligence, which seemed to have been one of the recipients in the memo, had leaked it, which meant a kind of revolt in the intelligence establishment that I'd never seen. The idea in the U.S. press that it's a ho-hum matter I think actually reveals how thoroughly the U.S., a lot of the U.S. press, is into what could be called an imperial mentality, kind of condescending. Of course, we do it to them, whereas if they were to do it to us it would certainly be big news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that you regard this leak as being of even greater importance than the Pentagon papers. Well, the Pentagon papers laid out decades of official lying. This bugging doesn't point out any lies, it just talks about a certain amount of diplomatic indiscretion on the part of U.S. intelligence.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: The Pentagon papers, they did end before the Nixon Administration actually got into office. So they were history. I never really believed they had a high chance of affecting the war. I just thought that they might help. And the initial effect was very small, actually. My feeling is that this leak by the possibility of actually affecting votes in the U.N. Security Council is extremely timely and has the possibility, the potential for actually averting a war before the bombing starts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't think it needs to be said that you're strongly opposed to this war. And in the course of this interview we're not going to argue the case for or against. But I know that you have made a general call to all potential leakers out there to make information known, presumably information that does not jeopardize national security--
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --to inform the debate on the war.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: There hasn't been much of a debate, really. You know, there were no hearings in Congress. I think that the Administration is meeting complaints from Congress that they're concealing information on the costs of the war, on the probable numbers of U.S. deaths and of Iraqi deaths, on the length of the occupation, the scale of the occupation. And I think that before the bombs fall this is the time, this week, next week where truth on those matters, putting out the estimates that do exist and giving them to Congress, as they've asked, at the risk of their personal career and even the freedom of the people who do that, that would be as timely as this leak from Britain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now in the days of the Pentagon papers the press was ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court. If the press were to show that kind of backbone today, do you think it's likely the Court would support it?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Whether they would support the First Amendment as much as before is a question. Whether Ashcroft as Attorney General would try to bring injunctions, if he were faced with the NSA leaks, for example, I really have little doubt that if he'd had a chance to stop that leak he would have gone for an injunction. And as for prosecutions, there's no question they would certainly be going for prosecutions then.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Before we go let me throw in a question about your movie, the one that appeared on the FX Cable Network. [OVERTALK]
DANIEL ELLSBERG: It's not--not my movie [LAUGHS], a movie, a movie about me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so how does it stand up as history?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: As history--[LAUGHS] in detail, very bad. If they'd followed my book, which they didn't have, they would have had a much more accurate story. But it wouldn't necessarily have been a better movie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DANIEL ELLSBERG: This one was a good story, and it had the basic outlines of my own change of heart. So I think this movie has the potential for encouraging whistleblowing. And I'd like it to be seen on every computer screen in the Pentagon and the CIA and the State Department. If there was a way of hacking it into them, I think it would give them very useful food for thought.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, thank you very much.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg faced 115 years in prison when he leaked the Pentagon papers.