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Pentagon Papers vs. WikiLeaks: Is Bradley Manning the new Ellsberg?

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, used the occasion of the papers' declassification on Monday to defend Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused in the WikiLeaks case.

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In this April 28, 1973, file photo Daniel Ellsberg, co-defendant in the Pentagon Papers case, talks to media outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles.

Wally Fong/AP/File

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Four decades after The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, supporters of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning are drawing parallels between the motives that drove Daniel Ellsberg to disclose the Pentagon Papers and Manning’s alleged handover of secret government documents to the website WikiLeaks, which released them in tandem with several newspapers.

Moreover, the Pentagon Papers, made public 40 years ago today, were more highly classified than any of the secret materials published by WikiLeaks, according to the Bradley Manning Support Network. President Obama has said that “Ellsberg’s material was classified on a different basis” than were the WikiLeaks disclosures. “That’s true,” Mr. Ellsberg says. “Mine were top secret.”

After the Pentagon Papers leaks, which established a record of government intent to mislead the American public about US involvement in Southeast Asia, Ellsberg was charged with 12 federal felony counts and faced a possible 115 years in prison. All charges against Ellsberg were eventually dismissed by the trial judge on the grounds of what the judge called “the totality” of governmental conduct that "offends a sense of justice.”

Private First Class Manning could face the death penalty for leaking US diplomatic cables and US military video and field intelligence reports, though the US military has said it will not request the death penalty.

With the release of the Pentagon papers on Monday, the Department of Defense said it has no security concerns about their becoming public in their entirety.

Ellsberg used the occasion to lambast the government, saying in a statement that it has done little to improve its “treatment of whistle-blowers.” Instead, he said, "we’re seeing an unprecedented campaign to crack down on public servants who reveal information that Congress and American citizens have a right to know.”

In April, Manning was transferred to the US military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., after repeated criticism about his treatment at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia. He has been held in US military custody since May 26, 2010.

“If Bradley Manning did what he’s accused of, then he’s a hero of mine,” the Ellsberg statement said. The government continues to persecute Manning, much as it did Ellsberg in the 1970s, he said. “I wish I could say that our government has improved its treatment of whistle-glowers in the 40 years since the Pentagon Papers.”

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Manning’s treatment amounts to governmental misconduct “that offends a sense of justice,” Ellsberg added, borrowing words from the judge who presided over his own trial.

The Pentagon says the leaked WikiLeaks documents allegedly provided by Manning have harmed the US military. “We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents, and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies,” Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said last year. “We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us,” he added. “By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners, and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us.”

Jeff Paterson, a steering committee member of the Bradley Manning Support Group, pushed back against the characterization that Manning had aided America’s enemies, noting that the Pentagon Papers helped to build public pressure to end the Vietnam War, just as “Wikileaks revelations are helping to catalyze democratic movements across the Middle East.”

“History has vindicated Daniel Ellsberg,” he said, “and history will vindicate Bradley Manning. Both men are American heroes.”

The Bradley Manning Support Network is "dedicated to securing due process and a public trial for PFC Manning," according to the group's spokesman. So far, 4,300 people have donated $333,000 to Manning's legal fees and network "public education" efforts.

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