In one of his last public talks, to a room full of more than 200 journalists, Daniel Ellsberg was asked what the media could do to better support whistleblowers. In a passionate speech, Ellsberg implored the crowd, and the press in general, to investigate the U.S. government’s classification system. As he explained, our democratic society is making a serious mistake “in not investigating the secrecy system, covering how it acts, how it works, and how it keeps secrets and what secrets it keeps.”
As many people know, Ellsberg — the legendary Pentagon Papers whistleblower and Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) co-founder — was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer a few months ago and doesn’t have much more time left with us.
In our view, there is no better way to honor our friend and hero than to attempt to fulfill this wish.
Freedom of the Press Foundation will soon launch the “Daniel Ellsberg Chair on Government Secrecy.” This full-time staff position will be dedicated to what Ellsberg has spent a large portion of his life highlighting the need for: massive reform of the secrecy infrastructure in the United States. In the coming months, we’ll seek funds to fully endow this chair position so that it can live in perpetuity, and be free from changes in any fiscal or political climate.
Ellsberg has spent the last five decades drawing attention to the fact that overclassification is a fundamental problem for our democratic society. When so much information is classified, it becomes impossible for citizens, journalists, and oversight bodies to access vital facts about government activities. This lack of transparency undermines public trust in government institutions and hinders the ability of the public to hold officials accountable for their actions.
The United States government has nearly 3 million people with security clearances and classifies billions of pages of documents per year — including virtually everything in the foreign policy and national security realms. It constantly violates its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and delays releases for years, uses the pernicious “state secrets privilege” to stop accountability in courts, layers on various restrictions to prevent Congress from learning what they need to know, and abuses the Espionage Act to threaten reporters and prosecute whistleblowers who go to the press with information of vital public interest.
Further, declassification and FOIA offices are severely underfunded. Add to this the fact that officials face no consequences for over-classifying information, but severe consequences for not classifying or for “leaking” improperly classified information. You’re left with a government with little reason to be transparent. And the tone set by the federal government inspires state and local governments to be equally secretive and misuse open records laws. Struggling media outlets often lack the resources to fight these abuses.
The Daniel Ellsberg Chair on Government Secrecy will be responsible for researching all aspects of government secrecy—from the problem of overclassification to the limitations of FOIA and the abuses of the Espionage Act.
This full-time position will be dedicated to turning the enigma of secrecy abuses into public conversation starters. They will work hand-in-hand with journalists to spotlight overlooked stories about classification system malpractices. They will also apply pressure where it needs to be by lobbying Congress for landmark changes to classification laws and the Espionage Act. This position aims to not just follow in Ellsberg's footsteps, but make strides forward, championing one of the causes he has dedicated his life to. This is more than a Chair, it's a crusade for transparency, continuing Ellsberg's half-century battle.
For now, our co-founder and our friend is still with us. And we dearly hope reading this announcement will make him smile, knowing we will do everything in our power to carry his torch in the years to come.