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The man behind the Pentagon Papers weighs in on Roe v. Wade leak

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has sparked a lot of debate, including about penalties for people who disclose this kind of private information. This is familiar ground for Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, he leaked classified documents about the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. NPR's Vanessa Romo asked him what he thinks of this latest leak.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: At age 91, Daniel Ellsberg is certain of many things.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I think leaks are the lifeblood of a republic.

ROMO: He says leaks or unauthorized disclosures help keep the most powerful people in check. That includes last week's bombshell from Politico, the draft opinion on abortion.

ELLSBERG: I think someone has done this republic a very great service in helping it to remain a republic.

ROMO: Ellsberg's leaks of the Pentagon Papers changed the public view of the war in Vietnam, and he paid for it. He was arrested and became the first person in the U.S. to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

ELLSBERG: Well, of course, they tried to put me in prison for 115 years.

ROMO: Eventually, the charges against him were dropped. But America was changed forever. Ellsberg knows some people think this Roe v. Wade leak is a bad thing. But he says it's important to show people the politics in the court.

ELLSBERG: But really, the politicization of the court is no secret at this point. For Justice Roberts to pretend there were no Democratic justices and Republican justices, that's simply absurd.

ROMO: And unlike the Pentagon Papers, the draft Supreme Court opinion is not a classified or secret document, which means no law has been broken. Here's Roy Gutterman from the Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.

ROY GUTTERMAN: From a First Amendment standpoint, there should be no sanctions against the Politico or the media because of the importance of the information because it doesn't appear that there's a clear violation of a specific law.

ROMO: Gutterman says the leak may have been a breach of centuries-old decorum, but that doesn't make it criminal. Still, that's not to say there won't be personal consequences for whoever leaked this. Only 50 or so people had access to the document, so Gutterman suspects it's unlikely they'll remain anonymous. But he says the long-term effects for the court extend well beyond one person's career.

GUTTERMAN: This could happen again in the next hot-button issue and again and again.

ROMO: Which, he says, could ultimately undermine the way the court works and how justices make decisions.

Vanessa Romo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "GOLD PRISMS INCORPORATED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.