April 20, 2018

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg talks about the past, expresses concern for the future

A half century later, Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps America’s best-known whistleblower, still has a story to tell and a cause to articulate. The 87-year-old Ellsberg, a former Pentagon official most closely related to the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, provided a history lesson of sorts to a packed room at the ABA Section of International Law 2018 Annual Conference on April 19 in New York City. Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers through a number of newspaper documented the United States role in Indochina from World War II through around 1968 and suggested that four U.S. presidents knowingly misled the American public about American involvement there.

Jonathan Granoff (left), Chair of the Section of International Law's Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation talks with Dr. Daniel Ellsberg (right), former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Interviewed by Jonathan Granoff, chair of SIL’s Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation and president of the Global Security Institute, Ellsberg recalled how his thinking evolved over a few years about the veracity of the U.S. government and outlined the factors that came into play in leaking the classified documents to the media. Ellsberg was charged with 12 felony counts and faced 115 years in jail before U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. dismissed the case in mid-trial for what the judge termed “improper government misconduct” related to a warrantless search of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

“You represent courage in action,” Granoff told Ellsberg.             

But, as Ellsberg said, that was not always the case. He recounted how he had little inclination to release these secrets until he met some of the 5,000 young Americans, many peace activists, who decided to go to jail rather than fight in the Vietnam War. He singled out two — Randy Kehler and Bob Eaton — as fueling his decision to make a stand.

Even though government officials said there were no plans to expand U.S presence in Vietnam in the mid-60s, “the Pentagon was totally involved in plans of widening the war,” said Ellsberg, who was a defense analyst for the RAND Corp. at the time of the leak. “On the ground and in the air. We were being misled.”

“To me unjustified homicide is murder and I had been part of that,” he said of his role in assisting war preparation. “Then I came to the major point of what to do about it.”

Around that time, Ellsberg said he “came face to face” with young Americans like Eaton and Kehler at a conference. “It struck me like a thunderbolt. For the first time I thought about trying to end the war from the inside. I thought, what can I do to shorten this war now that I am willing to go to prison?”

He leaked the Pentagon Papers first to The New York Times and then to The Washington Post, an effort that was chronicled in the recent movie, “The Post,” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. While pleased with how he was portrayed, Ellsberg noted that the movie producers took some editorial liberty. “It’s a Hollywood movie; it is not a documentary,” he said.

Ellsberg’s recent book, “The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” provides a behind-the-scenes collection of detailed descriptions of global near-calamities, flawed launch protocols and the government’s own chilling estimates of the potential carnage following a nuclear conflict. He said Vietnam was a past catastrophe of his lifetime. The ramification of a nuclear buildup is the one he fears most now.

Ellsberg said the world, including the United States, “will not escape” calamity “without more moral courage in this country.”