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Civil Disobedience Against War Led Me to Leak Pentagon Papers


Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was a high-level defense analyst in 1971 when he leaked a top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and played a key role in ending the Vietnam War. We speak with Ellsberg about the recent 50th anniversary of one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in the United States. On May 17, 1968, Catholic priests and activists broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, and stole 378 draft cards and burned them in the parking lot as a protest against the Vietnam War. They became known as the Catonsville Nine. Ellsberg discusses the role nonviolent direct action can play in social movements. Ellsberg says that the ending of the war in Vietnam “relied on a lot of people doing unusual things.”

AMY GOODMAN: The Ballad of Daniel Ellsberg, by Rulie Garcie, here on Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We are broadcasting from the University of California Santa Cruz, the basement of the McHenry Library.

We are here at University of California for a gathering of the Right Livelihood laureates in North America. We spend the rest of the hour with one of those laureates, Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the nation’s most famous whistleblower. In 1971, he was a high level defense analyst when he leaked a top secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications, that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He played a key role in ending the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg was also a consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, where he drafted plans for nuclear war. He writes about this in his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Dan Ellsberg reveals for the first time he also made copies of top-secret documents from his nuclear studies, an entire second set of papers in addition to the Pentagon Papers, for which he is known.

In 2006, he won the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the “Alternative Nobel.” We spoke on Thursday, on the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in the U.S. On May 17th, 1968, a group of Catholic priests and lay people broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland—in 1968—stole 378 draft cards and burned them in the parking lot as a protest against the Vietnam War. They burned them with homemade napalm. They became known as the Catonsville Nine.

UNKNOWN: We regret very much, I think all of us, the inconvenience and even the suffering that we’ve brought to these clerks here.

PHIL BERRIGAN: We sincerely hope we didn’t injure anyone.

UNKNOWN GROUP: [inaudible] …thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

UNKNOWN: We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Participants included Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Father Dan Berrigan made national headlines when he went underground for four months after his trial.
When I spoke to Daniel Ellsberg on Thursday, I began by asking him about the Catonsville Nine.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I remember above all when Dan Berrigan was finally captured after a number of months eluding the FBI, as my wife and I did for just 13 days, I don’t think we would have thought of doing that instead of surrendering to the FBI when the order came out for us without Dan’s example that this was a way to continue an action, to continue resistance to a war. That you didn’t have to submit meekly.

And when he was finally arrested, the picture I always remember is giving the peace sign in handcuffs, something I always remembered when later I was in handcuffs. And that inspired me. But the smile on his face—in fact, I was just looking at the cover of a terrific book on him by our friend Jim Forest, At Play in the Lions’ Den, with Daniel, and there is that picture of him smiling, that I remembered so clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. He was captured on Block Island and that picture is two FBI agents on either side. He has got the peace sign up and I think a journalist then said to him, “What are your plans, Dan Berrigan?” And he said, “Resistance.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, the life of resistance. We were at Danbury prison when his brother was on trial—Phil, and Liz—for supposedly attempting to kidnap Kissinger, and he was introduced in front of me as Father Daniel Ellsberg. And he said, “No, Daniel Ellsberg, that bad Jesuit, is sitting behind me.” When they were burning the draft files, I remember it was Dan’s statement, “We apologize, good friends, for our fracture of good order here and for burning paper instead of babies. A macabre statement. And yet when LBJ objected very much to the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you burn today?” or kill today, it was actually a very fair question, which never got answered, essentially.

We never counted the number of people we were killing or making refugees. That was something the Pentagon did not need to know, and so it is today. I think in Iraq, America has never faced up to the number of people who have died because of our invasion, our aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 30 years since we first inspired a CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviets there, and led to the invasion of the Soviets. What we’ve done to the Middle East has been hell.

AMY GOODMAN: You were not always a peace activist. You worked for the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation. You are one of the few who had the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam locked away in your safe. What changed you? What made you decide to open your safe and copy those thousands of pages and release them to the press?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I had read this study, 23 years of lies and breaking treaties, escalations, deceit of the American people, from 1945 to 1968. Second, I knew that it was going on under a fifth president in a row, Richard Nixon. I knew from insiders—and I had worked for Nixon at the very beginning of his administration as a consultant on Vietnam. And I knew he didn’t intend to get out but was trying to win, essentially, by threatening nuclear war and to prolong General Thieu, our puppet in Saigon, in power through his second term.

So the war I was sure was going to go on, and it was going to get larger. But the key thing, the immediate thing, was that I met young Americans who were on their way to prison, like Bob Eaton and Randall Keeler, who had decided the strongest statement they could make about the war was not by going to Sweden or being a conscientious objector, which they could have done, or going to Vietnam, but to go to prison. That my country had come to this, I realized. But I also realized looking at them that if they could do it, I could do it, and that I should do it. The question in my mind that they put there was, “How can I help shorten the war now that I’m ready to go to prison?”

AMY GOODMAN: So you released the Pentagon Papers or you got them to The New York Times and then to The Washington Post.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Eventually, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a new film out called The Post about The Washington Post’s role. Is it accurate in releasing the papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, it’s a Hollywood film; it’s not a documentary. But I enjoy seeing myself played by a terrific actor who looks much the way I did at the time, only better.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times, has it ever acknowledged that you were the source of the Pentagon Papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: [laugh] No. As a matter of fact, they used to say, for about 20 years, “Daniel Ellsberg…”—if I came into the news at all—”…who says that he gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times…” And I called them several times and said, “Can you change that frame, because…?” And they’d say, “No, we don’t reveal our sources.” I said, “Well, I was on trial for this, you know. And I’ve acknowledged it very much myself.” Nor has The Washington Post ever revealed me as the source of their studies, except in this movie, which is not by The Washington Post.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it important to you that they should just directly acknowledge that you were the source of the Pentagon Papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Oh, at the time, it was simply that people would ask me, “What do they mean by that—the man who says he gave it to them?” And I didn’t appreciate that question. No, it wasn’t important in itself. And as a matter of fact, I think that Ed Snowden did exactly the right thing by being out of the country, where he could communicate with reporters, just as Dan Berrigan did the right thing by leaving, evading the FBI for months and being able to communicate with the public in a way that he couldn’t have done in prison. And Snowden, like Chelsea Manning, would have been incommunicado. She was in solitary confinement for 10.5 months of her seven years in prison. And Snowden could not be communicating with us about the dangers of surveillance as he has been doing for years now if he were in this country. He is in, in effect, permanent exile.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, you were vilified by the right for years, but when Ed Snowden went into exile in Moscow because he couldn’t leave Russia—the U.S. had pulled his passport—the very right that vilified you said, “Well, Ed Snowden…” Some said he should be killed. Some said he should be executed, he should be jailed. But they said “He’s no Dan Ellsberg.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, that was an attempt, as you say, to vilify Snowden. Actually, I identify more with Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning than with any other two individuals in the world. They went through what I did, in the way of a transition in their consciousness, and they acted in ways that would permanently constrain their career. In my case, Nixon didn’t achieve what he had in mind, which was 115 years in prison, or at another point, to incapacitate me totally, but that was by kind of a miraculous set of events that cost Nixon his job and made the war end-able. So that was kind of a miracle, and we need more miracles like that. We need more Ed Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings, I would say.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that. How is it that you didn’t end up in jail for 115 years and Nixon remained the president?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: The revelation of the history in the Pentagon Papers influenced people to be against the war, but they were already against the war, and that didn’t affect Nixon. He went on with the war. What Nixon responded to was his fear, rather well founded fear, that I might have documents on his current nuclear threats and his plan to escalate, as he did in the mining of Haiphong Harbor and his renewal of bombing, heavy bombing. And he thought that I could prove that with documents in a way that the public—would lead to public opposition to his policy. So he had to shut me up.

And to do that in this country, he had to take what were then crimes—warrantless wiretapping of associates on whom I was heard, hiring CIA people for the White House to burglarize my former psychoanalyst’s office hoping to get information he could blackmail me with into silence, and later bringing some of those same CIA assets who were later caught in the Watergate to Washington to incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally, on the steps of the Capitol.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, what do I mean? That’s what I asked their prosecutor, William Merrill. I said, “What does that mean? Kill me?” He said the words were “to incapacitate you totally.” Then he said, but you have to understand these guys were all CIA assets from the Bay of Pigs earlier. Never use the word “kill.” They say “neutralize,” “terminate with extreme prejudice,” “incapacitate.” They don’t talk about killing. He thought the intent was to kill me. I actually think the intent was to shut me up at the moment he was about to mine Haiphong, which I was predicting.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did your trial end?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the trial ended when my—John Dean, who exposed the burglary of my doctor’s office earlier. Later, people exposed the attempt to incapacitate me. And then finally the warrantless wiretapping. So the judge in the end, when he couldn’t find the files for the wiretapping—because they had been kept out of the FBI files. They were in the White House, because they were a criminal, and they didn’t want J. Edgar Hoover to blackmail Nixon with the evidence of this White House-ordered crime. So without even those files, the judge said this offends the sense of justice, a pattern of governmental misconduct.

But what was more important was that these same charges then came to confront Nixon. The war would not have ended with Nixon in office. By the way, in 1973, early 1973, when my final stage of my trial started, the possibility of Nixon not finishing his second term, which he had just won in a landslide, was zero. It was impossible. It was like the Berlin wall coming down in 1989 or Nelson Mandela, let’s say, becoming president without a violent revolution. These were impossible events which did occur.

And I am saying that the ending of the war as early as 1975 depended on Nixon being out of office, which he was in 1974. And that was simply unforeseeable, and it relied on a lot of people doing unusual things. Alexander Butterfield revealing the White House taping which revealed that John Dean had been telling the truth when he accused the president of a cover-up and of criminal acts. And later, the attorney general resigning, Elliot Richardson, rather than fire a special prosecutor.

We are back at that today, that issue. And then when a second person, Ruckelshaus—same man, by the way, who had revealed the FBI wiretapping of me—was now the acting attorney general, and he resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor. That was the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. So that got the public aroused and called for another special prosecutor to be named, independent of the White House, at this point. We may live through that again very shortly.

AMY GOODMAN: That is what I want to ask you about, Dan Ellsberg. If you see parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Trump is almost blatantly talking about Nixon’s madman theory, the idea that he, Trump, as the president, as Nixon pretended to be at least, was unbalanced, capable of intemperate actions, capable of going to war using nuclear weapons. The problem of course with the world is that it’s all too easy to believe that Trump is mad in this case. Kim Jong-un gives a similar impression. I’m less convinced that Kim is not bluffing on this point.

But I’m increasingly feeling that President Trump is not bluffing when he appears to be ready to do the crazy actions of either getting into a war with a nuclear weapons state, North Korea, or attacking Iran, which would be another catastrophe. Not nuclear until we use them against Iran’s underground sites as Vice President Cheney wanted to do in 2006 and was exposed there I think by a leak by my friend Seymour Hersh, who showed that the joint chiefs were against that. I think that was a major factor in that not happening then.

We’re on the verge now of I think a two-sided nuclear war. A limited one with North Korea. They don’t have the capability, they don’t have enough weapons to cause nuclear winter and they don’t have enough cities to burn for us to cause nuclear winter, but it will be more violence in a day, in a week, in a month than the world has ever seen in that period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think a summit is possible?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, of course what we have been hearing is that a summit is possible. And that, by the way, was not foreseen two months ago. At the same time, as we talk, as you know, that is being put into question very [inaudible]. It always looked improbable or implausible rather than impossible, which it would have looked earlier. Now it does look unlikely. If it fails—there is, by the way, I think an agreement that could come out of that summit would be for the good of all. A double freeze, as the Chinese and Russians put it, on their testing of H-bombs and H warheads, and missiles. ICBMs. And on our part, ceasing to rehearse assassination of Kim Jong-un, the so-called decapitation, or rehearsing of invasions of North Vietnam, which we do at least annually, and signing at last a peace treaty after, what is it, almost more than 60 years. And with trade, normalizing relations with North Korea.

I think that is possible, at least—more than possible, but it doesn’t seem where we are headed, in terms of Trump seems to be pressing, with Bolton’s urging, at a totally infeasible notion of beginning or very early stages of their giving up their deterrent entirely, all of their nuclear weapons they constructed. I think that Kim Jong-un thinks that would be crazy for him, and that is not the kind of crazy he is. The kind of crazy that Trump is, I’m afraid, is that he could start that war.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the national security advisor John Bolton who said in a Sunday talk show, as the summit was, well, about to get underway in a few weeks, that he was looking at the Libya option?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: That is such a macabre, black humor kind of joke. Of course, a major promoter of the expensive and difficult nuclear program in North Korea is precisely that example that Bolton is—he doesn’t want to end with a bayonet in his back any more than Gadaffi wanted that. And his notion of—his determination to have some nuclear weapons is precisely to avoid that. But Bolton of course has made no secret for years that he thought North Korea should be attacked. and that has extended into the period when North Korea is a nuclear state. We haven’t made threats against a nuclear state since the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I participated in, in 1962.

AMY GOODMAN: How were you involved?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Oh, well I was working on two working groups under the executive committee of the National Security Council, so-called EXCOM, and I was sleeping in the Pentagon several nights toward the end of that crisis. And of course, I describe it in some detail in my book. But what I didn’t realize at the time was how very close we came to ending human civilization, most human life at that time.

What we already had was a doomsday machine, a system for destroying every city in Russia and China with the effect of causing smoke in the stratosphere, lofted into the stratosphere, that would block out 70% of the sunlight between the earth, and kill all the harvests. In effect, it would have led to worldwide starvation, including in this country. Not just an ordinary famine, but the end of food. That has been really the consequence we can expect since 1983 when it was discovered that smoke was the most widespread lethal effect of such a large nuclear attack. So that our strategic command…

AMY GOODMAN: Known as nuclear winter.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: …is in effect a starvation command. We’ve found a way to bring about the death by famine of virtually all humans.

AMY GOODMAN: So two things are happening at once. The possibility of U.S.-North Korea summit or the torpedoing of it, and the U.S. President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, the pulling out of the Iran deal seems to have no imaginable benefit to anybody except those madmen who want to see Iran destroyed in a military attack, a war. That seems to be Netanyahu and the Sunni rivals of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others who want to see the U.S. destroy, with Israeli help, Iran’s military apparatus. That could well lead to the use of U.S. nuclear weapons against underground command bunkers and sites in Iran.

But the key effect of that, as the war in Korea, is not directly nuclear winter as it would be an a war against Russia. Actually, this would be in either case a war in which Russia and China would be on the other side. I think the main effect in the long run would be that it would kill, for generations perhaps, the chance of the kind of cooperation with Russia and China that is essential both to deal with climate change and with eliminating the doomsday machines on both sides. It would make them permanent, in effect.

And although they have not been triggered by their hair trigger posture over the last 70 years—yet—I think that is by a kind of miracle, the kind of secular miracle that I’ve been talking about earlier that can be good or not so good. I think we have been saved by very, very good luck, and that is not so likely to continue without a major change in our policies.

So what I’m really saying is that it’s urgent. It’s urgent to dismantle this doomsday machine and to deal with the climate problem in the way that it was urgent to raise the levees and strengthen the levees in New Orleans before Katrina, as was recommended and requested and demanded every year for more than a decade before Katrina struck. Likewise, it was urgent to stop building in flood zones in Houston before Harvey struck. But in this case, we’re talking about the world being obliterated, the world of humanity and of civilization.

AMY GOODMAN: What message do you have for government insiders who are considering becoming whistleblowers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: My message to them is, “Don’t do what I did.” Don’t wait until the bombs are actually falling or thousands more have died before you do what I wish I had done years earlier, in 1964 or even 1961, on the nuclear issue. And that is reveal the truth that you know, the dangerous truths that are being withheld by the government, at whatever cost to yourself, whatever risk that may take. Consider doing that because a war’s worth of lives may be at stake. Or in the case of the two existential crises I’m talking about, the future of humanity is at stake.

So many graduating classes I think have been told year after year for half a century that they face a crossroads or that much depends on what they do. That is no exaggeration right now. It is this generation, not the next one, the people living right now, that have to change these problems fast. And I think truth-telling is crucial to mobilize that.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the information that you think most needs to be revealed right now?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, I’m certain that there are studies in the Pentagon and CIA and the NSC right now that reveal two things. That it would be disastrous, catastrophic, to go to war against North Korea, even though the immediate casualties would be measured in millions rather than billions, which is the nuclear winter problem. And likewise, it would be catastrophic to be at war with Iran, a nation four times the size in population of Iraq.

And as I say, we have never faced up to the human cost of that war, Iraq. So I’m sure there are studies—top-secret, secret, confidential, or higher than top-secret—that make this very clear. I would say that John Mattis, the secretary of defense, should not wait until the bombs are falling before he reveals those truths to Congress and the public. And if he doesn’t do it—and he’s very unlikely to do it—then his secretary or his aides or assistant secretaries should risk, sacrifice their careers, to avert these wars, which must not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. His latest book is The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Henry Kissinger once called him “the most dangerous man in America.”

1 comment

  1. Chris Burton May 22, 2018 8:05 am 

    There is no better example of what CIA officer Cord Meyer calls the Compatible Left than Amy Goodman and Daniel Ellsberg.

    The biggest threat facing the world is not nuclear war, it’s the advent of electromagnetic weapons used to enforce Phoenix Programs around the world, and in America through the DHS.

    “The summer of 1971 was a busy time as well. Colby was due to testify to Congress about the Phoenix program in July, but a larger event grabbed the headlines. On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began printing lengthy excerpts from the Pentagon Papers – that painstakingly edited stack of documents that, even by name, deflected attention away from the CIA. Consequently, little public attention was paid when, on July 15, 1971, the Times reported: ‘Previously classified information read into the record of a House Government Operations subcommittee today disclosed that 26,843 non-military Vietcong insurgents and sympathizers were neutralized in 14 months through Operation Phoenix.’

    “Ellsberg, Scotton, and a handful of other experts prepared America’s organizational blueprint for pacifying South Vietnam’s civilian population in the seminal ‘Roles and Missions’ report in August 1966. That study set the stage for the Phoenix program.

    “When Ellsberg told me he was a celebrity, he was saying that he underwent a symbolic transformation the moment he leaked the Pentagon Papers, and landed in a social realm that alienated him from non-celebrities like me. He became an icon, and nobody on the left is about to say, ‘Oh, my god! Valentine had this revelation about Ellsberg. Let’s rethink everything we believe is true.’ Like its doppelgangers on the right, the management class on the left is invested in celebrity heroes who represent their business interests. They focus on the symbol and ignore any contradictory but essential facts, the way Greenwald and Scahill ignore Pierre Omidyar’s funding of the Center for the United Action in Kiev, which was a Phoenix-style coordination center for covert political action.”

    – Douglas Valentine, The CIA as Organized Crime.

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