Pentagon Papers at 50

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Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times began publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — 7,000 pages of top-secret documents outlining the Pentagon’s secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam since the 1940s. The leak exposed years of government lies about the war, revealed that even top officials believed it was unwinnable, and would end up helping to end the Vietnam War and lead to a major victory for press freedom. The Times exposé was based on documents secretly photocopied by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, who both worked as Pentagon consultants at the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg, who had been deeply involved in the Vietnam War as a defense analyst, decided to risk life imprisonment to reveal the truth about Vietnam. “I’d been lied to. The whole country had been lied to. The Congress had been lied to as to what the situation was,” Ellsberg says. He says top officials knew for years that the war had “very little likelihood of helping anyone, but leading just to an escalating stalemate.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times began publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — 7,000 pages of top-secret documents outlining the secret history of the U.S. War in Vietnam. The leak would end up helping take down President Nixon, help end the War in Vietnam and lead to a major victory for press freedom. The Times exposé was based on documents secretly photocopied by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo while they worked as Pentagon consultants at the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg had been deeply involved in the Vietnam War, first traveling to Vietnam as a Pentagon analyst in 1964. But after turning against the war, Ellsberg decided to risk his life in prison to reveal the truth about Vietnam. The two men were charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as theft and conspiracy.

This is an excerpt from the 2009 documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America. It begins with Dan Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It was the evening of October 1st, 1969, when I first smuggled several hundred pages of top-secret documents out of my safe at the RAND Corporation. The study contained 47 volumes, 7,000 pages. My plan was to xerox the study and reveal the secret history of the Vietnam War to the American people.

NEWSCASTER: The FBI was trying to find out who gave The New York Times a copy of a Pentagon secret study.

MIKE GRAVEL: Pow!, like a thunderclap, you get The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, and the country is panicking.

HENRY KISSINGER: This is an attack on the whole integrity of government. If whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can’t have orderly government anymore.

WALTER CRONKITE: A name has now come out as the possible source of the Times Pentagon documents. It is that of Daniel Ellsberg, a top policy analyst for the Defense and State Department.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper.

PATRICIA ELLSBERG: In the first year of marriage, we’re talking about him going to prison for the rest of his life.

REPORTER: Dr. Ellsberg, do you have any concern about the possibility of going to prison for this?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?

EGILBUDKROGH JR.: We felt so strongly that we were dealing with a national security crisis. Henry Kissinger said that Dr. Daniel Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America” and he had to be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The documentary was co-directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.

The Nixon administration would go on to take extraordinary measures to silence and punish Ellsberg, including breaking into his psychiatrist’s office. But the government’s misconduct led to charges against him and Anthony Russo being dismissed.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, we’re joined now by Daniel Ellsberg, who turned 90 years old in April. Over the past five decades, Ellsberg has been a leading critic of U.S. militarism and U.S. nuclear weapons policy, as well as a prominent advocate for other whistleblowers. Oh, and he hasn’t stopped sharing government secrets. We’re going to talk about one of those secrets that he said he’s willing to be prosecuted for, that he just leaked. But right now we go to Berkeley, California, to the home of Daniel Ellsberg.

Dan, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is such a significant milestone. It was half a century ago Sunday that The New York Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers. Talk about how they got a hold of those papers, and the decision you made, especially for young people, at what point you went from, you know, working for the Pentagon, going to Vietnam, being a part of the war machine, and then turning around and saying, “I will spend the rest of my life in jail, I have to, to stop this.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the first trip I made to Vietnam, Amy, was actually in 1961 on a research project looking at limited war research and development. And it was clear in one week there, talking to counterpart military officers who were advising Vietnamese and who were looking at the war closely, and reading their reports, that it became very clear that the war, under a corrupt, tyrannical dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had a pretense of elections, in which he tended to win 102% of the voters in some districts, was failing, against a group that was led by communists who had evicted the French from the northern part of the country some years earlier and had that cachet of liberators of the country from occupation. And we had — the U.S. had artificially carved out a part of that country as an anti-communist country, which we supported very lavishly — as if, for example, Britain had supported the Confederacy very lavishly in our Civil War — and, in fact, had supplied all of their uniforms, their bullets, their rations, everything, which is what we did for the puppet army in South Vietnam. It was very clear then that that was an extremely unpromising place to plant the flag against communism or for imperialism in that country, as imprudent as it had been for the French to try to reconquer that country. And we had supported the French from ’45 on, ’til ’54, and then took over the burden of suppressing that country and effectively occupying it ourselves.

So, I was very surprised in ’61 when I learned that President Kennedy had taken the alleged advice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, and Walt Rostow, a major policy figure, that all that was needed was advisers, that he didn’t need to send combat troops, and that progress would be made if we simply went through the Geneva Conference of 1954 ceiling of advisers to about 600, went up to a thousand and maybe several thousand — in the end, there were 12,000 advisers there — but that that was enough to keep that country in our control, essentially.

That turned out to be a lie. When I read the Pentagon Papers years later — that was in ’61. I was reading those documents in ’67, and I was particularly interested to see what their advice had actually been. And what had turned out was that the president had been lying and that their — and they backed him up, in line — and that their advice actually was that advisers would not be enough to stem the nationalist forces we were fighting and that the only possibility was to send troops immediately, and, indeed, that those didn’t have a lot of promise that we would do better than the French, but nothing less would do the job. In other words, I had been lied to, the whole country had been lied to, the Congress had been lied to, as to what the situation was.

Well, that was typical of the entire 30-year conflict, which was really from 1945 to ’75. The recent Burns-Novick piece, the series about the war, starts with a statement: “It was begun by decent men with honest motives.” That was not true for a single day of that war. However decent they may have been in other contexts, these smart men, generally, as smart as we have today, managed to lie to the public every day of the war and, in bad faith, actually, pursue a war that they saw had very little likelihood of helping anyone, but leading just to an escalating stalemate — which is what actually happened — for the next 20 years of the war or so, from — 15 years, from ’61 to ’75.

So, when I became aware that that was repeating itself, that history, which in the Pentagon Papers and in ’68, with President Johnson’s departure — and now we were in ’69, and I was made aware that President Nixon was following exactly in the footsteps of his predecessors, while telling the public, in his election campaign and otherwise, he was getting out. And, in fact, he planned to get the U.S. troops out — U.S. troops out — slowly, throughout his first term, hopefully sooner, but, if necessary, as it turned out to be, over a matter of years, and to pursue the war indefinitely, through his second term, in the air, backing up President Thieu, the puppet leader, former general, in Vietnam and his army, the army that we supported and managed, with U.S. airpower.

And he virtually achieved that. He almost did, actually. By ’73, he did get the American troops out. People thought, “The war is over.” But from the point of view of bombing, generating refugees, torture, deaths in Vietnam, he was going on as before, and would have done so right through 1977 and later, had not the president been forced to resign for acts he took in the process of assuring his policy and assuring his staying in office. Namely, he kept his own policy of threatening nuclear war even and threatening major escalation, such as mining Haiphong and mining Hanoi and bombing Hanoi, which he did do, and going into the so-called sanctuaries, other countries, other sovereign countries, like Laos and Cambodia, all of which he did do. He did everything but the actual carrying out of nuclear weapons, which he discussed at the highest levels — and telling the people that he was getting out of the war all this time — another big lie, as we started with.

And I put out in 1969 to the Senate, and then to the newspapers in ’71, evidence that five previous — four previous presidents had made similar lies and escalations and threats, and the war had gone on. They preferred a bloody, escalating stalemate to the humiliation of ending the war the only way it could be ended, which was granting the Southern communist-led forces a role in the government and stopping the bombing of the North.

But Nixon was so beholden to President Thieu, Nguyen Van Thieu, that he had to keep him in there even when that was the only thing dividing this and keeping the war going in 1971 and ’72. We learned much later that Thieu regarded himself as having elected Nixon, and he was right in doing so. In the last days of 1968, Nixon’s people, at his orders, which we learned many years later, was telling Thieu, “Hold on. Don’t negotiate. We will give you better terms.” And indeed he had in mind giving him better terms, and he did. “We’ll keep you in power,” even though the communists are demanding as a part of the negotiations that Thieu personally not be part of the element. And that’s what we were fighting for. And that’s why tens of thousands of Americans — and millions of Vietnamese — died: to keep Thieu in power as long as Nixon was, which did happen. Nixon left before Thieu did, and Thieu left in ’75.

It would not have happened, had not Nixon been faced with impeachment for the crimes he took to keep the war going and keep it hidden, crimes mainly against me to keep me from putting out new documents that would incriminate him, like the nuclear threats and the others that he was making. And in the process of that, he burglarized my former psychoanalyst’s office. He sent 12 Cuban assets of the Bay of Pigs up to incapacitate me totally on the steps of the Capitol. On May 3rd, he overheard me on illegal, warrantless wiretaps. When all this began to come out as a result of truth-telling by John Dean to the prosecutors; Alex Butterfield telling the truth about the taping of the Oval Office, which is essential; Elliot Richardson and Ruckelshaus refusing the president’s orders to fire the special prosecutor, to fire the special prosecutor demanding the tapes; the Supreme Court, including three Nixon appointees, ruling unanimously they had give them over — all these steps were individually essential to facing the president with resignation or impeachment. And when he chose resignation, the war became endable. That’s why — that’s why president — rather, Henry Kissinger called me “the most dangerous man in America,” because he feared I had documents — documents — that would tell the truth about the lies he and his boss were telling.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was even after you had released the Pentagon Papers. I want to go back to that documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, this excerpt focusing on how the Nixon White House responded to your leak. It begins with John Dean, who served as White House counsel to President Nixon.

JOHN DEAN: I think that there is probably some good justification for the strong feelings Nixon had. He would make a decision in the National Security Council and the next day read it on the front page of The New York Times or some other newspaper. This makes it virtually impossible to govern.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Just because some guy is going to be a martyr, we can’t be in a position of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government. I just say that we’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball. The main ball is Ellsberg. We’ve got to get this son of a bitch.

JOHN DEAN: The leak of the Pentagon Papers changed the Nixon White House. It really is what some of us have called the beginning of the dark period. I mean, it was rough and tumble before, but it got down and dirty. So it’s really a defining event for the Nixon presidency. And this is when Egil Krogh, Bud Krogh, was selected to head up the so-called Plumbers unit.

EGILBUDKROGH JR.: I was summoned to the Oval Office by the president. John Ehrlichman and I met with him. There was some suspicion that Dr. Ellsberg had access to the more recent war plans that had been developed by the Nixon administration and would be able to release those documents. I came from that meeting feeling very strongly that I was dealing with a national security crisis, and I was to take any means necessary to respond to it.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The difficulty is all the good lawyers always say, “Well, we’ve got to win the court case.” Screw the court case. Let’s convict the son of a bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s done.

EGILBUDKROGH JR.: The president had decided to set up a special investigations unit in the White House staff.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: We’ve got to get a better team.

CHARLES COLSON: There’s one guy on the outside. He’s hard as nails. His name is Howard Hunt.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: He could do it. And I’ll direct him myself. And I play it gloves off. Now, God damn it, get going on it.

EGILBUDKROGH JR.: Did Daniel Ellsberg work alone? Was he working with some other people? Was it part of a conspiracy? And it was in that context that a proposal was made by E. Howard Hunt to get information that could be used to discredit Dr. Ellsberg. A covert operation ought to be undertaken to examine all of the files still held by Dr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. This went to John Ehrlichman. Underneath that proposal were two lines: approve of the line, disapprove of the line. He wrote his large “E” after “approve” and then put in “under your assurance it is not traceable.”

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s an excerpt from The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the documentary co-directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.

Also, Dan, The New York Times had a special section called “Uncovering the Secret History of the Vietnam War” on the publication of the papers you leaked to them. They had it yesterday. And among the quotes they highlight, which is so important, is the contrast of what was being said publicly and what was being said privately. So, you have the war grows in secret. In 1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at a White House news conference says, “We reviewed in great detail the plans of the South Vietnamese and the plans of our own military advisers for operations during 1964. We have every reason to believe they will be successful.” But on the same day, December 21st, 1963, McNamara said in a memo to President Lyndon Johnson, “The situation is very disturbing. Current trends, unless reversed in the next two to three months, will lead to a neutralization at best and more likely a Communist controlled state.” In 1964, you have Johnson saying in a televised address, “We still seek no wider war,” but in the Pentagon Papers, it says, on February 1st, 1964, “the United States embarked on a new course of action … On that date, under direction of the American military establishment, an elaborate program of covert military operations against the state of North Vietnam was set in motion.”

I want to focus on your getting the Pentagon Papers, Dan. Explain what this was — this is before Kissinger and Nixon were afraid you were going to have another leak around nuclear issues — about the report in your safe, that only a few people had, and your decision to xerox them, to include your children — I think Robert Ellsberg, your 13-year-old child at the time, helped you do this — and why you decided to do this and include your kids.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the great journalist I.F. Stone once said, “All government officials lie, and nothing they say is to be believed.” That doesn’t mean that everything they say is a lie. It means that anything they say may be a lie, and it’s never the last word. They are always misleading one audience or another, and you have to back that up with your common sense, back it up with other sources. Nothing illustrates that better in writing than the Pentagon Papers.

But, of course, it’s still true today. What you were quoting could have been written about Afghanistan — and, in fact, it was. When The Washington Post got the Afghan Papers a couple of years ago, somewhat lower levels, they illustrated that almost identical quotes had been saying about Afghan during the 20-year war that we have so far experienced there. And it could be another 20 years, even with U.S. troops out of the country, as Nixon got U.S. troops out of the country in ’73 but planned to continue the war with airpower. And I think also there’s a plan right now to continue the war in Afghan, killing Afghans, creating refugees, indefinitely, from bases outside Afghanistan. But again, in both cases, you have people speaking quite reasonably and realistically inside about the lack of progress, while outside the public is reassured that tax money can still be given to Congress to buy beans and boots and troops for our puppet allies over there indefinitely.

Now, when I had learned that, year by year, in the Pentagon, ’64, ’65 — then I was in Vietnam from ’65 to ’67 — it was very clear that these lies were persisting in the interest of keeping a war going. There was always an alternative to getting higher, as the Joint Chiefs tended to want, with no real prospect of success, or getting out somehow, lowering the cost. And the president chose each time not to do the latter, not to be subject to charges of losing the war or ending it, but of keeping it going, with some promise of winning — a totally illusory promise on the outside, not confirmed on the inside. I saw that no one — I saw, from reading the Pentagon Papers, that the president had — president after president had gotten quite realistic reports from people inside — not from everybody, many liars, but a lot that were realistic enough to let him know that he did have the choice of getting out. In fact, he would have had a lot of support for doing it. But he would have been the one who will borne the brunt of charges that he had lost the war. Had he done what the Joint Chiefs wanted, which he knew, correctly, I think, was very foolish, which would have led to nuclear war with the Chinese, in the case of the Vietnamese — he chose not to do that, and chose instead to stalemate, keep the war going.

So, I saw then that it no longer paid to be a president’s man giving him the truth about realities. He had that. He knew it’s not a matter of speaking truth to power. Power was getting the truth and choosing not to be the fall guy for Ho Chi Minh City becoming Saigon, as eventually did happen. That wasn’t going to happen under his term. So, the only way I could see was having Congress take steps. In the end, by the way, they did, under the extraordinary circumstances of Watergate. But for years, that didn’t seem very promising, either. Congressman after congressman, to whom I showed these realities, chose again to let me put it out eventually, and not to take the risks of going to prison or condemnation of putting it out. I couldn’t get anybody to put them out. Finally, Neil Sheehan —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a critical point, Dan. Talk — I mean, the senators who were known as the antiwar senators, you went to one after another. And while some apologetic, just said they couldn’t do it on their own.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, yes. It’s frequently said — just yesterday, as I keep reading these things — I read, every other time, they didn’t accept the papers. One of them, McGovern, even said he couldn’t accept them, because they were illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Senator McGovern, who ran for president then. That was the opposite of the truth of what he had actually said to me. Each one of the presidents and congresspersons — Fulbright, McGovern, later Representative Pete McCloskey in the House, Senator Mathias in the Senate — each of them antiwar, effective antiwar people within the Congress, each enthusiastically said they would use the papers, and then — and assured me that my name didn’t have to come out, and they would pull the Constitution off the wall and say, “The speech clause here — I can’t be questioned about anything I give here. We won’t have to give your name.” To each, I said, “I prefer not to be named, but that’s not a consideration. I’m prepared, ready to go to jail on these things, if there’s any reason you have to call me to authenticate how you got the papers and so forth.” Each one eventually, after thinking about it, turned back.

And looking back at it, when Neil Sheehan from the Times told me, “You shouldn’t put it out in Congress” — the way I wanted to — “It should only come out in the Times” — and he knew we had some conflict about that. I thought it should come out in the Congress so it could get subpoena witnesses, get people under oath, bring witnesses against the documents. I thought it was very much preferable to it coming out in the newspapers first. He, on the other hand, kept saying, “No, Dan, it’s got to come out in the newspapers.” And I, frankly, thought, “Well, he’s a little influenced there by getting a Pulitzer Prize,” and so forth. I wasn’t convinced.

And he was right, actually. Later, when the Pentagon Papers did come out, both Senator Mansfield, the majority leader, Senator Fulbright, the foreign affairs leader, chairman, said, “We now have to have hearings.” And I braced for these. Didn’t happen. In fact, it was Nixon who wanted hearings, I think tried to get Congressman Hébert to hold a hearing, because, for the reasoning on both sides, they did incriminate mainly Democrats. Nixon wanted it even though it also made presidents look bad. The senators didn’t want it, because they were Democrat —

AMY GOODMAN: Dan, we have so much to talk about in so little time. But I want to get to that point where you and Tony Russo, your co-conspirator, who was working at the RAND Corporation, said, “Let’s do it,” and you decided to xerox that 7,000-page report. How did you do it? How did you get the papers out? And then the story of going underground.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, told the story many times, but it involved — I asked Tony if he knew someone with a Xerox machine. His then-womanfriend Lynda Sinay, now Lynda Resnick, in California, played the crucial role of immediately saying, “Yes, you can use my Xerox machine,” charged 10 cents a page. I used up all my savings at that time. But I kept that going. Tony helped me for a number of nights, and I kept on by myself.

And at first, taking a suitcase — or, a briefcase, rather, out of the — Pentagon Papers — past the guards was very nerve-racking. All they had to do was ask to open that briefcase, and I’d be in the soup. But I eventually got used to be — they’re not asking me. They then didn’t ask briefcases very much. The current people, I think, don’t thank me for the fact that they now do have to open their briefcases.

But I did get them out, xerox all night, collate stuff, make several copies of each, bring them back in the morning, so that a jury couldn’t be convinced, in the end — that wasn’t why I did it, but it was no significant deprivation of any owner of such information by our taking it. It was only overnight, and I was the only person authorized to read it at that point, though I was charged with conversion and theft, actually.

So, that went on for, really — Tony stayed for seven or eight times. Then he was doing other things. And I did it by myself for much of the next year, on and off, because I would always think there’s very little chance this will have any effect on the war. It ends in 1968. The war, under Nixon, had started under ’69. He can say —

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the report ended in ’68.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: At the end of ’68. And then — under Johnson. And then, Nixon was not incriminated directly at all. In fact, he’s not mentioned in the Eisenhower years, a little oddly. But so, he was happy to have those out. What he was worried about was what else I might put out — and he had reason to worry about that; that wasn’t just paranoid — so that he had to try to stop me to do it. And that took illegal means in those days.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to jump forward to 1973, because then we have to — I want to talk about the new release that showed that we almost went to nuclear war in 1958. But —


AMY GOODMAN: And that was Taiwan-China, particularly relevant now, as Biden makes his NATO summit appearance and then goes on to meet with Putin. But I just wanted to end with the trial in 1973 of you and Tony Russo and how it ended up in a mistrial, the trial that could lead to you being in prison for life for treason, as — you know, just like if Julian Assange came to the United States and faced a trial. But in the end, talk about what happened, what scuttled this.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, I was facing a possible 115 years in prison. Assange, by the way, faces 175. But it comes to about the same thing. Less for me now at this point as I face similar charges, because what I’ve done in the last month is exactly as indictable as anything the Obama or Trump or Biden administration has indicted for in the last several months.

I’ve put out information that was clearly held, continually held from the American people, wrongly, at a top-secret level, or a segment. And I’ve done it. I’ve said, “Here it is. Let’s test whether criminalizing the release of any or all top-secret material, or secret or confidential material, no matter when — that’s the way the law, the plain law, of the law exists. Let’s test whether that law is constitutional in the U.S. of A. with the First Amendment.” Other countries have the law, including Britain; they don’t have the First Amendment. And by strong means, if the Supreme Court were the first time to address this issue, it’s very hard for them to find that broad, sweeping wordage of the First Amendment constitutional.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to get to that. But the trial, how it ended up, how it ended up in a mistrial?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, it ended up, first of all, because John Dean revealed to the prosecutors on April 17th, almost the day that the president had returned to bombing of North Vietnam, had sent the order out — he then gets the word that John Dean has revealed the break-in to my former psychoanalyst’s office — and, obviously, illegal at that time, although now, after 9/11, it might be legal, but then illegal. Then word of illegal wiretappings came out, overhearing of me, which they’d been denying for two years.

Eventually, the word that the president — the judge himself, Judge Matthew Byrne, had been offered, during the trial, by the president and then by John Ehrlichman — had been offered the post of the FBI directorship, which was in a transition state at that point, something he had wanted all his life. When we learned that afterwards, it really meant I was going to lose. He was not going to get that job if I was acquitted on 12 felony counts. So, he would have given instructions that would have hung me up for some years, to say the least. When that came out, we moved for a mistrial, but he turned it down, saying that hadn’t influenced him at all, rather foolishly.

But the trial went on. And other things came out — the illegal wiretapping. They couldn’t find the taps, the records of the illegal wiretapping of me, because the president had removed them from J. Edgar Hoover’s private files to the White House files, where they couldn’t be gotten. So they denied that there were such tapes. They were afraid, correctly, that Hoover would use these illegal acts ordered by the White House to blackmail the White House into letting Hoover stay.

So, when the president — I’m sorry to keep saying that. When the judge said, “OK, overall pattern of events here offends a sense of justice, bizarre circumstances,” and he dismissed all charges with prejudice, meaning we couldn’t be tried again. That was the first time, I think, a federal trial had been dismissed just before it went to the jury on such grounds.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower extraordinaire, author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner and Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

When we come back, we look at the latest leak. That’s right, a secret document he exposed showing the U.S. considered attacking China with a nuclear weapon in 1958. He’s willing to go to jail for the latest leak. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

This week does mark the 50th anniversary since The New York Times published the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by our guest, the legendary whistleblower Dan Ellsberg. Last month, he made headlines again after sharing a top-secret document with The New York Times revealing that the U.S. military in 1958 pressed then-President Dwight Eisenhower to prepare a nuclear first strike against mainland China during the Taiwan Strait crisis. The document shows U.S. military planners were ready to accept the risk that at the time the Soviet Union would launch its own nuclear retaliation on behalf of its ally China and that millions of people would die.

Dan, can you talk about the document and why you decided now to release it, decades after it was actually written? And the significance of it today? Could have gone to nuclear war in 1958. If we made it to now, what it means, as President Biden ups the rhetoric against China and Russia, as he makes his way, his first international trip, from NATO to the summit with Putin?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It was clear, even in 1958, that to defend a couple of rocks occupied by Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-shek forces one mile off the mainland — Quemoy and Matsu — could really only be defended, if at all, by U.S. initiating nuclear war against China. And nevertheless, the president and the Joint Chiefs all agreed that if the Chinese pressed their attack, their blockade of Quemoy, we would have to and we would use nuclear weapons against China, and that that would lead, they assumed, rightly or wrongly — I would guess, wrongly — but they assumed that the Soviet Union would respond, annihilating Taiwan. Ten years later, we heard about destroying a town to save it: Ben Tre in South Vietnam. Well, we were going to destroy Quemoy and Taiwan to save it from the communists in ’58. And more recently, it would seem, people are talking that way.

The Japanese had not been told that the Soviets might actually respond against Japan, as well as Okinawa and Guam, where we had bases. We had bases in Japan, as well. And I don’t think they were at all aware of the risk we were running in their name for them at that time.

So, when an issue arose — now, this isn’t usually a program for breaking news. I will break a little news here, which I didn’t share with Charlie Savage, who did a wonderful job in telling this story in context in The New York Times last May 22nd. He just did wonderful. But I didn’t want to prejudice him too much against telling that, about how close we had come to nuclear war in ’58, as we are now doing. If I had told him or mentioned to him that I had given that same full study, top-secret, to a former Times man, very famous, wonderful, Tom Wicker, who had, for reasons not known to me, chosen not to print it, not to do anything with it — didn’t want to discourage Charlie by that precedent.

Moreover, I had given the entire study to the Japanese Diet, who had translated it into Japanese, split-split, like in two days, with their parliamentary capability. And it was over in Japan, not mentioned at all in the U.S. It will be interesting, when they try me for this, how they explain why they didn’t bother to prosecute me for this top-secret release 40 years ago. But that’s the way they do. They do it when it’s helpful to them, or not.

The reason I did it now again was that now again we are faced with the possibility, very quickly, of initiating war with Japan, which once again will raise the problem whether we can defend it against the newly armed Chinese without using nuclear weapons.

Let me make a prediction, which I hope is false. Many people are advising Truman — pardon me for saying that; I go way back. Many people are advising Biden to announce no first use, along with Putin, at the coming summit, that neither will, under any circumstances, initiate nuclear war for any reason, even including Taiwan. That is nothing other than that is sane. That is sane thinking. To initiate nuclear war means the annihilation of Taiwan and probably the annihilation of many, many other people, including Japan. My prediction is he won’t say that. And I say I hope I’m wrong. But I hope people will urge him otherwise and he will obey it.

I think he won’t give up the implicit threat, the open threat on the table, of initiating war in hopes that it will deter. And it may deter, or it may not. We are clearly facing a Prime Minister Xi who fears he would lose office if he accepted a status that many Americans are urging Taiwanese to assume, and that is to declare full sovereign independence from a country which up until this century, all through last century, every Chinese accepted was part of China, a secession like the 11 Confederate states, whose secession was not met with favor by the president at the time.

We should not initiate nuclear war, in my opinion. But I am not in decision. I think that Americans and Japanese and Taiwanese should have the full opportunity to examine the nature of the thinking that is brought to bear in secret about their futures. Insane thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan — Dan, we just have —

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Insane thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but I want to ask you one last — about a news headline, and then we’ll do a post-show on the other whistleblowers, like Daniel Hale, about to be sentenced, Julian Assange, Ed Snowden. But Attorney General Merrick Garland is meeting today with executives of CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post around the revelations that they have been spied on by President Trump, that their reporters were being watched, their email requested, that the Trump administration secretly sought email and phone records from their reporters. Merrick Garland told lawmakers he’ll prioritize investigating, though, at the same time, he said, a massive tax leak to the news outlet ProPublica. But what message do you have to reporters in this time of this crackdown? And now the Biden administration said they will not go after reporters. We have 30 seconds.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I think the — I’ve certainly been led, more than almost anyone, to appreciate the necessity of our First Amendment, our almost unique First Amendment, the protection of the freedom of the press, the freedom of the thought in this. You can’t have democracy without it. And not only now is the Trump administration, now the Biden administration, are using the Espionage Act against a journalist — no freedom of the press involved there — I’m talking about Julian Assange. Biden should drop the appeal he has made, that Trump initiated, to extradite Julian Assange. He should drop the case against Daniel Hale.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the discussion after the show. Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower. Check out democracynow.org. Fifty years ago, that’s the date. I’m Amy Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with the legendary whistleblower Dan Ellsberg. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers, published by The New York Times. Dan Ellsberg turned 90 years old in April. Over the past five decades, he’s been a leading critic of U.S. militarism and U.S. nuclear weapons policy, as well as a prominent advocate for other whistleblowers to come forward and release documents they have access to.

I want to ask you, Dan, about the U.S. State Department still pushing to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Britain, where he’s been locked up for over two years. That’s after being dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he was taking refuge. He had been granted political asylum and was there for many years before that. A British judge blocked Assange’s extradition in January, citing serious mental health concerns — concerns, for example, of suicide. Julian Assange was indicted here in the United States for violations of the Espionage Act related to the publication of classified documents exposing U.S. war crimes. He faces up to 175 years in prison if brought to the United States. I’m going to ask you about Daniel Hale and also Edward Snowden. But let’s begin with Julian Assange. Some have said, as the years went by and you were more accepted as a whistleblower by those who condemned you in the past, “Well, Julian Assange is no Dan Ellsberg.” What’s your response?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I recognized Julian Assange as a different background, a different personality, a different age. I identified with him very much, even though his role had not been that, literally, of source or whistleblower, but a publisher, but a publisher much more committed than others than I had dealt with. I identify with Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden, who, again, are very different people and different from me. I identify with them more than virtually anyone. We’ve gone through the same process of disillusion and the same decision as to what to do, and I feel very, very close to them.

But I also liked Assange when I met him, and admired what he was doing, which was then putting out the Afghan and the war logs, Iraq War Logs and the “Collateral Murder” video. And I very much admired what he was doing. He was taking on, in effect, all of the governments, all of whom keep secrets, many, many more than they should, from their own people and from the world. And it was predictable that the powers of the world would combine in a way to come down on him. The same is true of Snowden, in particular, and even to Chelsea with the broad-scale revelations she made. So, if Kissinger regarded me as the most dangerous man in the world — in America, rather, I’m sure that many people regarded Snowden and Assange as the most dangerous men in the world. So, the —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, we don’t have to talk about Henry Kissinger; we could talk about the president of the United States right now, Joe Biden.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re not talking about Trump here; we’re talking about Biden. When he was vice president, he called Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist.” Now Julian has been denied bail, so he can’t get out. The only reason he’s in prison right now, in the maximum-security Belmarsh Prison in London, is because of the request for him to be brought to the United States and be tried under the same law that you were tried under, the treason act.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It’s not a treason act. It’s a law designed for — treason is defined in the Constitution. It’s the only felony that’s actually defined in the Constitution. And none of us have been charged with treason, which would be actually absurd, because one of the requirements, which were deliberately made very narrow in our country since our country was founded by traitors — every single signatory to the Declaration of Independence was subject to being indicted and hanged by their previous authority, British Empire. And —

AMY GOODMAN: I should say, the Espionage Act.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah, the Espionage Act. Again, that was designed for Espionage Act. It doesn’t provide for any explanation to the jury as to why you did what you did or what the impact. It just taken for granted that — it’s what they call a strict liability law, that merely doing it is ipso facto criminal. And the way they’re using it is indistinguishable now, with the indictment of Assange, from a British-type Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes any and all release of information the government has chosen to stamp secret. We’ve never had such a law. Congress has often proposed it and never gotten a vote on it, with one exception. They did pass, by voice vote, such an act as an amendment in 2000. And Clinton vetoed it on constitutional grounds.

So it’s never gone to the Supreme Court at all, never been tested. And that’s why I’m saying that if they choose to indict me — and they have as good, exactly as good, grounds to indict me as any of the ones they have actually indicted — and if they choose to do that, there will be no plea bargaining on my case. And I will make every effort to take it to the Supreme Court, which could deny it, as they have in the past, but, at any rate, force them to face the fact whether such a law, so used, could possibly be regarded as compatible with the First Amendment, which says no law shall be passed abridging freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Now, Assange is the first journalist to be tried. And that’s why I think that journalists have never really paid attention to this loaded pistol that was pointing at them for the last 50 years. The plain language does permit them to be indicted. And as I say, the question that hasn’t been settled is: How could that be compatible with the First Amendment? The answer is it can’t.

As you say, Biden was one who did regard him as a criminal right from the beginning, back in 2010, when Chelsea Manning was his major source for that material. But then, the Trump — the Obama administration, in which Biden was a part as vice president, considered indicting Assange and chose not to do it, on the grounds that — the ostensible grounds were that you’d have to indict The New York Times, which had printed his material, just as much as him. That would be embarrassing. But it would be more than embarrassing; it would hold up the absurdity and the intolerability of using that plain language to indict someone who is publishing such material.

Biden should and could have simply dropped that appeal. But when the judge, as you say, Judge Baraitser, refused to indict him, on grounds actually of the health risk that he would face if he were sent over — they do, after all, have an Official Secrets Act. He would clearly have violated that. I would have clearly violated that, if we had been over there. So she probably wasn’t so impressed by the difference in the American constitutional system. But she did refuse to indict him — to extradite him.

Trump, on virtually his last day in office, I think on July — June — January 17th, he actually appealed for Assange to be extradited. And Trump — when Trump left office then — and physically still claims that he’s president — but Biden then could have dropped that appeal. He could still do it, and he should still do it. But a lower-level officer in the Justice Department, a holdover from the Trump administration, simply renewed the appeal. That was the wrong thing to do, unconstitutional,, and Biden could and should drop that. However, it’s far from certain — it’s not even likely — that he will do that, given his untoward attitude back in 2010, when he called him a “high-tech terrorist.” The same thing would apply, by the way, to the pursuit of Daniel Hale and Reality Winner, who’s in prison now also.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about both Daniel Hale and Reality Winner, first Daniel Hale. The former U.S. intelligence analyst Daniel Hale was unexpectedly arrested and jailed ahead of his sentencing, which is scheduled for July 13th. In March, he pleaded guilty to one count of violating the World War I-era Espionage Act for leaking classified documents about the secretive U.S. drone and targeted assassination programs. Last month, I interviewed National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and asked him about Daniel Hale.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Daniel Hale is one of the most consequential whistleblowers. He sacrificed everything — an incredibly courageous person — to tell us that the drone war, that, you know, is so obviously occurring to everyone else, but the government was still officially denying in so many ways, is here, it is happening, and 90% of the casualties in one five-month period were innocents or bystanders or not the target of the drone strike. We could not establish that, we could not prove that, without Daniel Hale’s voice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Edward Snowden. And we were speaking — I was interviewing him and you for a virtual panel that I moderated. Your take on Daniel Hale, what he did?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I think what he did was very admirable. And it was not only simply passing on some documents or some information, but really carrying on, as he should, a campaign against the murderous aspect of this campaign. He acted very admirably, in a way that very, very few officials have ever done in showing the moral courage to separate themselves from criminal activities and wrongful activities of their own administration, and resist them, as well as exposing them. So, I would say he’s a particularly admirable person, especially one that should not be put in prison for this.

We also mentioned Reality Winner, who put out a leak for which she should not be in prison. And this is — actually, this is true of all the people who have been prosecuted. None of them have had the occasion for a fair trial, since they’re not even able to tell the court or the jury why they did what they did. I wasn’t allowed to do that myself, going back to the first of these prosecutions. But in other words, the jury is not allowed to be in a position at all fairly to judge the nature of the act that was taken and why it was done. But even beyond that, they shouldn’t be prosecuted for these activities in the first place and have to justify themselves to that extent, since they were revealing activities that were clearly wrongfully being concealed [inaudible] from the public.

AMY GOODMAN: The family of Reality Winner — she was arrested in 2017, held in custody for over a year, then, in June 2018, pleaded guilty to a count of unauthorized transmission of national defense information for releasing to The Intercept information about Russian interference in the 2016 election. She was sentenced to five years in prison. She told The New York Times — prosecutors told The New York Times that Reality Winner got the longest sentence ever given by a federal court for unauthorized disclosure of government information to the press. She was sentenced also under the Espionage Act, Dan.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, also, by the way, of course, Chelsea Manning got a longer sentence, but that was from a military court-martial. So I think the difference is this is a civilian court here. Chelsea spent seven-and-a-half years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. But —

AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, it was President Biden — I mean, it was President Obama, with, you know, Biden as vice president, who actually commuted that sentence and had her released.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Admitting that he should have done it years earlier. But, by the way, one thing that makes it easier for me to kind of break this process is the fact that I am 90, and glad to be alive this long. But these extraordinary long sentences don’t have the same meaning for me that they do for the younger people. In their cases, the coercion on them to accept a lower sentence and to plead a bargain, which cuts off the appeal on the thing, is very strong. The likelihood that without being able to tell the jury their public interest defense, they will simply spend more money and get a longer sentence if they go to trial, impels many of them to cut the thing off well before it goes to any appeal in the Supreme Court. In my case, I don’t have the incentive to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Back on Julian Assange, the Biden Justice Department and Biden himself just made a pledge not to go after journalists. This is after the revelations that the Trump administration was seeking the email and other communications of a number of journalists — Barbara Starr at CNN, reporters at The New York Times, also at The Washington Post. But at the same time, you have Merrick Garland, attorney general, saying he’s going to go after the person who leaked information to ProPublica about the taxes of the wealthiest, the fact that they don’t pay taxes in this country. Can you talk about what you think should happen, how you think those in government — you were in government; you worked in the Pentagon — the effect of pressure on those in the highest levels in government? And this is where I want to begin to end this discussion, I mean, how you were affected by the protests outside the Pentagon, when you were inside, seeing those that were willing to be dragged off to jail, the kind of impact movements make on those in power, right up until the president of the United States.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It wouldn’t have occurred to me to do something that would do either one of two things, that would lose me my contact as a president’s man, as somebody could think of myself as working for national security in the person of the president and helping him to — or, someday, her — do exactly what she wanted to do, whatever it was. And that’s what Egil Krogh, the man who was to neutralize me for the Plumbers, said in his guilty plea, his change of mind, how he had been thinking that to help the president free — free to do whatever he thought was in the interest of national security was, to him, the essence of national security. Now, that should not be the case in a democracy. It is true in other countries where the oath of loyalty is to the Führer, is to the leader, to the president, totally, as so many people in this country really do, without recognizing how lucky they are that their oath in this country is to the Constitution of the United States, which has an amendment calling for freedom of the press. [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to interrupt for one second, because in Part 1 you referred to this neutralization of you by mercenaries hired to go after the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, to invade Cuba. What do you mean by “neutralize”? What was the scenario that ultimately was revealed?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It can include anything, of course, including simply stigmatize so that the person will not be listened to because he’s so flaky or so corrupt or so untrustworthy, but it definitely extended to incapacitating me totally, which, as their prosecutor felt, meant killing me. I’m actually not sure it did mean that. I think the president was very anxious for me to shut up that particular weekend, when he intended to mine Haiphong, which I was predicting, and which I thought would engage him in direct conflict with Soviet ships and would lead to B-52 bombing over Hanoi, both of which it did do. And he wanted me to be quiet during that weekend. I think their real intent was to bust my jaw or put me in the hospital, in such a way that I wouldn’t interfere. As one of them admitted, Bernie Barker, he said, “My job was to break both his legs.” This was it. The order is now in the Oval Office of the president.

And that’s the one thing that hasn’t been legally justified. All the other criminal acts that were taken against me, like warrantless wiretaps or breaking into the psychoanalyst’s office, have now, since 9/11, been legitimized in law, though they haven’t been tested constitutionally. I’m going to question all of them. But one that hasn’t actually been in the law is for the president to simply attack, incapacitate, kill other people, as President Obama did, for example, with U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, a couple of weeks later, in drone attacks of the kind that Daniel Hale has been revealing, exposing. Again, killing an American citizen without due process, without any judge, jury, witness testimony, anything else, as a routine activity of presidents, the fact that that hasn’t been challenged, really, even though it hasn’t been embodied in a law, like the warrantless wiretapping or the surveillance, can’t make it either constitutional or legal or moral. And yet it is going on without challenge. And that makes it part of who we are and what we do. That should change back.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what message do you have to people in this country? You have just revealed new information about what could have led to a nuclear attack between the United States and China around Taiwan. But you’ve often called, over the years, for people to release information about Iran and plans, nuclear plans of the United States and Iran and others. Who should — who should be whistleblowers? And what are you asking them exactly to do?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Anyone in the government, if they’re in for months or years, is aware of the great, great amount of lying that is done to one audience or another about what our policy is or where it’s going, what the costs are, what the real intention is, what the real interests that are bearing on them are. Nearly everything the government says, says I.F. Stone, is misleading to some extent on those relevant factors. And that’s the way it’s always been in government and every government, and probably always will be. The penalties for telling truths that your boss doesn’t want to told, or your agency or your president doesn’t want told, is likely to be very great. And so, you can’t just decide, “I will tell the truth. I will expose every lie.” If you can’t stand being part of a lying process, you can’t stand being in the government, or probably any other big organization, very long.

But the question is what the lies are about. And when — that was true with the Pentagon Papers and with this new information about possible nuclear war. When the question is that many lives are at stake, as they are in this, then people should summon up their potential for moral courage, which really means their willingness to be punished, to risk punishment, by people who don’t want them to tell that, or to be ostracized by others who regard them as traitors, even if they’re not called that in America.

So, what I’m telling them is to do not what I did. Don’t do what I did in ’71, waiting until bombs have fallen or many more people have been killed. When you have information that reveals that this is in the works, that it’s likely to happen, and might not happen if you reveal the truth about it, in those cases, I would tell them: Consider doing what I wish I had done in 1964 rather than ’69 or ’71, and go to the press, and go and also, by the secret means that are now becoming increasingly available, maintain your anonymity, if possible, go to the Congress also, same way, and reveal what may do this, at whatever cost to yourself, consider doing it, because a war’s worth of lives may be at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Edward Snowden, who we just did a public forum on, a virtual public forum, with you in California, him in Russia, where he has political asylum, not because he wanted it there, but because the U.S. pulled his passport after he revealed information about what the NSA was doing, about the government spying on the American people. What do you advise President Biden to do when it comes to Ed Snowden, who says if he came back to this country, he could not get a fair trial, but wants to come back?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It’s absolutely true that he could not get a fair trial, just as I didn’t get one. I was freed by an almost miraculous set of circumstances, from a judge who had been bribed by the president to convict me some way or other. Others can’t count on my miraculous escape from prison as applying to them. So this is not something you do lightly, is to follow in this path.

The others, Ed Snowden, currently condemned a lifetime in exile; Chelsea Manning, seven-and-a-half years in prison; Mordechai Vanunu in Israel, with 11-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, out of 17 years he was in for revealing their nuclear program. In all these cases — first of all, this should not be happening. They should be free. But second, there is the possibility for Congress to change the law, which should happen.

Actually, Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna both put in bills that would amend the — before Tulsi left Congress, that would amend the Espionage Act and allow for a public interest defense. And those should certainly be repassed, be reintroduced into Congress, so that people will have the opportunity for a fair trial. Snowden has said that if that were to happen, he would come back and face a jury and explain himself to the trial. He would be very foolish, it would be meaningless and a useless cause, for him to do it now. He’s much better able to speak wisely to the world where he is, until it’s possible for him to face a true accounting for his actions in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg we want to thank you so much for spending this time with us, the legendary Pentagon Papers whistleblower. And a belated Happy 90th Birthday, Dan.


AMY GOODMAN: With many, many more to come.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Like your grandmother.

AMY GOODMAN: Author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner and Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

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