Fifty years after exposing US lies about the Vietnam war, Daniel Ellsberg said the culture of official secrecy had gotten worse.
He urged whistleblowers: ‘Don’t wait years till the bombs are falling and people have been dying’
Daniel Ellsberg died June 16, 2023 at the age of 92. This interview was conducted by the Guardian in June 2021, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers. — moderator.
When the police arrived, a 13-year-old boy was photocopying classified documents. His 10-year-old sister was cutting the words “top secret” off each page. It seemed their dad, Daniel Ellsberg, had been caught red-handed.
But the officers were responding to a false alarm and did not check what Ellsberg and his young accomplices were up to. “It was a very nice family scene,” the 90-year-old recalls via Zoom from his home in Kensington, California. “It didn’t worry them.”
So night after night the photocopying went on, the crucial means that allowed strategic analyst Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers, a secret report that exposed government lies about the Vietnam war. The New York Times began publishing excerpts 50 years ago on Sunday.
The papers, a study of US involvement in south-east Asia from 1945 to 1967, revealed that president after president knew the war to be unwinnable yet continued to mislead Congress and the public into an escalating stalemate costing millions of lives.
After their release Ellsberg was put on trial for espionage and faced a potential prison sentence of 115 years, only for the charges to be dropped. Once branded “the most dangerous man in America”, Ellsberg is now revered as the patron saint of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
So, half a century on, is he glad he did it? “Oh, I’ve never regretted for a moment doing it from then till now,” he says, wearing dark jacket, open-necked shirt and headphones against the backdrop of a vast bookcase. “My one regret, a growing regret really, is that I didn’t release those documents much earlier when I think they would have been much more effective.
“I’ve often said to whistleblowers, don’t do what I did, don’t wait years till the bombs are falling and people have been dying.”
Ellsberg’s own experience in Vietnam was formative. In the mid-1960s he was there on special assignment as a civilian studying counter-insurgency for the state department. He estimates that he and a friend drove about 10,000 miles, visiting 38 of the 43 provinces, sometimes linking up with troops and witnessing the war up close.
“By two years in Vietnam, I was reporting very strongly that there was no prospect of progress of any kind so the war should not be continued. And that came to be the majority view of the American people before the Pentagon Papers came out.
“By ’68 with the Tet offensive, by ’69, most Americans already thought it was immoral to continue but that had no effect on [president Richard] Nixon. He thought he was going to try to win it and they would be happy once he’d won it, however long it took.
“But the other side of it was that Vietnam became very real to me and the people dying became real and I had Vietnamese friends. It occurs to me I don’t know of anyone of my level or higher – any deputy assistant secretary, any assistant secretary, any cabinet secretary – who had a Vietnamese friend. In fact, most of them had never met a Vietnamese.”
Only recently, as he prepares for the 50th anniversary, has Ellsberg dwelled on how doubts about the war went higher in the political hierarchy than is widely understood. “The Pentagon Papers are always described as revealing to people how much lying there was but there was a particular kind of lying that’s not revealed in the Pentagon Papers.
“Yes, everybody was lying but for different reasons and for different causes. In particular, a very large range of high-level doves thought we should get out and should not have got involved at all. They were lying to the public to give the impression that they were supporting the president when they did not believe in what the president was doing.
“They did not agree with it but they would have spoken out at the cost of their jobs and their future careers. None of them did that or took any risk of doing it and the price of the silence of the doves was several million Vietnamese, Indochinese, and 58,000 Americans.”
But Ellsberg did break the silence. Why was he, unlike them, willing to risk life imprisonment for a leak that he knew had only a small chance of ending the war? He says he was inspired by meeting people who resisted being drafted into military service and, unlike conscientious objectors, did not take alternative service.
“They didn’t go to Sweden. They didn’t get a deferment. They didn’t plead bone spurs like Donald J Trump. They chose a course that put them in prison. They could easily have shown their protests in other ways but this was the strongest way they could say this war is wrong and it’s a matter of conscience and I won’t participate in it.
“That kind of civil courage is contagious and it rubbed off on me. That example opened my eyes to the question, what can I do to help end this war, now that I’m ready to go to prison?”
In 1969 Ellsberg was working as a Pentagon consultant at the Rand Corporation thinktank in Santa Monica, California, and still had access to the secret study of the war, which by this time had killed about 45,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. He decided to take the plunge.
“I said I’ve got in my safe at Rand 7,000 pages of documents of lies, deceptions, breaking treaties, hopeless wars, killing, et cetera and I don’t know whether it’ll have any effect to put it out but I’m not going to be party to concealing that any more.”
Ellsberg had a friend whose girlfriend owned an advertising agency with a photocopier, or Xerox machine. Over eight months he spent many nights making copies of the Pentagon Papers, twice with the help of his 13-year-old son Robert.
He explains: “He was going to hear that his father had gone crazy or was a spy or was communist and I wanted him to see that I was doing this in a businesslike way because I thought it had to be done. And also to leave him with the precedent in his mind that this is the kind of thing he might have to do some time in his life and that there were times you had even to go to prison, which I thought would happen shortly.”
The owner of the agency often mis-set the office alarm and so often the police would come, including twice when Ellsberg was at work. But he kept his cool. “The first time I was at the Xerox machine. I look up at the glass door, there’s knocking on it and two police outside. ‘Wow, these guys are good, how did they get on to this?’
“But I remember covering the top secret pages with a magazine and I closed the Xerox cover where I was copying these things and opened the doors and, ‘What can I do for you?’ But there were a few seconds there of thinking, ‘Well, this is over.’”
Ellsberg tried and failed to persuade members of Congress to put the papers in the public domain. On 2 March 1971 he made contact in Washington with Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter he first met in Vietnam. After Sheehan’s death aged 84 earlier this year, the Times published a posthumous interview with him suggesting that Ellsberg had felt conflicted over handing over the documents.
Ellsberg responds: “He seemed to believe, according to that story, that I had been reluctant to give it to the Times. It’s hard to imagine that he believed that but maybe so. At any rate, that was not the case. I was very anxious for the Times to print it.”
The New York Times did so on 13 June 1971. The night before, Ellsberg had gone to the cinema with a friend to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. “We stayed up and saw the early morning edition around midnight and so that was marvelous.”
The Nixon administration obtained a court order preventing the Times from printing more of the documents, citing national security concerns. But Ellsberg leaked copies to the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers, prompting a legal battle all the way to the supreme court, which ruled 6-3 to allow publication to resume.
This stirring showdown over press freedom – retold in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post, in which Ellsberg is played by the British actor Matthew Rhys – had a bigger impact that the Times’s first article. “The initial reaction was nil on the Sunday when they came out,” Ellsberg says. “The Times was baffled and dismayed. Nobody reacted at all.
“It was Nixon’s fatal decision to enjoin them and the willingness across the country to commit civil disobedience and publish material that the attorney general and the president were saying every day, ‘This is dangerous to national security, we can’t afford one more day of it.’ Nineteen papers in all defied that. I don’t think there was any other wave of civil disobedience like that in any respect I can think of by major institutions across the country.”
But the government wanted revenge. Ellsberg spent 13 days in hiding from the FBI but eventually went on trial in 1973 accused of espionage, conspiracy and stealing government property. The charges were dismissed due to gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering against him – crimes which ultimately contributed to Nixon’s downfall.
The high-profile trial had ensured huge media coverage of the Pentagon Papers. But Ellsberg says: “The effect on Nixon’s policy was zero. The war went on: a year later, the biggest bombing of the war and then, at the end of that year, 18 months later, the heaviest bombing in human history.
“So as far as one could see, as I said at the time, the American people at this moment have as much influence over their country’s foreign policy as the Russian people had over the invasion of Czechoslovakia.”
Nixon resigned over Watergate in 1974 and the Vietnam war ended the following year. In the decades since, Ellsberg has continued to champion Manning, Assange, Snowden and others charged under the Espionage Act. The climate, he warns, has become more restrictive and punitive than the one he faced 50 years ago.
“The whistleblowers have much less protection now. [President Barack] Obama brought eight or nine or even 10 cases, depending on who you count, in two terms, and then Trump brought eight cases in one term. So sources are much more in danger of prosecution than they were before me and even after me for 30 years.”
Last month the nonagenarian Ellsberg returned to the fray by releasing classified documents showing that US military planners pushed for nuclear strikes on mainland China in 1958 to protect Taiwan from an invasion by communist forces, a scenario that has gained fresh relevance amid rising US-China tensions.
It is a dare for prosecutors to come after him again. If they do, he wants to see the Espionage Act tested by the supreme court. He argues that the government is using it much like Britain’s Official Secrets Act even though America, unlike Britain, guarantees freedom of speech through the first amendment to the constitution.
“We don’t have an Official Secrets Act because we have a first amendment but that has not been addressed by the supreme court,” says Ellsberg, still going strong after an hour-long interview. “So I’m willing to see this case go up to the supreme court. Not that I have any desire to go to prison or not. And it would have to move fairly fast to get me in prison in my lifetime.”