On Feb. 16, former Department of Defense analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg gave a keynote address that unearthed fresh details on the historic Pentagon Papers controversy, including the surprisingly modest role that the papers played in ending the Vietnam War.
The address, held in the ICC Auditorium, kicked off the two-day symposium “Free Speech Legacies: The Pentagon Papers Revisited.” Sanford Ungar, a distinguished scholar-in-residence and former Washington Post journalist who covered the Pentagon Papers leak and Ellsberg’s trial, led the discussion.
“I’m especially pleased that we can have a conversation in public that we’ve been working on for about 46 years in private,” Ungar said.
Ellsberg addressed several misunderstandings regarding his leak to The New York Times in 1971. Contrary to the popular image of him dashing into the newsroom brandishing a fresh copy of the Pentagon Papers, it was rather a gradual sequence of events occasioned by numerous actors.
He said that one in particular was Times journalist Neil Sheehan, who was writing on American war crimes and who Ellsberg had been encouraged to confide in. Both men had their reservations about the newspaper. “[Sheehan] had told me how disillusioned he was with the Times… who were not allowing him to write much on Vietnam. So I had the feeling that the Times would not run with this,” Ellsberg said.
But several Times editors were interested and obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers from Sheehan who, against Ellsberg’s explicit wishes, had secretly secretly copied them during his private reading sessions.
“I couldn’t hold it against him because that’s what I’d done,” said Ellsberg. “And I still don’t know after all these years why he lied to me about the Times.”
Several months later, the Pentagon Papers were published unbeknownst to Ellsberg, who was seeing Butch Cassidy with his wife.
Ellsberg also addressed the unexpectedly modest role that the papers played in ending the war. “The Pentagon Papers themselves, despite the public concern, didn’t shorten the war by a day,” he said. “I didn’t even convince people that a fifth president in a row is lying–again– and making secret threats, and is going to widen the war. Even the people who hadn’t voted for Nixon wanted to believe that the incumbent president was not lying to them.”
According to him, what ultimately ended the war was the sequence of events that granted him a mistrial by the Supreme Court after he was indicted with 115 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act. This included the deployment of the White House Plumbers, of Watergate fame, to burglarize the office of his psychoanalyst for information to use as blackmail and to assassinate Ellsberg.
“It was a miraculous set of circumstances that came together that kept me from going to prison… and for it to come about that Nixon faced impeachment for crimes he had taken against me,” he said.
According to Ellsberg, the administration knew he possessed another top secret document. This marked him as a wildcard threat, directly inciting egregious government misconduct that blighted the administration and bolstered antiwar sentiment.
“Had they known it was only [National Security Study Memorandum 1] that I had, there would have been no Plumbers and Nixon would have stayed in office and the war would have continued… so it was essential that they had known I had copied something from Nixon, but that they didn’t know what it was,” Ellsberg said.
In anticipation of future leaks, he worries how durable the Supreme Court precedent of 1971 will be under the Trump administration.
“The things that were crimes under Nixon are no longer crimes. Using the CIA to burglarize a psychoanalyst’s office – under the Patriot Act perfectly legal. The wiretap surveillance on which I was overheard without a warrant – legal now. And even killing people is something that Obama has now proclaimed the right to do as a president even to an American citizen like Anwar-al-Awlaki.”
In closing, Ellsberg compared himself to modern whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. “Nobody was going to do it. Somebody had to do it. And so I did it,” he said. “And that’s what I would like people to hear. There is no guarantee at all that it will have any effect. But as Snowden said, there are things worth dying for.”