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Pentagon Papers’ Ellsberg talks about secrets

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday February 21, 2001

Daniel Ellsberg, former defense analyst who many say helped end the Vietnam War by leaking the top-secret Pentagon Papers, told a group of 35 people Tuesday that he still has a secret or two.  

The 69-year-old Ellsberg spoke about the reasons he decided to leak the Pentagon Papers, sharply criticized Ralph Nader for costing former Vice President Al Gore the election and spoke of his continued willingness to risk prison again for the sake of truth telling. 

The Berkeley resident was the featured speaker at the Pacific School of Religion’s Real Deal Seminar, which will feature a series of speakers through early May. The seminars are free and open to the public. 

In 1971 Ellsberg, who was a defense analyst with the Rand Corporation, was catapulted into the International spotlight when he leaked a 7,000-page document detailing the United States’ military role in Indochina to the New York Times, the Washington Post and 15 other newspapers.  


The top secret documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, contained evidence of historical patterns of public deception used by government officials to prolong and escalate the war in Vietnam. One example was the 1964 fabrication of an North Vietnamese PT boat attack on the U.S. Destroyer Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf.  

President Lyndon Johnson went on national television the same day of the phony attack and cited it as the reason for a drastic escalation of air strikes in North Vietnam. 

Ellsberg told the group he was philosophically inspired by the writings of Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Joan Bondurant but said he was motivated to leak the top-secret document by anti-war protesters who were burning their draft cards and going to prison rather than fight in a war they believed to be immoral. 

“I don’t regard myself as a hero but I have many heroes and among them are the 20 year olds who had gone to prison or escaped to Canada,” said Ellsberg, who describes himself as a pacifist. 

After Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, he turned himself in to the FBI and was charged with 12 felonies for which he faced a possible 115 years in prison. 

“I expected to be sent to jail for the rest of my life,” said Ellsberg who admits he wasn’t thrilled with the idea but knew in his heart it was the right thing to do. “I knew the action would be helpful in shortening the war.” 

Four months after portions of the Pentagon Papers were published, the White House “plumbers” unit - named for role of plugging information leaks for President Richard Nixon’s administration - burglarized Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to steal his files to publicly embarrass and discredit him. The Washington Post discovered a year later that Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman had ordered the burglary. Ehrlichman would later serve 18 months in prison for obstruction of justice. 

In May, 1973, a federal judge dropped all the charges against Ellsberg. 

“I didn’t break any law,” he said. “If I lived in almost any other country, I probably would have been put away for life or worse because most other countries have secrecy laws.” 

Ellsberg said Congress tried to adopt a military secrecy law in October as part of the International Appropriations Act. President Bill Clinton vetoed the secrecy portion of the act before it was approved. 

Ellsberg said it is likely military secrecy laws will be enacted under the Bush Administration. He said if that happens he would gladly risk going back to prison. “I have a few secrets left I would gladly divulge to test the law,” he said. “I’ll give ’em another crack at me. Let’s go to the Supreme Court.” 

Ellsberg said truth telling is critical in today’s environment of toxins and advanced war technology. He said he felt a special kinship with Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist who worked for the tobacco company Williams and Brown. Wigand divulged thousands of pages of documents detailing the tobacco company’s knowledge of the carcinogenic nature of its product. 

Wigand’s story was dramatized in the 1999 movie “The Insider.” 

Ellsberg, who clearly becomes passionate when he discusses politics, minced few words when speaking about presidential candidate and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Ellsberg blames Nader for Vice President Al Gore’s loss in the presidential elections in November. 

He admits he is no fan of Gore’s but believes the country and the planet would be better served by him than President George Bush. 

“I’m the first to say that both the Republicans and Democrats are wrong but to say there’s no difference between the two parties is either a brazen lie or a statement so divorced from reality it’s psychotic.” 

Nader campaigned on a platform that claimed both Bush and Gore were puppets for the same corporate entities and were nearly identical in political philosophy. Nader won approximately 100,000 voted in Florida, the state that decided the election. 

Ellsberg lives half the year in Berkeley and half in Washington, D.C. He is completing his memoirs and continues to be politically active. 

For more information about the Real Deal Seminars call 849-8229