Daniel Ellsberg on the Release of the “Top Secret” Pentagon Papers
Thursday, June 13, 2019
SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
On June 13, 1971, the New York Times made a courageous move to publish what is known today as the Pentagon Papers. The documents covered the Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson administrations. The official document was titled The History of the U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam. It was a collection of communiques, recommendations, and decisions regarding the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who had stolen the 47 volume, seven thousand page top secret document that unveiled the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, was a Defense Department analyst. He stole and distributed the papers to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 12 other newspapers. He joins us today from his home in Berkeley, California. Great to have you here, Daniel.
DANIEL ELLSBERG Thanks for having me back here, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES Daniel, tell us about the day in history, huddled with your wife, who was quite the figure, herself. I understand she was an anti-war activist who encouraged you to bring those documents home. And she helped you copy those documents in the basement of your home. Now, tell us about your thoughts and feelings about what was about to happen when the New York Times published those documents.
DANIEL ELLSBERG Sunday the 13th, there was a Sunday–Saturday night the New York Times used to come into Harvard Square late at night, around midnight. The Sunday Times. And I had been tipped off by a friend at the New York Times inadvertently that this was coming out. The Times officially had not told me at all when, if ever, they were going to print this. I had given it to Neil Sheehan of the New York Times back in February. And he had told me they weren’t working on it for reasons–I’m not clear why he misled me on that point. So I’d been trying to get it out through other people, like Senator Mathias, or Pete McCloskey, a representative in the House; unsuccessfully, so far.
So when I learned that the Times was locked down, that there were armed guards, I keep checking who came in and out because they were fearing an injunction because of a study they were printing. I identified that as the one I had given them. So I went eagerly to the kiosk in Harvard Square, and my wife and I were just overjoyed that at last this was coming into print. I started copying it back at the RAND Corporation at the end of September, early October 1, really, 1969. So that was 19 or 20 months earlier. And for that time we had been, or I had been, trying to get it out. And my wife had joined me after our marriage in mid-1970. She was part of it. So that was an exciting day for us.
The headline was rather discreet. Didn’t try to sensationalize it at all. I don’t know why they hope to get it under the radar a little bit. And about the Times study, they were pretty–and it was under the radar. I don’t think it was mentioned on the evening news programs on Sunday, or during the day, to their surprise. They were all waiting for a reaction. And Monday, the Attorney General John Mitchell relayed a request from the president and from the attorney general to stop publication of the study, which was endangering national security, and was illegal, he claimed. He had asked, by the way, the president had asked him the day before on Sunday, John, have we ever done this before? You know, enjoined a newspaper? and Mitchell, who is a former bond lawyer who had managed Nixon’s campaign didn’t know much about law, constitutional law, said, oh, yes, many times. And that was a fatal mistake that he made there. It had never been done once in our history. The First Amendment had always been regarded as precluding any freedom of the press, and precluded a prior restraint; that is, an injunction against the press keeping the public from learning something. And that was a basic purpose of the First Amendment. So this was the first time that the president, any president, had tried to enjoin publication.
Well, the Times refused that request, and did publish again on Tuesday the next, the third installment. And they were served with an injunction which was backed up by a court order, then. It had to stop publication. So on–that was Tuesday. On Tuesday night, I guess it was, I met with a friend of mine who was the national editor of the Washington Post. I’d known him from the–he spent a year at the RAND Corporation. Ben Bagdikian. And he arrived, eventually, in Cambridge. And we spent all night going through the papers. I wanted to keep it going now, despite the injunction. He took it off to the Post. And they published, I think, for the first time on Friday. They were then enjoined. And I gave it to the Boston Globe.
At this point, by the way, we’d seen the morning news. I guess that was Wednesday morning. My wife and I were leaving Ben Bagdikian’s room at a motel in Cambridge where we–where I’d been giving him papers. He’d gone off. We put on the news and saw live that there were FBI agents knocking at our door on 10 [inaudible] Street in Cambridge. So we couldn’t go home.
Had we–had we not seen that, we would have gone home and been nabbed, basically, and no more papers would have come out. And I think, actually, if the Supreme Court, when it went to them, had had the opportunity to actually stop the publication of these papers, even though they’d never been asked before, they would have done so 5-4, probably, judging by the final decisions of the nine judges. Several of them complained about being rushed to this, and the government should be given more time to look at it.
So if it had only been the Times and The Post, I think it would have gone that way, and the injunction would have stayed–the public would not have seen the Pentagon Papers. But as it was, having seen the FBI agents, we didn’t go home. We called some friends, went to a motel, and for the next 13 days eluded the FBI in Cambridge. They went all over the world looking for me, actually, I think, on some junket places they wanted to go, I have a feeling. But in any case, they didn’t find us. We were going from house to house in Cambridge, and getting a new copy out virtually every day. First to the Globe, as I said, and then eventually the Christian Science Monitor, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Globe and the Post-Dispatch were also enjoined. But eventually the prosecutors realized that that was just not working. One of them said it was like herding bees. They couldn’t stop them. And ultimately, 19 papers published parts of this top secret study of the history of U.S. decision making from 1945 to 1968, and no way to stop it, as I say.
So when it got to the Supreme Court, the issue of actually stopping it was kind of moot. And I think that was critical in the result of 6-3 against the injunction, and saying that the Constitution did not permit this, at least that no evidence had been presented it showed such an immediate danger to the United States in revealing this basically historical study, which had ended in ’68. This was now ’71. It started in ’45. So it really couldn’t show that it was damaging at the moment, as the attorney general or the president claimed.
So there had been, when they started publication again after that decision by the court, there had been a wave of what amounted to civil disobedience across the country. I don’t think there was anything ever like it in any country that I know of, not in the United States, of such defiance of the executive branch in the course of a war which was still going on, and with the president saying that any day of publication this was endangering the public. And the editors decided otherwise when they read it, and simply went ahead in what amounted to civil disobedience–a description that not one of them has ever used, and I’m not sure they ever faced to themselves they had been acting like the nonviolent resisters that had inspired me to copy the papers a couple of years before. They had joined the civil disobedience movement, in effect. But they don’t like to think of themselves that way, and they don’t. They don’t celebrate it. I’ll bet that not one newspaper that mentions the 50th anniversary of this will focus on the fact that the newspapers were simply defying the executive branch.
SHARMINI PERIES Daniel, on this historic day, Daniel Ellsberg became synonymous with whistleblowers. Now, given that the term whistleblowers is a loaded term that is despised by governments for releasing secret documents and secrets of the government, they are also treated sometimes favorably by the presses, because it brings a lot of attention to the press when you release these kinds of documents. But there are also times when the press actually attack whistleblowers. And then of course there’s the public perception of whistleblowers. Tell us about how this term has evolved over the time from the Pentagon Papers to today. And of course, also talk about, you know, Edward Snowden, and also Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and Chelsea Manning, the kind of role that they play as whistleblowers and the importance of it.
DANIEL ELLSBERG The word ‘whistleblower’ is rather obscure, obviously. No one is sure just where it initiated. The main guess is that it was the bobbies of London, who didn’t carry guns. In the 19th century they were armed with a whistle to tell other civilians to nab a fleeing criminal of some sort. They had clubs, I think, also, but no guns. That’s the best guess. And that’s not a very close analogy to the way it’s used today, because that’s a–it’s someone in authority who is blowing the whistle on somebody who has allegedly committed a crime.
The way it’s used today is someone not an authority, someone who may have been or generally was an insider, indeed in the structure of authority, but not near the top, who is revealing criminality or wrongdoing, or simply deception or dangerous policies; policies that he or she thinks the public needs to know about, especially in a republic, a democratic republic like America, where the people nominally, at least, in the Constitution, are sovereign. So they are the ultimate authority, supposedly, but they can hardly exercise that if they don’t have information as to what the executive branch, which is nominally a servant of the people and of the Congress, is actually planning to do. But they foresee what the costs will be, what the risks will be, and what the arguments against and for a particular policy are. The public can’t be informed and in any way, really, influential on that policy without knowing more about it than government officials want them to know.
And what the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages, each stamped ‘top secret,’ revealed, that for the 23-year period from ’45-’68, president after president, four in that telling, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, had systematically lied to the public every time they spoke about policy in Vietnam–about what the prospects were, why we were there, what the costs were and were likely to be, both the human cost and the material costs. Every aspect of it was concealed from the Congress and the public by lies and by secrecy, and by the silence of people in it, which had included me. For years I’d been involved in Vietnam policy, from ’64 on. I went to Vietnam during the escalation. I went to Vietnam in ’67 as a Foreign Service reserve officer, and I had seen the war up close for two years, using my background as a Marine Company commander, platoon leader and company commander, to walk with troops. And the only way you could see that guerrilla war up very close. On point, actually, as I walked a number of times.
Came back realizing from two years that the war was hopeless in the sense there was no prospect of progress; no progress had been made, despite what was coming on to being 500,000 troops in Vietnam. The public was being misled about this. And that no legitimate purpose was being solved, either by killing Vietnamese or by losing Americans. That these deaths were unjustified. Continuing deaths. And therefore we ought to get out. Well, that was very widely believed inside the ranks. I can’t speak for the soldiers particularly, even though I walked with them. But we didn’t discuss these larger issues. But I knew that in the government, in fact the people who had worked on the Pentagon Papers, about 33, had all been–nearly all had been either officials or military in Vietnam, and were all essentially agreed, even those that were quite right-wing Republican and right wing in general terms, know that we ought to get out. But no one was saying that from inside. And people who did on the outside were called ignorant or anti-war activists, upstarts, or insolent; we weren’t paying attention to them.
So when these documents showed that what the anti-war people had been saying about the history of Vietnam, in part, which they knew better than people in the government on the whole, we didn’t study that, what they’d been saying was right, basically what the origins of the illegitimacy of the war, but in particular–and also how unlikely it was we would overcome the Nationalist Movement led by communists in Vietnam for the unification of their country. We did get many Vietnamese to work for us for a salary which the Viet Cong didn’t get, not from their government, and to live in not good conditions, but not in holes in the ground like the Viet Cong. We could get them essentially to collaborate with us as the French had gotten Vietnamese to collaborate with them.
But in fact, these are much the same people, especially the officers who had fought with and for the French against the their own country before our troops arrived. And they were willing to work for foreigners. And they didn’t–there was nothing wrong with them as people. But that isn’t as powerful a motivation to work for foreigners, for a salary, than to work for nationalism and for unifying your country, especially the Viet Cong, as we call them, the Vietnamese Communists, were under the leadership of people who had driven the French from their country and had that extreme cachet, that honor, and that made them a very powerful [political] force. When I put them out, first to the Senate in 1969, Senator Fulbright on the Foreign Relations Committee, the war was still going on under a new president, Richard Nixon, who was not featured in, at all, in the Pentagon Papers. He wasn’t incriminated by it. In fact, on this day, June 13, when they began coming out, Henry Kissinger’s first reaction in speaking to the president as his national security adviser said this actually helps us a little bit, because it shows it’s a Democrat’s war. Which was true.The Democrats have mucked it up. And it had been my hope, actually, that if it came out early enough when I first copied it in 1969, that Richard Nixon would see the opportunity to use these very documents and say the war has been ruined by years of Democratic mismanagement of it, and there is no choice but to get out at this point. He could say whatever he wanted about the origins of the war, he could lie and say, like all the others, and say that it was a noble cause for freedom, but it was not practical now to keep it going.
That’s what I had hoped he would say. It didn’t come out in ’69 because Nixon misled the Senate and the public into thinking that he was on the way out. And what he actually meant by that was he was reducing the number of ground troops steadily, which is what people most focused on, even though there were over 20,000 deaths, American deaths, under Nixon, but increasing, continuing the bombing, and ultimately re-extending it back to North Vietnam. So in the end he dropped more bombs than Johnson and Kennedy have done, for a total of nearly four times the tonnage of World War II, in which we dropped 2 million tons of bombs in all theaters in Europe and Japan. We dropped nearly 8 million tons of bombs on this one country. Well, Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia, and Vietnam. Four times World War II, and more than half of that was after I copied the Pentagon Papers.
So in the course of that process, I wasn’t feeling a great success. I was very focused on the air war, which I knew was killing civilians very heavily. I wanted to see the war ended before another million tons of bombs, half of World War II, were dropped in the next year. And I failed. In 1969, and ’70, and ’71, ’72, the bombing went on. And when it ended in ’73, in January–February, rather–with the Paris Accords, I was sure Nixon was going to renew it, restart the bombing, as soon as American troops were out. And indeed, I was not wrong. That was his plan. I was on trial at that point in Los Angeles. [Inaudible] we now know because of the Watergate hearings that on April 15 he was–he had, in fact, according to Time magazine, given the order to renew the bombing, which would have kept the war going at least through his term.
The successful offenses in ’75 after he had been, had to resign, succeeded where the others had not because there was no American bombing going on. Congress had ordered that there be no renewal of American bombing. And I think when they ordered that, they thought it was almost pro forma, that there was no intent, really, to renew the bombing. That was mistaken. As I say, the order had been given and had to be rescinded at a point that Nixon knew that he was facing impeachment proceedings, and that was as early as April 15, as I say, 1973, when I was on trial. When he heard that it had been revealed and was supposed to be revealed in court that my former psychoanalyst had bee–had his office burglarized by agents of the White House, they were seeking information to get me to shut up, blackmail me into silence about what I knew about the ongoing campaign, the plans for renewed–for continued bombing, indefinitely. And when he knew that he was going to be facing essentially a trial for domestic crimes, rather than merely millions of tons of bombs on civilians in Vietnam, a war crime, presidents don’t have to worry about that on the whole, but a domestic crime of breaking into a doctor’s office, that was regarded as more criminal than invading a neighboring country to Vietnam like Laos or Cambodia, which he had done.
And those points, by the way, were brought up in his impeachment proceedings, and they couldn’t get Republicans to go forward that a president can do what he wants when it comes to bombing other countries. And to get the Republicans on board they had to limit it, essentially, to domestic crimes, including this one.
So it took still another month for my trial to end, because Nixon kept the attorney general and the acting criminal–the head of the criminal division from revealing to the court what had been revealed to them by John Dean, that my doctor’s office had been broken into. And finally they said they were in obstruction of justice–a familiar term, right? Going on right now, including–involving the president. And they went to him said they would have to resign, lest they be subject to trial themselves for obstruction of justice, for not giving this information to the court. So Nixon then reluctantly said, OK, go ahead, do it, but tell the judge it was a national security problem here. He doesn’t have to reveal it openly in court. It’s for his information. And that night he was talking to the acting attorney general Kleindienst, we have it on the tape, and saying, I’ll take–they’ll talk about impeachment–by the way, is the first time the word ‘impeachment’ appears in the White House tapes–they’ll talk about impeachment. And then they’ll get Agnew. How will they like that?
SHARMINI PERIES All right, Daniel, let’s leave it there for now. But please join us for the next two segments with Daniel Ellsberg about the Pentagon Papers, and about the period in which these papers were released and the significance of them today. Thanks for joining us for now, Daniel.
DANIEL ELLSBERG Thank you for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.