The 'most dangerous man in America'
The "most dangerous man in America" is how former US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger once described the man. But in person Daniel Ellsberg is anything but. Down to earth, friendly and a bit jetlagged is how I find the 79-year-old former military analyst when we meet in London — where he had journeyed to attend the largest intelligence leak in US history by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Nearly 40 years ago, long before Julian Assange became a household name, Ellsberg famously leaked 7,000 pages of Pentagon documents which are said to have helped bring to an end the Vietnam War.
There are, of course, key differences between the ways the two leaks were conducted. For one, in Ellsberg's case, back in 1969, the internet wasn't an option when it came to spreading the word. He had to copy the Pentagon Papers on a slow Xerox machine in the small advertising agency of a friend while his 10-year-old daughter cut the words "Top Secret" off the top and bottom of the pages. His son helped too.
It wasn't a decision he had taken lightly. Ellsberg risked life in prison for carrying through with the task he had set himself. Yet he wanted his children to know their father wasn't a traitor, that he felt what he was doing was right for the country. A top Pentagon official at the time, working for the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg spent months smuggling out the papers in his briefcase after becoming deeply unhappy with the long war in Vietnam which was ongoing under President Nixon at the time. The documents exposed the lies and cover-ups the American people had been fed about the war.
He initially tried releasing the documents through politicians, but when that didn't work out, Ellsberg got the New York Times and Washington Post involved. With some difficulty, the information was finally released in 1971. Ellsberg went on the run but was eventually arrested and charged under the Espionage Act. He was acquitted in 1973 after gross government misconduct and illegal evidence gathering were revealed.
For his brave act, he has been the recipient of the Ron Ridenhour Courage Prize, Gandhi Peace Award and the Right Livelihood Award. He was also the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary released last year. The iconic whistle-blower talks to Weekend Review about why WikiLeaks matters, the reality of the war he calls "Vietnamistan" and on being an American patriot.
How do you compare the current leaks by WikiLeaks to your Pentagon Paper leaks 40 years ago?
Well, these are secret lower level field reports of great value. The Pentagon papers were only 7,000 pages but they were top secret and high level memos, estimates and directives and so forth. So this WikiLeaks is not the Pentagon papers of Afghanistan or of Iraq. Those are yet to come. I hope that we get those.
But then the Pentagon papers in 1971 were not the last word either. They were not the White House papers; they were not the CIA papers. And so a lot remained to be known then as well. I do think that these are a very massive contribution to understanding the nature of the war and I hope may help to shorten it but that remains to be seen.
Are you surprised by the campaign against WikiLeaks in the US media?
No, not at all (laughs).
The campaign against the Pentagon Papers was very similar. In that case the government actually moved to enjoin the press with an injunction to actually stop the presses for a couple of weeks.
They couldn't do that to WikiLeaks because with the internet you can't stop them. They are unstoppable. And moreover, of course, they enable you to make a much larger volume of disclosure then was possible then with the Xerox machine. But the administration did many of the same things. They tried to smear me in various ways. And they even set a hit squad at one point to incapacitate me. That could yet happen to Julian.
You think so?
I think that is a possibility. It's not likely but it is possible.
Like you say this is not very high level intelligence from WikiLeaks. Having worked yourself within the Pentagon, do you think they will have taken extra precautions now to prevent a higher level leak in the future?
Yes, I am sure they are. And I don't know technically how that is done. But after all Bradley Manning claimed to the person he talked to that he had found vulnerabilities in their system, even though it was an intelligence system, not just an ordinary classified system. And he had found a way to download things that they hadn't planned on. I think there always are breaks in these things. But I am sure they are taking great efforts to prevent them.
You have said the leak you made 40 years ago was out of patriotic duty. What kind of reaction did you get at that time and over the years from ordinary American people?
Well it is very divided. Very many people recognise me as a patriot and even come up to me to this day, 40 years later, and say thank you for what you did. That is very common. Or in some cases if they are older: ‘You helped to keep me out of Vietnam ' by helping end the war.
But other people regarded me as a traitor then and some of them have changed their minds over the years and some have not. So I get both.
Do people ever stop you on the street and heckle you?
No, fortunately the people who were against me, of whom there are a lot, have not confronted me publicly and I am grateful for that. That's never happened.
What similarities do you see between Vietnam and Afghanistan today?
Afghanistan? I call it Vietnamistan. I think the war is remarkably similar. The language we don't speak is different. I will tell you one difference there. I ask people what are the two main languages in Afghanistan. I have never known one American who would get it right. And in fact they have never heard of Dari or Eastern Farsi, you know? And they might guess Afghan or Arabic or something. But at least in Vietnam we knew what language it was that we didn't speak. In Afghanistan, I don't think people would know what dictionary to buy. And their religion is different.
But the fact is that in both cases people are resisting a foreign occupation. And I think they are committed and I don't think they will give up. And I think that is why the war is stalemated over there as it was in Vietnam. Or let's put it this way: To keep it stalemated we will have to put in even more troops then we have now. At the present level it probably won't be stalemated. But they can't actually drive us out militarily. They can't win entirely and we can't defeat them. So it will go on as long as we are willing to keep killing and dying.
You have also said that President Obama brought in more prosecution for people who are involved in leaks than any previous US President.
Two of his prosecutions, Thomas Drake from the National Security Agency and Shamai Leibowitz of the Department of Justice, were for acts committed under Bush. Bush did not indict for. The third is Bradley Manning. So that is as many prosecutions as all previous presidents. I was the first to be prosecuted under this act. Perhaps Assange will be the seventh. But I was the first.
There was one 10 years later. Samuel Loring Morrison. And then under George W. Bush there was the AIPAC case against the employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That case was dropped by Obama. So only one person has ever been convicted by a jury and that is Samuel Loring Morrison.
Do you consider yourself a patriotic American?
The man behind the ‘Ellsberg Paradox'
Born in Chicago in 1931, Daniel Ellsberg graduated from Harvard in 1952 with a BA summa cum laude in Economics. He studied for a year at King's College, Cambridge University, on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Between 1954 and 1957, he spent three years in the US Marine Corps, serving as rifle platoon leader, operations officer, and rifle company commander.
From 1957-59 he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. He earned his PhD in Economics at Harvard in 1962 with his thesis, Risk, Ambiguity and Decision. His research leading up to this dissertation — in particular his work on what has become known as the "Ellsberg Paradox" — is widely considered a landmark in decision theory and behavioural economics.
In 1959, Ellsberg became a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and consultant to the Defence Department and the White House, specialising in problems of the command and control of nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans, and crisis decision-making. In 1967, he worked on the top secret McNamara study of US decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
The author of three books, Papers on the War (1971), Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002), and Risk, Ambiguity and Decision (2001), Ellsberg lives in Kensington, California with his wife.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg has been a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful US interventions and the urgent need for patriotic whistle-blowing.