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Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg: Civil Disobedience Against Vietnam War Led Me to Leak Pentagon Papers

Ellsberg discusses the role nonviolent direct action can play in social movements.

Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was a high-level defense analyst in 1971 when he leaked a top-secret report on US involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and played a key role in ending the Vietnam War. We speak with Ellsberg about the recent 50th anniversary of one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in the United States. On May 17, 1968, Catholic priests and activists broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, and stole 378 draft cards and burned them in the parking lot as a protest against the Vietnam War. They became known as the Catonsville Nine. Ellsberg discusses the role nonviolent direct action can play in social movements. Ellsberg says that the ending of the war in Vietnam “relied on a lot of people doing unusual things.”


AMY GOODMAN: The Ballad of Daniel Ellsberg, by Rulie Garcie, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We are broadcasting from the University of California Santa Cruz, the basement of the McHenry Library.

We are here at University of California for a gathering of the Right Livelihood laureates in North America. We spend the rest of the hour with one of those laureates, Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the nation’s most famous whistleblower. In 1971, he was a high level defense analyst when he leaked a top secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications, that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He played a key role in ending the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg was also a consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, where he drafted plans for nuclear war. He writes about this in his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Dan Ellsberg reveals for the first time he also made copies of top-secret documents from his nuclear studies, an entire second set of papers in addition to the Pentagon Papers, for which he is known.

In 2006, he won the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the “Alternative Nobel.” We spoke on Thursday, on the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in the U.S. On May 17th, 1968, a group of Catholic priests and lay people broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland — in 1968 — stole 378 draft cards and burned them in the parking lot as a protest against the Vietnam War. They burned them with homemade napalm. They became known as the Catonsville Nine.

UNKNOWN: We regret very much, I think all of us, the inconvenience and even the suffering that we’ve brought to these clerks here.

PHIL BERRIGAN: We sincerely hope we didn’t injure anyone.

UNKNOWN GROUP: [inaudible] …thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

UNKNOWN: We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Participants included Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Father Dan Berrigan made national headlines when he went underground for four months after his trial.
When I spoke to Daniel Ellsberg on Thursday, I began by asking him about the Catonsville Nine.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I remember above all when Dan Berrigan was finally captured after a number of months eluding the FBI, as my wife and I did for just 13 days, I don’t think we would have thought of doing that instead of surrendering to the FBI when the order came out for us without Dan’s example that this was a way to continue an action, to continue resistance to a war. That you didn’t have to submit meekly.

And when he was finally arrested, the picture I always remember is giving the peace sign in handcuffs, something I always remembered when later I was in handcuffs. And that inspired me. But the smile on his face — in fact, I was just looking at the cover of a terrific book on him by our friend Jim Forest, At Play in the Lions’ Den, with Daniel, and there is that picture of him smiling, that I remembered so clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. He was captured on Block Island and that picture is two FBI agents on either side. He has got the peace sign up and I think a journalist then said to him, “What are your plans, Dan Berrigan?” And he said, “Resistance.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, the life of resistance. We were at Danbury prison when his brother was on trial — Phil, and Liz — for supposedly attempting to kidnap Kissinger, and he was introduced in front of me as Father Daniel Ellsberg. And he said, “No, Daniel Ellsberg, that bad Jesuit, is sitting behind me.” When they were burning the draft files, I remember it was Dan’s statement, “We apologize, good friends, for our fracture of good order here and for burning paper instead of babies. A macabre statement. And yet when LBJ objected very much to the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you burn today?” or kill today, it was actually a very fair question, which never got answered, essentially.

We never counted the number of people we were killing or making refugees. That was something the Pentagon did not need to know. and so it is today. I think in Iraq, America has never faced up to the number of people who have died because of our invasion, our aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 30 years since we first inspired a CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviets there, and led to the invasion of the Soviets. What we’ve done to the Middle East has been hell.

AMY GOODMAN: You were not always a peace activist. You worked for the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation. You are one of the few who had the secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam locked away in your safe. What changed you? What made you decide to open your safe and copy those thousands of pages and release them to the press?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I had read this study, 23 years of lies and breaking treaties, escalations, deceit of the American people, from 1945 to 1968. Second, I knew that it was going on under a fifth president in a row, Richard Nixon. I knew from insiders — and I had worked for Nixon at the very beginning of his administration as a consultant on Vietnam. And I knew he didn’t intend to get out but was trying to win, essentially, by threatening nuclear war and to prolong General Thieu, our puppet in Saigon, in power through his second term.

So the war I was sure was going to go on, and it was going to get larger. But the key thing, the immediate thing, was that I met young Americans who were on their way to prison, like Bob Eaton and Randall Keeler, who had decided the strongest statement they could make about the war was not by going to Sweden or being a conscientious objector, which they could have done, or going to Vietnam, but to go to prison. That my country had come to this, I realized. But I also realized looking at them that if they could do it, I could do it, and that I should do it. The question in my mind that they put there was, “How can I help shorten the war now that I’m ready to go to prison?”

AMY GOODMAN: So you released the Pentagon Papers or you got them to The New York Times and then to The Washington Post.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Eventually, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a new film out called The Post about The Washington Post’s role. Is it accurate in releasing the papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, it’s a Hollywood film; it’s not a documentary. But I enjoy seeing myself played by a terrific actor who looks much the way I did at the time, only better.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times, has it ever acknowledged that you were the source of the Pentagon Papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: [laugh] No. As a matter of fact, they used to say, for about 20 years, “Daniel Ellsberg…” — if I came into the news at all — “…who says that he gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times…” And I called them several times and said, “Can you change that frame, because…?” And they’d say, “No, we don’t reveal our sources.” I said, “Well, I was on trial for this, you know. And I’ve acknowledged it very much myself.” Nor has The Washington Post ever revealed me as the source of their studies, except in this movie, which is not by The Washington Post.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it important to you that they should just directly acknowledge that you were the source of the Pentagon Papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Oh, at the time, it was simply that people would ask me, “What do they mean by that — the man who says he gave it to them?” And I didn’t appreciate that question. No, it wasn’t important in itself. And as a matter of fact, I think that Ed Snowden did exactly the right thing by being out of the country, where he could communicate with reporters, just as Dan Berrigan did the right thing by leaving, evading the FBI for months and being able to communicate with the public in a way that he couldn’t have done in prison. And Snowden, like Chelsea Manning, would have been incommunicado. She was in solitary confinement for 10.5 months of her seven years in prison. And Snowden could not be communicating with us about the dangers of surveillance as he has been doing for years now if he were in this country. He is in, in effect, permanent exile.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, you were vilified by the right for years, but when Ed Snowden went into exile in Moscow because he couldn’t leave Russia — the U.S. had pulled his passport — the very right that vilified you said, “Well, Ed Snowden…” Some said he should be killed. Some said he should be executed, he should be jailed. But they said “He’s no Dan Ellsberg.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, that was an attempt, as you say, to vilify Snowden. Actually, I identify more with Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning than with any other two individuals in the world. They went through what I did, in the way of a transition in their consciousness, and they acted in ways that would permanently constrain their career. In my case, Nixon didn’t achieve what he had in mind, which was 115 years in prison, or at another point, to incapacitate me totally, but that was by kind of a miraculous set of events that cost Nixon his job and made the war end-able. So that was kind of a miracle, and we need more miracles like that. We need more Ed Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings, I would say.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that. How is it that you didn’t end up in jail for 115 years and Nixon remained the president?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: The revelation of the history in the Pentagon Papers influenced people to be against the war, but they were already against the war, and that didn’t affect Nixon. He went on with the war. What Nixon responded to was his fear, rather well founded fear, that I might have documents on his current nuclear threats and his plan to escalate, as he did in the mining of Haiphong Harbor and his renewal of bombing, heavy bombing. And he thought that I could prove that with documents in a way that the public — would lead to public opposition to his policy. So he had to shut me up.

And to do that in this country, he had to take what were then crimes — warrantless wiretapping of associates on whom I was heard, hiring CIA people for the White House to burglarize my former psychoanalyst’s office hoping to get information he could blackmail me with into silence, and later bringing some of those same CIA assets who were later caught in the Watergate to Washington to incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally, on the steps of the Capitol.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, what do I mean? That’s what I asked their prosecutor, William Merrill. I said, “What does that mean? Kill me?” He said the words were “to incapacitate you totally.” Then he said, but you have to understand these guys were all CIA assets from the Bay of Pigs earlier. Never use the word “kill.” They say “neutralize,” “terminate with extreme prejudice,” “incapacitate.” They don’t talk about killing. He thought the intent was to kill me. I actually think the intent was to shut me up at the moment he was about to mine Haiphong, which I was predicting.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did your trial end?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the trial ended when my — John Dean, who exposed the burglary of my doctor’s office earlier. Later, people exposed the attempt to incapacitate me. And then finally the warrantless wiretapping. So the judge in the end, when he couldn’t find the files for the wiretapping — because they had been kept out of the FBI files. They were in the White House, because they were a criminal, and they didn’t want J. Edgar Hoover to blackmail Nixon with the evidence of this White House-ordered crime. So without even those files, the judge said this offends the sense of justice, a pattern of governmental misconduct.

But what was more important was that these same charges then came to confront Nixon. The war would not have ended with Nixon in office. By the way, in 1973, early 1973, when my final stage of my trial started, the possibility of Nixon not finishing his second term, which he had just won in a landslide, was zero. It was impossible. It was like the Berlin wall coming down in 1989 or Nelson Mandela, let’s say, becoming president without a violent revolution. These were impossible events which did occur.

And I am saying that the ending of the war as early as 1975 depended on Nixon being out of office, which he was in 1974. And that was simply unforeseeable, and it relied on a lot of people doing unusual things. Alexander Butterfield revealing the White House taping which revealed that John Dean had been telling the truth when he accused the president of a cover-up and of criminal acts. And later, the attorney general resigning, Elliot Richardson, rather than fire a special prosecutor.

We are back at that today, that issue. And then when a second person, Ruckelshaus — same man, by the way, who had revealed the FBI wiretapping of me — was now the acting attorney general, and he resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor. That was the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. So that got the public aroused and called for another special prosecutor to be named, independent of the White House, at this point. We may live through that again very shortly.

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