This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Fifty years ago this week, The New York Times began publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — 7,000 pages of top-secret documents outlining the secret history of the U.S. War in Vietnam. The leak would end up helping take down President Nixon, help end the War in Vietnam and lead to a major victory for press freedom. The Times exposé was based on documents secretly photocopied by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo while they worked as Pentagon consultants at the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg had been deeply involved in the Vietnam War, first traveling to Vietnam as a Pentagon analyst in 1964. But after turning against the war, Ellsberg decided to risk his life in prison to reveal the truth about Vietnam. The two men were charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as theft and conspiracy.
This is an excerpt from the 2009 documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America. It begins with Dan Ellsberg.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: It was the evening of October 1st, 1969, when I first smuggled several hundred pages of top-secret documents out of my safe at the RAND Corporation. The study contained 47 volumes, 7,000 pages. My plan was to xerox the study and reveal the secret history of the Vietnam War to the American people.
NEWSCASTER: The FBI was trying to find out who gave The New York Times a copy of a Pentagon secret study.
MIKE GRAVEL: Pow!, like a thunderclap, you get The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, and the country is panicking.
HENRY KISSINGER: This is an attack on the whole integrity of government. If whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can’t have orderly government anymore.
WALTER CRONKITE: A name has now come out as the possible source of the Times Pentagon documents. It is that of Daniel Ellsberg, a top policy analyst for the Defense and State Department.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper.
PATRICIA ELLSBERG: In the first year of marriage, we’re talking about him going to prison for the rest of his life.
REPORTER: Dr. Ellsberg, do you have any concern about the possibility of going to prison for this?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?
EGIL ”BUD” KROGH JR.: We felt so strongly that we were dealing with a national security crisis. Henry Kissinger said that Dr. Daniel Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America” and he had to be stopped.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The documentary was co-directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.
The Nixon administration would go on to take extraordinary measures to silence and punish Ellsberg, including breaking into his psychiatrist’s office. But the government’s misconduct led to charges against him and Anthony Russo being dismissed.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, we’re joined now by Daniel Ellsberg, who turned 90 years old in April. Over the past five decades, Ellsberg has been a leading critic of U.S. militarism and U.S. nuclear weapons policy, as well as a prominent advocate for other whistleblowers. Oh, and he hasn’t stopped sharing government secrets. We’re going to talk about one of those secrets that he said he’s willing to be prosecuted for, that he just leaked. But right now we go to Berkeley, California, to the home of Daniel Ellsberg.
Dan, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is such a significant milestone. It was half a century ago Sunday that The New York Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers. Talk about how they got a hold of those papers, and the decision you made, especially for young people, at what point you went from, you know, working for the Pentagon, going to Vietnam, being a part of the war machine, and then turning around and saying, “I will spend the rest of my life in jail, I have to, to stop this.”
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the first trip I made to Vietnam, Amy, was actually in 1961 on a research project looking at limited war research and development. And it was clear in one week there, talking to counterpart military officers who were advising Vietnamese and who were looking at the war closely, and reading their reports, that it became very clear that the war, under a corrupt, tyrannical dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had a pretense of elections, in which he tended to win 102% of the voters in some districts, was failing, against a group that was led by communists who had evicted the French from the northern part of the country some years earlier and had that cachet of liberators of the country from occupation. And we had — the U.S. had artificially carved out a part of that country as an anti-communist country, which we supported very lavishly — as if, for example, Britain had supported the Confederacy very lavishly in our Civil War — and, in fact, had supplied all of their uniforms, their bullets, their rations, everything, which is what we did for the puppet army in South Vietnam. It was very clear then that that was an extremely unpromising place to plant the flag against communism or for imperialism in that country, as imprudent as it had been for the French to try to reconquer that country. And we had supported the French from ’45 on, ’til ’54, and then took over the burden of suppressing that country and effectively occupying it ourselves.
So, I was very surprised in ’61 when I learned that President Kennedy had taken the alleged advice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, and Walt Rostow, a major policy figure, that all that was needed was advisers, that he didn’t need to send combat troops, and that progress would be made if we simply went through the Geneva Conference of 1954 ceiling of advisers to about 600, went up to a thousand and maybe several thousand — in the end, there were 12,000 advisers there — but that that was enough to keep that country in our control, essentially.
That turned out to be a lie. When I read the Pentagon Papers years later — that was in ’61. I was reading those documents in ’67, and I was particularly interested to see what their advice had actually been. And what had turned out was that the president had been lying and that their — and they backed him up, in line — and that their advice actually was that advisers would not be enough to stem the nationalist forces we were fighting and that the only possibility was to send troops immediately, and, indeed, that those didn’t have a lot of promise that we would do better than the French, but nothing less would do the job. In other words, I had been lied to, the whole country had been lied to, the Congress had been lied to, as to what the situation was.
Well, that was typical of the entire 30-year conflict, which was really from 1945 to ’75. The recent Burns-Novick piece, the series about the war, starts with a statement: “It was begun by decent men with honest motives.” That was not true for a single day of that war. However decent they may have been in other contexts, these smart men, generally, as smart as we have today, managed to lie to the public every day of the war and, in bad faith, actually, pursue a war that they saw had very little likelihood of helping anyone, but leading just to an escalating stalemate — which is what actually happened — for the next 20 years of the war or so, from — 15 years, from ’61 to ’75.
So, when I became aware that that was repeating itself, that history, which in the Pentagon Papers and in ’68, with President Johnson’s departure — and now we were in ’69, and I was made aware that President Nixon was following exactly in the footsteps of his predecessors, while telling the public, in his election campaign and otherwise, he was getting out. And, in fact, he planned to get the U.S. troops out — U.S. troops out — slowly, throughout his first term, hopefully sooner, but, if necessary, as it turned out to be, over a matter of years, and to pursue the war indefinitely, through his second term, in the air, backing up President Thieu, the puppet leader, former general, in Vietnam and his army, the army that we supported and managed, with U.S. airpower.
And he virtually achieved that. He almost did, actually. By ’73, he did get the American troops out. People thought, “The war is over.” But from the point of view of bombing, generating refugees, torture, deaths in Vietnam, he was going on as before, and would have done so right through 1977 and later, had not the president been forced to resign for acts he took in the process of assuring his policy and assuring his staying in office. Namely, he kept his own policy of threatening nuclear war even and threatening major escalation, such as mining Haiphong and mining Hanoi and bombing Hanoi, which he did do, and going into the so-called sanctuaries, other countries, other sovereign countries, like Laos and Cambodia, all of which he did do. He did everything but the actual carrying out of nuclear weapons, which he discussed at the highest levels — and telling the people that he was getting out of the war all this time — another big lie, as we started with.
And I put out in 1969 to the Senate, and then to the newspapers in ’71, evidence that five previous — four previous presidents had made similar lies and escalations and threats, and the war had gone on. They preferred a bloody, escalating stalemate to the humiliation of ending the war the only way it could be ended, which was granting the Southern communist-led forces a role in the government and stopping the bombing of the North.
But Nixon was so beholden to President Thieu, Nguyen Van Thieu, that he had to keep him in there even when that was the only thing dividing this and keeping the war going in 1971 and ’72. We learned much later that Thieu regarded himself as having elected Nixon, and he was right in doing so. In the last days of 1968, Nixon’s people, at his orders, which we learned many years later, was telling Thieu, “Hold on. Don’t negotiate. We will give you better terms.” And indeed he had in mind giving him better terms, and he did. “We’ll keep you in power,” even though the communists are demanding as a part of the negotiations that Thieu personally not be part of the element. And that’s what we were fighting for. And that’s why tens of thousands of Americans — and millions of Vietnamese — died: to keep Thieu in power as long as Nixon was, which did happen. Nixon left before Thieu did, and Thieu left in ’75.
It would not have happened, had not Nixon been faced with impeachment for the crimes he took to keep the war going and keep it hidden, crimes mainly against me to keep me from putting out new documents that would incriminate him, like the nuclear threats and the others that he was making. And in the process of that, he burglarized my former psychoanalyst’s office. He sent 12 Cuban assets of the Bay of Pigs up to incapacitate me totally on the steps of the Capitol. On May 3rd, he overheard me on illegal, warrantless wiretaps. When all this began to come out as a result of truth-telling by John Dean to the prosecutors; Alex Butterfield telling the truth about the taping of the Oval Office, which is essential; Elliot Richardson and Ruckelshaus refusing the president’s orders to fire the special prosecutor, to fire the special prosecutor demanding the tapes; the Supreme Court, including three Nixon appointees, ruling unanimously they had give them over — all these steps were individually essential to facing the president with resignation or impeachment. And when he chose resignation, the war became endable. That’s why — that’s why president — rather, Henry Kissinger called me “the most dangerous man in America,” because he feared I had documents — documents — that would tell the truth about the lies he and his boss were telling.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was even after you had released the Pentagon Papers. I want to go back to that documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, this excerpt focusing on how the Nixon White House responded to your leak. It begins with John Dean, who served as White House counsel to President Nixon.
JOHN DEAN: I think that there is probably some good justification for the strong feelings Nixon had. He would make a decision in the National Security Council and the next day read it on the front page of The New York Times or some other newspaper. This makes it virtually impossible to govern.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Just because some guy is going to be a martyr, we can’t be in a position of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government. I just say that we’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball. The main ball is Ellsberg. We’ve got to get this son of a bitch.
JOHN DEAN: The leak of the Pentagon Papers changed the Nixon White House. It really is what some of us have called the beginning of the dark period. I mean, it was rough and tumble before, but it got down and dirty. So it’s really a defining event for the Nixon presidency. And this is when Egil Krogh, Bud Krogh, was selected to head up the so-called Plumbers unit.
EGIL ”BUD” KROGH JR.: I was summoned to the Oval Office by the president. John Ehrlichman and I met with him. There was some suspicion that Dr. Ellsberg had access to the more recent war plans that had been developed by the Nixon administration and would be able to release those documents. I came from that meeting feeling very strongly that I was dealing with a national security crisis, and I was to take any means necessary to respond to it.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The difficulty is all the good lawyers always say, “Well, we’ve got to win the court case.” Screw the court case. Let’s convict the son of a bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s done.
EGIL ”BUD” KROGH JR.: The president had decided to set up a special investigations unit in the White House staff.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: We’ve got to get a better team.
CHARLES COLSON: There’s one guy on the outside. He’s hard as nails. His name is Howard Hunt.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: He could do it. And I’ll direct him myself. And I play it gloves off. Now, God damn it, get going on it.
EGIL ”BUD” KROGH JR.: Did Daniel Ellsberg work alone? Was he working with some other people? Was it part of a conspiracy? And it was in that context that a proposal was made by E. Howard Hunt to get information that could be used to discredit Dr. Ellsberg. A covert operation ought to be undertaken to examine all of the files still held by Dr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. This went to John Ehrlichman. Underneath that proposal were two lines: approve of the line, disapprove of the line. He wrote his large “E” after “approve” and then put in “under your assurance it is not traceable.”
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s an excerpt from The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the documentary co-directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.
Also, Dan, The New York Times had a special section called “Uncovering the Secret History of the Vietnam War” on the publication of the papers you leaked to them. They had it yesterday. And among the quotes they highlight, which is so important, is the contrast of what was being said publicly and what was being said privately. So, you have the war grows in secret. In 1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at a White House news conference says, “We reviewed in great detail the plans of the South Vietnamese and the plans of our own military advisers for operations during 1964. We have every reason to believe they will be successful.” But on the same day, December 21st, 1963, McNamara said in a memo to President Lyndon Johnson, “The situation is very disturbing. Current trends, unless reversed in the next two to three months, will lead to a neutralization at best and more likely a Communist controlled state.” In 1964, you have Johnson saying in a televised address, “We still seek no wider war,” but in the Pentagon Papers, it says, on February 1st, 1964, “the United States embarked on a new course of action … On that date, under direction of the American military establishment, an elaborate program of covert military operations against the state of North Vietnam was set in motion.”
I want to focus on your getting the Pentagon Papers, Dan. Explain what this was — this is before Kissinger and Nixon were afraid you were going to have another leak around nuclear issues — about the report in your safe, that only a few people had, and your decision to xerox them, to include your children — I think Robert Ellsberg, your 13-year-old child at the time, helped you do this — and why you decided to do this and include your kids.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the great journalist I.F. Stone once said, “All government officials lie, and nothing they say is to be believed.” That doesn’t mean that everything they say is a lie. It means that anything they say may be a lie, and it’s never the last word. They are always misleading one audience or another, and you have to back that up with your common sense, back it up with other sources. Nothing illustrates that better in writing than the Pentagon Papers.
But, of course, it’s still true today. What you were quoting could have been written about Afghanistan — and, in fact, it was. When The Washington Post got the Afghan Papers a couple of years ago, somewhat lower levels, they illustrated that almost identical quotes had been saying about Afghan during the 20-year war that we have so far experienced there. And it could be another 20 years, even with U.S. troops out of the country, as Nixon got U.S. troops out of the country in ’73 but planned to continue the war with airpower. And I think also there’s a plan right now to continue the war in Afghan, killing Afghans, creating refugees, indefinitely, from bases outside Afghanistan. But again, in both cases, you have people speaking quite reasonably and realistically inside about the lack of progress, while outside the public is reassured that tax money can still be given to Congress to buy beans and boots and troops for our puppet allies over there indefinitely.
Now, when I had learned that, year by year, in the Pentagon, ’64, ’65 — then I was in Vietnam from ’65 to ’67 — it was very clear that these lies were persisting in the interest of keeping a war going. There was always an alternative to getting higher, as the Joint Chiefs tended to want, with no real prospect of success, or getting out somehow, lowering the cost. And the president chose each time not to do the latter, not to be subject to charges of losing the war or ending it, but of keeping it going, with some promise of winning — a totally illusory promise on the outside, not confirmed on the inside. I saw that no one — I saw, from reading the Pentagon Papers, that the president had — president after president had gotten quite realistic reports from people inside — not from everybody, many liars, but a lot that were realistic enough to let him know that he did have the choice of getting out. In fact, he would have had a lot of support for doing it. But he would have been the one who will borne the brunt of charges that he had lost the war. Had he done what the Joint Chiefs wanted, which he knew, correctly, I think, was very foolish, which would have led to nuclear war with the Chinese, in the case of the Vietnamese — he chose not to do that, and chose instead to stalemate, keep the war going.
So, I saw then that it no longer paid to be a president’s man giving him the truth about realities. He had that. He knew it’s not a matter of speaking truth to power. Power was getting the truth and choosing not to be the fall guy for Ho Chi Minh City becoming Saigon, as eventually did happen. That wasn’t going to happen under his term. So, the only way I could see was having Congress take steps. In the end, by the way, they did, under the extraordinary circumstances of Watergate. But for years, that didn’t seem very promising, either. Congressman after congressman, to whom I showed these realities, chose again to let me put it out eventually, and not to take the risks of going to prison or condemnation of putting it out. I couldn’t get anybody to put them out. Finally, Neil Sheehan —
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a critical point, Dan. Talk — I mean, the senators who were known as the antiwar senators, you went to one after another. And while some apologetic, just said they couldn’t do it on their own.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, yes. It’s frequently said — just yesterday, as I keep reading these things — I read, every other time, they didn’t accept the papers. One of them, McGovern, even said he couldn’t accept them, because they were illegal.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Senator McGovern, who ran for president then. That was the opposite of the truth of what he had actually said to me. Each one of the presidents and congresspersons — Fulbright, McGovern, later Representative Pete McCloskey in the House, Senator Mathias in the Senate — each of them antiwar, effective antiwar people within the Congress, each enthusiastically said they would use the papers, and then — and assured me that my name didn’t have to come out, and they would pull the Constitution off the wall and say, “The speech clause here — I can’t be questioned about anything I give here. We won’t have to give your name.” To each, I said, “I prefer not to be named, but that’s not a consideration. I’m prepared, ready to go to jail on these things, if there’s any reason you have to call me to authenticate how you got the papers and so forth.” Each one eventually, after thinking about it, turned back.
And looking back at it, when Neil Sheehan from the Times told me, “You shouldn’t put it out in Congress” — the way I wanted to — “It should only come out in the Times” — and he knew we had some conflict about that. I thought it should come out in the Congress so it could get subpoena witnesses, get people under oath, bring witnesses against the documents. I thought it was very much preferable to it coming out in the newspapers first. He, on the other hand, kept saying, “No, Dan, it’s got to come out in the newspapers.” And I, frankly, thought, “Well, he’s a little influenced there by getting a Pulitzer Prize,” and so forth. I wasn’t convinced.
And he was right, actually. Later, when the Pentagon Papers did come out, both Senator Mansfield, the majority leader, Senator Fulbright, the foreign affairs leader, chairman, said, “We now have to have hearings.” And I braced for these. Didn’t happen. In fact, it was Nixon who wanted hearings, I think tried to get Congressman Hébert to hold a hearing, because, for the reasoning on both sides, they did incriminate mainly Democrats. Nixon wanted it even though it also made presidents look bad. The senators didn’t want it, because they were Democrat —
AMY GOODMAN: Dan, we have so much to talk about in so little time. But I want to get to that point where you and Tony Russo, your co-conspirator, who was working at the RAND Corporation, said, “Let’s do it,” and you decided to xerox that 7,000-page report. How did you do it? How did you get the papers out? And then the story of going underground.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, told the story many times, but it involved — I asked Tony if he knew someone with a Xerox machine. His then-womanfriend Lynda Sinay, now Lynda Resnick, in California, played the crucial role of immediately saying, “Yes, you can use my Xerox machine,” charged 10 cents a page. I used up all my savings at that time. But I kept that going. Tony helped me for a number of nights, and I kept on by myself.
And at first, taking a suitcase — or, a briefcase, rather, out of the — Pentagon Papers — past the guards was very nerve-racking. All they had to do was ask to open that briefcase, and I’d be in the soup. But I eventually got used to be — they’re not asking me. They then didn’t ask briefcases very much. The current people, I think, don’t thank me for the fact that they now do have to open their briefcases.
But I did get them out, xerox all night, collate stuff, make several copies of each, bring them back in the morning, so that a jury couldn’t be convinced, in the end — that wasn’t why I did it, but it was no significant deprivation of any owner of such information by our taking it. It was only overnight, and I was the only person authorized to read it at that point, though I was charged with conversion and theft, actually.
So, that went on for, really — Tony stayed for seven or eight times. Then he was doing other things. And I did it by myself for much of the next year, on and off, because I would always think there’s very little chance this will have any effect on the war. It ends in 1968. The war, under Nixon, had started under ’69. He can say —
AMY GOODMAN: You mean the report ended in ’68.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: At the end of ’68. And then — under Johnson. And then, Nixon was not incriminated directly at all. In fact, he’s not mentioned in the Eisenhower years, a little oddly. But so, he was happy to have those out. What he was worried about was what else I might put out — and he had reason to worry about that; that wasn’t just paranoid — so that he had to try to stop me to do it. And that took illegal means in those days.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to jump forward to 1973, because then we have to — I want to talk about the new release that showed that we almost went to nuclear war in 1958. But —
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was Taiwan-China, particularly relevant now, as Biden makes his NATO summit appearance and then goes on to meet with Putin. But I just wanted to end with the trial in 1973 of you and Tony Russo and how it ended up in a mistrial, the trial that could lead to you being in prison for life for treason, as — you know, just like if Julian Assange came to the United States and faced a trial. But in the end, talk about what happened, what scuttled this.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, I was facing a possible 115 years in prison. Assange, by the way, faces 175. But it comes to about the same thing. Less for me now at this point as I face similar charges, because what I’ve done in the last month is exactly as indictable as anything the Obama or Trump or Biden administration has indicted for in the last several months.
I’ve put out information that was clearly held, continually held from the American people, wrongly, at a top-secret level, or a segment. And I’ve done it. I’ve said, “Here it is. Let’s test whether criminalizing the release of any or all top-secret material, or secret or confidential material, no matter when — that’s the way the law, the plain law, of the law exists. Let’s test whether that law is constitutional in the U.S. of A. with the First Amendment.” Other countries have the law, including Britain; they don’t have the First Amendment. And by strong means, if the Supreme Court were the first time to address this issue, it’s very hard for them to find that broad, sweeping wordage of the First Amendment constitutional.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to get to that. But the trial, how it ended up, how it ended up in a mistrial?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, it ended up, first of all, because John Dean revealed to the prosecutors on April 17th, almost the day that the president had returned to bombing of North Vietnam, had sent the order out — he then gets the word that John Dean has revealed the break-in to my former psychoanalyst’s office — and, obviously, illegal at that time, although now, after 9/11, it might be legal, but then illegal. Then word of illegal wiretappings came out, overhearing of me, which they’d been denying for two years.
Eventually, the word that the president — the judge himself, Judge Matthew Byrne, had been offered, during the trial, by the president and then by John Ehrlichman — had been offered the post of the FBI directorship, which was in a transition state at that point, something he had wanted all his life. When we learned that afterwards, it really meant I was going to lose. He was not going to get that job if I was acquitted on 12 felony counts. So, he would have given instructions that would have hung me up for some years, to say the least. When that came out, we moved for a mistrial, but he turned it down, saying that hadn’t influenced him at all, rather foolishly.
But the trial went on. And other things came out — the illegal wiretapping. They couldn’t find the taps, the records of the illegal wiretapping of me, because the president had removed them from J. Edgar Hoover’s private files to the White House files, where they couldn’t be gotten. So they denied that there were such tapes. They were afraid, correctly, that Hoover would use these illegal acts ordered by the White House to blackmail the White House into letting Hoover stay.
So, when the president — I’m sorry to keep saying that. When the judge said, “OK, overall pattern of events here offends a sense of justice, bizarre circumstances,” and he dismissed all charges with prejudice, meaning we couldn’t be tried again. That was the first time, I think, a federal trial had been dismissed just before it went to the jury on such grounds.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower extraordinaire, author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner and Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
When we come back, we look at the latest leak. That’s right, a secret document he exposed showing the U.S. considered attacking China with a nuclear weapon in 1958. He’s willing to go to jail for the latest leak. Stay with us.