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‘A thin diet of hope’

From the Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks, Daniel Ellsberg tells Brattleboro audiences about the perils of whistleblowing

BRATTLEBORO—Did the leaking of secret U.S. government documents to The New York Times and other American newspapers in 1971 end the Vietnam War?

In the view of Daniel Ellsberg, the government contractor turned whistleblower who released what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the world, it accomplished nothing.

The whole anti-war movement accomplished nothing, he said, because the administration of President Richard M. Nixon carried on some of the heaviest bombing in human history, even while it told the American people that peace was at hand.

However, Ellsberg said, the Pentagon Papers and the anti-war movement were “part of a chain. Each link was essential.”

The Nixon administration’s heavy-handed response to Ellsberg’s action was the one link in a chain of illegal activity that ultimately became known as the Watergate scandal, which forced Nixon to resign from office in 1974.

And Nixon’s resignation, just days after the House Judiciary Committee drafted articles of impeachment against him, helped end his administration’s strategy of maintaining a permanent U.S. military presence in Vietnam.

It all began, Ellsberg said, because individuals acted in defiance of a president.

“You can’t know that you’ll have that kind of effect, but you know it’s possible,” he said.

Ellsberg, 81, visited Brattleboro on March 29, speaking first with students of Social Studies teacher Bill Holiday at Brattleboro Union High School.

Later that evening, Ellsberg spoke at the Latchis Theatre at a showing of the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, about his decision to leak the sensitive information.

Facing prosecution

Ellsberg spent months in 1969 photocopying the 7,000 pages of the secret study first commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on U.S. decision-making in Vietnam from 1945 through 1968.

The federal government hauled Ellsberg into court and charged him with 12 felony counts that carried a possible prison sentence of 115 years. The case was dismissed because of government misconduct in 1973.

In response to the leak, Ellsberg said, Nixon gave the nod to “neutralize Daniel Ellsberg.”

A strong-arm group known as the Plumbers, mostly Cuban exiles from Miami who also played a role in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychologist looking for scandal fodder.

But the group didn’t stop with the break-in.

“They were assassins, essentially,” he said.

According to Ellsberg, a special prosecutor later told him the order from the White House was to “incapacitate totally.”

“These guys never used the word ‘kill,’” said Ellsberg, adding that he doubted that the Plumbers intended to kill him, but believes they would have inflicted bodily injury.

The Plumbers sent to “incapacitate” Ellsberg saw their plans dissolve at a May 1972 anti-war rally in Washington, D.C.

The rally had been scheduled well in advance, but longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died, and the event ended up taking place at the same times as a memorial service at the Capitol.

According to Ellsberg, the Plumbers, after receiving faulty information, assumed the rally was in honor of Hoover. They expected to pick a fight with Ellsberg that would catch the Hoover mourners in a violent wave, leaving Ellsberg in a bloodied heap.

Ellsberg said that in later interviews, the Cubans who comprised the Plumbers backed off when they realized the audience were not mourners. He said that they feared they were “being set up as patsy like [Lee Harvey] Oswald.”

Having failed at getting dirt on Ellsberg, and then having failed to rough him up, the Plumbers turned to another job: breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment and office complex in Washington.

That break-in, and the subsequent cover-up, led to the convictions of several White House aides and ultimately led to Nixon’s downfall.

In an interview after he left office, Nixon said he wanted to discredit whistleblowers rather than Ellsberg personally.

“I didn’t care about the punk,” said Nixon about Ellsberg.

Fundamental similarities

According to Ellsberg, he learned in 1969 while working for the RAND Corporation, a global nonprofit specializing in research, analysis, and decision policy making, that the Nixon administration had no intention of ending the war in Vietnam.

Instead, Nixon wanted to station 20,000 to 40,000 troops in Vietnam indefinitely.

In short, he planned to end the ground conflict, but not the U.S. occupation, essentially turning Vietnam into a U.S. colony, said Ellsberg.

“I was ready to do anything I could to avert that — an endless war,” he said.

Ellsberg drew students’ attention to the current war in Afghanistan, saying the conflict shares “fundamental similarities” with Vietnam.

He said that just as America learned little from France’s failures in Vietnam in the 1950s, it failed to learn from the long history of military failures in Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union.

“It’s very hard for one empire to learn from another,” said Ellsberg. “Or for Democrats to learn from Republicans.”

The regret of delayed action

Ellsberg said he regrets sitting on the information in the Pentagon Papers, which he put in a safe by 1964, where they remained until he leaked them in 1971.

He sent the papers to Congress, and when that went nowhere, to The New York Times and 18 other newspapers.

In writings on his website, Ellsberg describes an interaction with U.S. Senator Wayne Morse, one of only two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution in August 1964, the vote that authorized the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam into a full-fledged war.

Morse told Ellsberg that if Congress had seen the Pentagon Papers before it voted on the Tonkin Gulf resolution, it would have never passed.

Ellsberg said that Congress believed that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was a bipartisan expression to support air strikes against North Vietnam to retaliate for a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. destroyers on routine patrol in international waters in the Tonkin Gulf.

The papers, however, revealed that the official description of the episode was a bald-faced lie.

“Don’t do what I did,” Ellsberg told the BUHS students. “Don’t wait until the bombs are falling...go to the press, go to the Congress, go to the [Internet].”

But Ellsberg also understands why many people who possess vital information stay mum.

Human society is all about cliques, and the need to be part of a group, he explained.

The fear of loss — in the form of jobs, or social status, or even one’s freedom as a consequence of a prison sentence — prevents many from revealing the wrongdoings of powerful institutions like the government or corporations.

“You can get humans to kill other humans for no other reason than that — the fear of losing status,” he said.

Likewise, Ellsberg told students that someone working for a company, like Entergy, might possess internal documents that assess the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s vulnerabilities from tornados and the community’s risks from the nuclear waste stored at the Vernon substation.

“[Releasing the information] could make a difference,” said Ellsberg. “There’s no guarantee people will act on that information. It may have no effect, but it could have enormous effect.”

Ellsberg credits Randy Kehler, of Colrain, Mass., and Dr. Janaki Natarajan Tschannerl, who teaches education and sociology at Keene State College, with showing him the value of going against the grain.

Kehler crossed Entergy’s “no trespass” line at the anti-Vermont Yankee protest on March 22. The resulting arrest was one of many for the longtime activist, who was first jailed in 1971 for refusing the Vietnam draft.

Ellsberg said that Kehler showed him that he had more choices than he realized when it came to revealing the government’s true intentions for Vietnam.

“What could I do to help end the war now that I’m ready to risk prison?” Ellsberg said he asked himself in the 1970s. “I hope when people face the same choice, they choose the risk.”

When Kehler refused to send in his draft notice, explained Ellsberg, he didn’t expect the act to end the war, any more than Kehler didn’t think he would be able to shut down Vermont Yankee by volunteering for arrest at the recent VY protest.

But every act of resistance does matter in the long run, he said.

“You’ll face that choice more than once, and some of you will act to save a lot of lives, and I thank you for that,” Ellsberg told the students.

A thin diet of hope

Later that night, Ellsberg stood on tired legs signing copies of his books surrounded by audience members.

Ellsberg leaned close to hear a woman over the buzz in the Latchis Theatre’s lobby.

“Thank you for your courage,” she told him.

Ellsberg’s mood about the country’s future was more pessimistic for the Latchis audience than it was during his presentation at the high school.

According to Ellsberg, the federal government has always frowned on whistleblowers, hoping to thwart them from shining the light on government secrets, but the feds rarely followed through on threats of fines and imprisonment.

But in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, that policy has changed.

In Ellsberg’s opinion, the federal government is now moving closer to enacting laws similar to the United Kingdom’s Official Secrets Act. In the past, he said, Congress avoided such a law because it violated the First Amendment.

In 2000, Congress did put an Official Secrets Act of sorts before President Bill Clinton, who vetoed it after a loud outcry from the press.

But, said Ellsberg, the current government shifts closer to that reality every day, as the Bush and Obama administrations have demonstrated a willingness to bend the Constitution in the name of national security.

In Ellsberg’s opinion, Obama has whistleblowers in his sights, despite the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of thought and expression.

“Today, I realized Obama is a moderate Republican,” he said. “A moderate Republican is better than others, but it’s not what we needed.”

Ellsberg said he feels a kinship with Bradley Manning, the Army private who is accused of leaking government documents regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks.

Manning has been imprisoned for nearly two years, but no charges have been formally filed against him.

Ellsberg said he would gladly trade places with Manning.

“Being in a detention camp is my retirement plan,” said Ellsberg, only half-jokingly.

After the Latchis crowd dispersed, Ellsberg lowered himself and his aching hip into a chair.

He tries not to voice his “dark concerns for the future” and doesn’t want to discourage people, but he isn’t willing to be inspirational to sugarcoat a lie, he said.

“To be totally hopeless is not silly, but it’s wrong, because we can’t totally know the future — things do turn up.”

Then he smiles.

“But I like Brattleboro and its activists,” he said. “Living on their thin diet of hope.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #146 (Wednesday, April 4, 2012).

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