Ellsberg shares motives behind Pentagon Papers leak

Daniel Ellsberg discusses WikiLeaks and his decision to make top secret Vietnam War-era government documents public.

Conscience over career.

That was the choice that Daniel Ellsberg made in 1971 when he provided more than 7,000 pages of secret government documents to The New York Times, detailing the history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. 

Those documents, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, showed a constant and consistent pattern of deception by the American officials in charge of the war. They also led to a landmark Supreme Court Case on free speech, The New York Times Co. v. United States, that prohibited the federal government from stopping the Times or any other paper from publishing the information in Pentagon Papers.

“I came to the realization that this is what young men were being forced to do: choose to go to Canada or Sweden, become a conscientious objector, join the National Guard or resist and be ready to go to prison."
- Daniel Ellsberg

The choice a whistleblower must make, of conscience over career, was the topic of Ellsberg’s two-hour discussion Tuesday night in a packed Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium.

Ellsberg talked about the parallels between his decision, the current situation involving the WikiLeaks documents, the effects those documents have had across the world and Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is charged with providing hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange.

In the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was called a traitor by many in the government and faced up to 115 years in prison. He turned himself in and publicly declared he was prepared to face the consequences of his actions. The judge in his case declared a mistrial in 1974 due to government misconduct.

Ellsberg noted that many people have compared his case to WikiLeaks, but stressed the differences.

“The Pentagon Papers had a high level of security but they were primarily historic while these WikiLeaks cables were of a lower level, but much more focused on the present,” Ellsberg said.

Ellsberg also pointed out that he didn’t agree with everything Assange and WikiLeaks had done, especially when the first batch of leaked documents contained the names of U.S. sympathizers in Afghanistan.

 “They should not have done that, as I’ve often said,” Ellsberg said. “That was a mistake. As I understand it, it was inadvertent. The names that went out should not have gone out.”

Ellsberg's discussion was passionate and eloquent when he spoke about the event that prompted him to decide to copy the Pentagon Papers and contact the press. He had become disillusioned with the war after serving as an aide in the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

When Ellsberg returned home, he attended a meeting of the War Resisters League and heard an impassioned speech by an activist who claimed to be excited to being joining his friends in jail for resisting the draft. For him, that was the watershed moment that changed a former U.S. Marine into an anti-war activist.

“I came to the realization that this is what young men were being forced to do: choose to go to Canada or Sweden, become a conscientious objector, join the National Guard or resist and be ready to go to prison,” he said.

 With points about his role in history and the current affairs of WikiLeaks, Ellsberg generated a wide gamut of reactions from those in attendance Tuesday.

 “He didn't say anything that wasn’t expected on my part but he deepened a lot of my understanding about how much mischief some people in government know about,” retired psychiatrist Karl Newton said. “A historian once said, every government lies to its people. And that makes sense. We are always lied to. We, the people, are always deceived.”

Towards the end of the discussion, Ellsberg shared his opinion that the recent documents allegedly leaked by Pvt. Manning were partially responsible for the present democratic uprisings in the Middle East.

For former broadcast journalism Prof. Tina Press, this was the most inspiring part of the night.

“I find it absolutely fascinating and interesting and important, his reference [that] the Tunisian revolution may not have happened if it wasn’t for the reading of the cables,” Press said. “We’re learning lots of things we have every right to know as Americans and as citizens of the world.”

Prof. Roy Gutterman, the director of the Tully Center for Free Speech who moderated the talk, expressed his admiration for what Ellsberg has done.

 “I’m in awe, and I don’t go in to awe too often," Gutterman said. "He’s got great stories to tell. He’s an amazing individual. He took significant risks, not only with his career but his freedom. We can learn a lot from him.”

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