The Real Person Behind 'The Post': An Interview With the Leaker Nixon Hunted

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Daniel Ellsberg speaking at a news conference in Los Angeles, January 17, 1973.
Daniel Ellsberg speaking at a news conference in Los Angeles, January 17, 1973. Credit: The Associated Press
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Forty-six years after he leaked the most famous hushed-up documents in U.S. history, the Pentagon Papers, 86-year-old Daniel Ellsberg has only one regret: that he didnt do it several years earlier, before the boots of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers sank deep into the Vietnamese mire.

Daniel Ellsberg, the former military intelligence contractor who leaked the Pentagon Papers, speaking in London, October 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters

I very much wish that I put out the documents in 1964 and 1965, when I had the plans for escalation in my authorized safe in my office at the Pentagon. I think they might have caused Congress to avert the war totally. That was a heavy responsibility I had and I didnt act, he told Haaretz.

In fact, hundreds of people could have done the same and none of them did, but I dont excuse myself for that reason. So I wish I had put them out much earlier, he says, adding that he kept some of the documents he didnt release for publication at a later date, and he regrets that this never happened.

Ellsberg spoke with Haaretz about a week ago, a few days before the Israeli release of Steven Spielbergs The Post, which was nominated for six Golden Globes. The film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks recounts the struggles of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in the days of the Pentagon Papers, and of Ben Bradlee, the newspapers executive editor from 1968 to 1991. Back in 1971, the two faced a U.S. administration keen to keep the Pentagon Papers under wraps.

Steven Spielberg, left, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, attend the premier of The Post, in Paris.Credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP

That work, about 7,000 pages classified as top secret, was written by dozens of military officers and American historians under the instructions of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The goal was to investigate the United States involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967.

The documents, which were supposed to remain confidential, revealed decades of American meddling in Vietnam without Congress authorization, and the deception of the American people, including Washingtons involvement in Vietnams 1963 coup. The papers also revealed the secret plan that featured cross-border raids by U.S. troops with the aim of wiping out the Vietcong fighters.

Like Donald Trump, Richard Nixon saw much of the American media as his political enemy. Nixon, for whom transparency and freedom of information were never top priorities, employed all the legal, political and intelligence tools at his disposal. He threatened Graham and Bradlee that publication of the Pentagon Papers could lead to treason charges for harming national security. The Washington Posts existence could be at stake.

Someone a bit forgotten in the coverage of the film is the man who leaked the documents, Ellsberg. He has a doctorate in economics from Harvard and worked as a researcher and senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, one of the most influential research institutes in the United States. It had close ties to the Defense Department.

Ellsberg, a former marine whose work at the institute also touched on U.S. nuclear policy, was sent to South Vietnam by McNamara in 1964 as a special adviser. Two years later he returned home to his job as a senior researcher at Rand, where he became part of the team working on what would become known as the Pentagon Papers.

SP4 Nelson A. Parker uses field phone to call for air power as Vietnamese patrol is surrounded by Communist Viet Cong in jungle 20 miles north of Saigon in Vietnam on Feb. 15, 1965.Credit: AP

As he learned more and more about America's involvement in Vietnam, Ellsberg became an activist in anti-war organizations, took part in protest activities, and beginning in 1970, tried to reveal the sensitive documents. They were published in June 1971 in The New York Times and other media, despite the administrations attempts to block the revelations, attempts that were rejected by the Supreme Court.

Nixon tried to foil Ellsberg and set up a special team to block leaks known as the Plumbers. A few months later, the team was involved in the fateful break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex. The Plumbers gathered material on Ellsberg, wiretapped him illegally and even broke into the office of Ellsbergs psychiatrist. It was the Plumbers illegal activity that saved Ellsberg from a trial and perhaps a long prison term on treason charges.

Snowden and Manning

The impact was great on the public opinion of the war. Public opinion was already against the war but the publication increased it greatly. However, Nixon was paying no attention to public opinion. He was determined to try to win it his way by the threat of a nuclear attack, the kind we see right now from Donald Trump against North Korea. He was totally wrong about it but he wasnt listening to public opinion at all, Ellsberg says.

The president understood correctly that I had more documents I hadnt yet released, some of them related to his administration and the war, and he was anxious not to let the public know his true aim and his real strategy for winning the war by means of a nuclear threat, so to keep me quiet he took actions that were illegal.

Eventually a dozen CIA agents were sent in with an order to silence Ellsberg.

When I asked the prosecutor what it meant, if they meant to kill me, he said the order was to incapacitate me totally, he says. They didnt do it because they were afraid of being caught. The prosecutor also told Ellsberg that they never used the word murder.

Daniel Ellsberg speaking near Dumfries, Virginia, March 20, 2011.Credit: The Associated Press

Ellsberg draws parallels between Nixon and Trump, both of them presidents he considers a danger to humankind. He takes credit for Nixons decision to resign and mentions the team sent to incapacitate him.

It was the same people who a few weeks later broke into the Watergate Hotel," he says, noting the event that would eventually bring Nixon down. It was mainly the actions against me that brought the process of impeachment against him and led to his resignation. Once he was out of office the war was endable, and it did end nine months later.

So does Ellsberg feel that his public image has changed since then, when the authorities tried to depict him as a traitor and dangerous pacifist who endangered state security? He says the biggest difference between then and now is that now people understand the lie behind Nixons attempt to portray him as someone who caused irreversible damage to his country. He says its similar to the way Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are being described nowadays.

In all three cases, Ellsberg says, there was no damage to the United States. If anything, he says, he, Snowden and Manning have only contributed to their country.

In his view, Snowden and Manning are heroes, but above all, he sees them as his ideological successors and thus talks about them as a proud teacher would talk about his students. Ellsberg keeps in touch with them and is still active in peace organizations preaching his pacifist views. Last month he published his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

Unlike you, Snowden leaked the documents in hiding and then received refuge in Russia. Would you want to see him stand trial in the United States in a way that might bring the issue of surveillance to the surface again?

We are both on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. I see him on Skype every month, and I visited him in Moscow a few years ago. I admire him very much and I see in his actions the best part of my actions, so hes a hero of mine and also a friend. Its a great feeling to have. I know that he has the hope that one day a president will offer a plea bargain, even if that would involve a year or two in prison.

Under those terms he said he would come back, but I think the intelligence agencies are so furious at him for revealing their criminal surveillance against all Americans, and actually everyone in the world, that they would never forgive him, and I think he will have to stay in exile for the rest of his life. I think he understands this and it was a consequence that he was willing to take.

You have also been in touch with Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistleblower who served 18 years in prison for espionage.

I havent spoke to him since I was in Israel. I went to Israel twice to support him in the hearing to allow him to leave the country. I was there to speak for him at the hearing but they refused to call me. We occasionally exchange emails, but I go on the assumption that every word with him is monitored by Israeli intelligence .... Vanunu is a hero of mine. Hes the one who by far has suffered more than anyone else, including [over] 10 years in solitary, but I know that he never regretted what he did, even though it had little effect on whats going on in the world.

In your opinion, are there situations where a leak is illegitimate, or is every anti-war action justified?

There is information that is legitimately safeguarded by the government for some limited period of time to keep it from the enemy, especially in wartime or to prevent a terror attack. What most people dont understand is that Chelsea Manning, Snowden and I myself kept back most of what we had access to. Snowden had access to every location of every agent we have in China, and he didnt reveal that at all.

Chelsea Manning had access to much information higher than top secret and intelligence communications she didnt put out on the grounds that it wasnt in the public interest and could endanger national security. I chose not to put out a number of volumes that dealt with the negotiations because it might eventually have had some benefits, and I didnt want to close any avenues that might have led to ending the war.

Even in danger under JFK

To Ellsberg, the identity of the president in the White House in 1971 made no difference. He thinks that if Trump, Nixon or any other president since then faced a situation in which someone might reveal secret information the administration was hiding from the public, it would have taken any measure, legal or not, to silence that person. I believe that if the Obama administration could have killed Snowden before he revealed his information they would have done it immediately, he says.

As someone who has dealt with U.S. nuclear policy, Ellsberg agrees that Trump is more dangerous than any U.S. president in the past.

The question rather is whether he's crazy or not. I was interested in reading the part in the new book Fire and Fury where [Michael] Wolff is quoting – I think it was [Steve] Bannon – who says Hes not only crazy, hes stupid. That could well be, but all that may not be incompatible with intelligence, Ellsberg says.

We were in great danger when JFK was president, with an entirely different personality – except in the area of sexual misconduct – but otherwise an entire different personality than Donald Trump. Neither he nor Khrushchev had any desire to go to war over the Cuban missile crisis, and yet despite that determination not to go to war, in their maneuvering, their deployments, they came very close to a nuclear war, and you and I would not be talking now.

Ellsberg reminds us, however, that we havent yet seen Trump commit war crimes, noting that the only major violence" that Trump has committed was the April rocket attack on Syria.

How close are we to a war between the United States and North Korea?

I would say that Trump is not crazier than other presidents in the history of the U.S. The danger is that he's not less crazy, Ellsberg says, noting that the same applies to Kim Jong Un. The danger now with North Korea seems great – there has been no greater danger since the Cuban missile crisis 55 years ago. If Trump goes ahead with his threat, the world will see millions of dead in a matter of weeks in a nuclear war.

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