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Honoring the Passing of Legendary Pentagon Papers Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg

Posted  June 20, 2023

“How can you measure the jeopardy that I’m in – whether it’s 10 years, 20 years, 115 years, or other ludicrous amounts like that – to the penalty that has been paid already by 50,000 American families here and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese families.” -Daniel Ellsberg, NPR archived recording.

Daniel Ellsberg, freedom of the press advocate, anti-nuclear activist, and a 2021 Whistleblower of the Year candidate, passed away on Friday, June 16 at 92-years-old. Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The study, which was commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had been deceiving the public and escalating the unwinnable conflict in Vietnam in a refusal to accept defeat and humiliation. Throughout 7,000 pages and 47 volumes, the study exposes Truman’s military aid to France in its war against Vietnam to Johnson’s intensification of covert warfare.

By 1967, Ellsberg, already a Harvard doctorate, Marine Corps veteran, and employee of the RAND Corporation, worked at the Pentagon as an analyst for the McNamara-commissioned study. While working as a Pentagon consultant, he began attending anti-war events, most impactfully a War Resisters League conference at Haverford College. Here, he listened to a talk from a draft resister, Randy Kehler, who shared his choice to go to jail because he would not fight in the war. Ellsberg said if he had never met Kehler, “it wouldn’t have occurred to [him] to copy the Pentagon Papers.” With this new motivation, Ellsberg spent the next eight months secretly photocopying the 7,000 pages of classified documents with co-whistleblower Anthony Russo and appealing to senators to hold hearings and publish the papers.

After getting turned down by various congressmen, Ellsberg took the classified documents to the New York Times. On June 13, 1971, with the help of legendary reporter Neil Sheehan, Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers on the front page. In response, the Nixon Administration obtained a court order to prevent the printing of the article, however, Ellsberg had already given copies to seventeen other newspapers. The government viewed the publication as an issue of national security, but the Supreme Court upheld the publication on a 6-3 ruling, a decision many deemed as upholding freedom of the press.

Nixon, worried that the leak would undermine respect for the government, launched a campaign to arrest Ellsberg and damage his credibility. Ellsberg was given 115 years in jail under the Espionage Act of 1917, however, his charges were dismissed due to governmental misconduct after a government-assembled covert group called the Plumbers broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal his paperwork. This same group would ultimately contribute to Nixon’s resignation.

In the decades after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg continued to be a spokesman for whistleblowing and resistance to government power, creating the Freedom of the Press Foundation, opposing the war in Iraq, defending Wikileaks, and testifying for its founder, Julian Assange. He has also publicly praised well-known whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. In 2021, Ellsberg released a classified document detailing the U.S. push for a nuclear strike on China in 1958. The leak partially served as a dare to the government to indict him again so that he could oppose the Espionage Act in the Supreme Court to stop its abuse against whistleblowers. In the last years of his life, he still asserted that “to criminalize classified truth-telling in the public interest” should be unconstitutional.

Our heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends of Daniel Ellsberg.  And we salute his life well lived in service to the cause of truth over power and making the world a better place for all of us, putting himself in harm’s way to get the job done.

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