Daniel Ellsberg: The Original WikiLeaks

The leaking of United States government documents is nothing new.  Government “secrets” have been leaked since the birth of the nation.  The information coming from WikiLeaks, however, does not contain any groundbreaking information.  The US government, however, is taking the leaks seriously because they are unsure of what is to come.  What does WikiLeaks have?  That is a question I am sure will be answered in time, but, today, I want to give a lesson in history.  The reason the US government fears WikiLeaks and how the public may react to what comes out is all due to a series of events during the Vietnam War.

It is important to say up front that this post is apolitical.  Both parties have been affected by WikiLeaks and are equally venerable to what comes out.  This is nothing new.  In fact, WikiLeaks is not the first major US document leak.  The first substantial leak that had a ripple effect was that of the “Pentagon Papers.”  The Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg.  The story of the Pentagon Papers is fascinating, and the effects of the leak ended a war and brought down a president.

Daniel Ellsberg

Dan Ellsberg was educated at Harvard where he earned his PhD in Economics.  Ellsberg had a long involvement in the Vietnam War.  He began was a war strategist for the Department of Defense under Robert McNamara in 1964.  He prepared reports which allowed for the buildup of the war.  While working at the Pentagon, he met his future wife, an anti-war protester, and he began to take part in the anti-war movement with her.  After they broke up (for a short time!), Ellsberg joined the Marines and served in Vietnam as a Lieutenant.  After serving his tour in Vietnam, he returned to work at the RAND Corporation which was a Pentagon strategy firm.  He contributed to a Top Secret report on the Vietnam War called “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.”  This report would soon make headlines.

After contributing to the buildup and fighting in Vietnam, Ellsberg realized the war was hopeless for the United States.  After the Tet Offensive in 1968, this became obvious to the public and the anti-war movement gained momentum.  In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson decided to not run for president and Richard Nixon ran on a campaign of “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam.  Nixon won the presidency.  Ellsberg informed Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, that there was not a “win” option for the war and Kissinger seemed to agree with him, but Nixon felt the United States needed to strike with full force and he expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia.

Kissinger and Nixon

Ellsberg was frustrated by Nixon’s expansion of the war and felt like he needed to take action.  He attended an anti-war rally and was inspired by the young men who were being jailed for evading the draft.  At the same time, several members of Congress were also beginning to voice their lack of support for the war and Ellsberg saw his moment.  He decided the Top Secret report should be made available to the Senators and Congressmen voicing their opposition to the war.  With that, he began to take volumes of the report home at night, and with help, copied the report page by page.  This took months as the report was 47 volumes and over 7,000 pages!

In 1970, Ellsberg made the report available to many members of Congress.  Senator J. William Fulbright was holding hearings on the war in Vietnam and Ellsberg gave copies of the report to Fulbright and other members of the committee.  The senators, however, were unwilling to quote the report on the floor of the Senate because they were unsure of their clearance levels.  This frustrated Ellsberg and he decided to take a different approach.  He gave a copy of the report to The New York Times, and despite a possible legality issue, they decided to run the story on June 13, 1971.  Nixon was unaware of the existence of such a report and an order was delivered to the Times to stop the publication of report.  Ellsberg did not give up, however.  He gave the report to The Washington Post which picked up where the Times left off.  They too received an order to cease publication.  Ellsberg gave the report to seventeen other newspapers.

New York Times Front Page, June 13, 1971

Meanwhile, on June 29, Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska agreed to read the Pentagon Papers as part of a filibuster and the report was entered into public record.  The following day, the Supreme Court ruled The New York Times was within its rights to print the papers and the publication of the papers continued.  President Nixon was furious.  Ellsberg was arrested and was facing 115 years in prison for breaking confidentiality agreements.  He was to be tried in a federal court, but a mistrial was declared in May 1973 when it became clear that Nixon’s “plumbers” (the same men who broke into the Watergate Hotel) broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal copies of his files.  It was also made public; the Department of Justice offered the presiding judge in the case a better position if he ruled in the government’s favor.  All this meant, Ellsberg was free.

The fallout from the Pentagon Papers is most significant.  Congress voted to cut off funding for the Vietnam War, Nixon resigned as president, and, most importantly, the public knew the true intentions of the war.  The most damning piece of information to come out of the Pentagon Papers was the true intentions of the war.  A report from the Department of Defense to President Johnson was quoted saying, in essence, that the US was in Vietnam 10% to bring democracy to South Vietnam (very ironic since the US stopped democratic elections in the 1950s), 20% to keep China from ruling the area, and 70% to avoid a humiliating US defeat. The Pentagon Papers showed how five presidents (Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon) plotted a wider war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg (1970s) and Assange (Today)

Today, Daniel Ellsberg supports the efforts of WikiLeaks and continues to protest the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He sees himself in Julian Assange who has said he only wants to bring the truth to the public.  Since the 1970s, Ellsberg has been called a traitor, a hero, and many other things that I can not post here.  What we have learned from Ellsberg is to stand up for what you believe in.  He was prepared to face the consequences, but the bizarre circumstances kept from serving a prison sentence.   He did what he felt was right and has not asked for special recognition for it.

For more information on the Pentagon papers (and my sources) you can read Dan Ellsberg’s book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, watch the critically acclaimed documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” read Ellsberg’s Blog, or follow him on Twitter.


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