Daniel Ellsberg Expected Life In Prison After Leaking Pentagon Papers

Jun 13, 2011
Originally published on June 13, 2011 6:40 pm

Forty years after he saw them start appearing in newspapers, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers sounds somewhat surprised that he isn't sitting in a prison cell.

"I expected to go to prison for life," Daniel Ellsberg told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel earlier today, as they discussed this afternoon's declassification of the papers that laid bare government deception in building the case for going to war in Vietnam.

But a mistrial was declared in the case against him because of evidence that the Nixon White House had agents break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in a search for ways to discredit him.

And though he does not think there's much left in the papers that isn't already known, the always outspoken Ellsberg tells Robert that there's still value in today's declassification. He's a critic of the Obama administration's prosecution of leakers, and says "it really is a good time to be reminding people of the lessons of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers," he says. "Unfortunately, it's extremely timely."

Much more from their conversations will be on All Things Considered later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

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Joining us now from Berkeley, California, is Daniel Ellsberg. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DANIEL ELLSBERG (Former Military Analyst): Thank you. Very good to be here.

SIEGEL: I've read that you regard today's formal declassification of the Pentagon Papers as a non-event. No significance at all?

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, it really is a good time to be reminding people of the lessons of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. So from that point of view, I could say, unfortunately, it's extremely timely.

SIEGEL: The papers that you leaked back in 1971 were voluminous but incomplete. And I just wondered, to what extent were the omissions that are being rectified today, I guess, the result of a bad copying machine here or an illegible document there, some technical problem? And to what extent did you decide at the time - this, I want to give to the papers; this, I don't want to give to the papers?

Mr. ELLSBERG: The only decision I made to omit from the papers was the three - or the four, rather, final negotiation volumes. The negotiations were ongoing, and I didn't want to be accused of being obstructive of those negotiations. I wanted to help shorten the war, not get in the way of negotiations.

SIEGEL: What, if anything, can you tell us about the notorious 11 words that - I gather - at first were going to be redacted from this release, and then were included instead? Do you know which 11 words that's about?

Mr. ELLSBERG: No, I couldn't possibly know. Actually, it's taking a long time on my computer to download any of the report that became available at 9 o'clock, my time. I must say that having been, as you said at the beginning, a little blase about this release earlier, in the sense that I didn't really expect there to be much coming out - and yet, when I found it on the computer screen at last, and I was about to download, I found my heart was beating.

However, there is no way for us to guess what the 11 words were. They were, apparently, all on one page, but there's an awful lot of pages there.

SIEGEL: I wanted to ask you a bit about the comparisons that were inspired with the Pentagon Papers when the Wikileaks documents were released recently. I read some commentary to the effect that while there were no huge disclosures in the WikiLeaks cables about Afghanistan, say, I remember - I think it was a British journalist saying, well, there really weren't any huge disclosures in the Pentagon Papers. Would you agree with that judgment?

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, I don't agree with either of them, really. The Pentagon Papers were top secret. The WikiLeaks material is of a different level. It's more current. So in that sense, they're more incriminating, in some ways, but they are at a much lower level. They're basically field-level reporting.

SIEGEL: Thinking back to the release of the Pentagon Papers, and in more recent times, of the WikiLeaks documents - Julian Assange will cite you as precedent - do you think there is a place for a great deal of classified information about military engagements?

Mr. ELLSBERG: Of course - a lot of information that is properly classified for a time. You know, the dates and time of the Normandy landing was, obviously, a super secret. How secret did they need to be, let's say, on June 15th of 1944?

SIEGEL: So for the duration of operations, and while lives are at risk immediately, you can see the cause for classification. After that, it's just a matter...

Mr. ELLSBERG: Look, I worked in that system. Of course, I can. I stamped plenty of stuff secret or top secret. And I have no apologies for that, at the time.

SIEGEL: Do you find a common approach there with, say, the WikiLeaks folks - who are not in that business? I mean, is there also an appreciation that some classification is just what - or do you think they are more anarchic than you were?

Mr. ELLSBERG: You know, I don't know. I did have a chance to meet Assange, and I wanted to press him on that point. I said, do you believe there should be no secrets? He said: That's ridiculous - that was his answer. He said: That's absurd, of course.

SIEGEL: One could make the argument that if you're disclosing what people said and did in negotiations, people might be less prone to be creative and candid in those negotiations if they're not given the 10 years or the 25 years. I suppose that's an argument one can make.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Let's go with the other end, if I may, for a moment. The Pentagon Papers give you a pretty good measure now of how much of that deserved secrecy, and needed secrecy, during the period. Obviously, when I released it, I believed that not a line of what I was releasing jeopardized national security.

The fact is that many lives were lost because there had not been enough leaking. The president's assurance that he can pursue strategies and get advice and make decisions that will remain secret, no matter how crazy they might look -or illegal - of course, encourages him to undertake actions like that. And we've seen a lot of it.

Vietnam is a fiasco for 30 years, essentially, that would not have stood the light of public discussion if - I think - the very documents in the Pentagon Papers had been available during that time.

Fifty thousand Americans died; several million Vietnamese - I don't want to say too flippantly; that deserves saying very soberly - died, I think, because the Congress and the American public had been kept in the dark.

SIEGEL: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Thank you. Been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: And I should say in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers being leaked, the PBS show "P.O.V." is showing the documentary "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," free online today and tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.