Daniel Ellsberg (born April 7, 1931) is an American activist and former United States military analyst who, while employed by the RAND Corporation, precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers.
Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 along with other charges of theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years. Due to governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering, and the defense by Leonard Boudin and Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. dismissed all charges against Ellsberg on May 11, 1973.
Ellsberg was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2006. He is also known for having formulated an important example in decision theory, the Ellsberg paradox and for having voiced support for Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Ellsberg was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 7, 1931, the son of Harry and Adele (Charsky) Ellsberg. His parents were Ashkenazi Jews who had converted to Christian Science, and he was raised as a Christian Scientist. He grew up in Detroit, where he attended Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills. His mother wanted him to be a concert pianist, but he stopped playing in July 1946, after both his mother and sister were killed when his father fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the family car into a culvert wall.
Ellsberg entered Harvard College on a scholarship, graduating summa cum laude with an A.B. in economics in 1952. He studied at the University of Cambridge for a year on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, then returned to Harvard for graduate school. In 1954, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and earned a commission. He served as a platoon leader and company commander in the 2nd Infantry Division, and was discharged in 1957 as a first lieutenant. Ellsberg returned to Harvard as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows for two years, then began working as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he concentrated on nuclear strategy and the command and control of nuclear weapons.
Ellsberg completed a PhD in Economics from Harvard in 1962. His dissertation on decision theory was based on a set of thought experiments that showed that decisions under conditions of uncertainty or ambiguity generally may not be consistent with well defined subjective probabilities. Now known as the Ellsberg paradox, this formed the basis of a large literature that has developed since the 1980s, including approaches such as Choquet expected utility and info-gap decision theory.
Ellsberg worked in the Pentagon from August 1964 under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton. He then went to South Vietnam for two years, working for General Edward Lansdale as a member of the State Department.
On his return from South Vietnam, Ellsberg resumed working at RAND. In 1967, he contributed to a top-secret study of classified documents on the conduct of the Vietnam War that had been commissioned by Defense Secretary McNamara. These documents, completed in 1968, later became known collectively as the Pentagon Papers.
By 1969 Ellsberg began attending anti-war events while still remaining in his position at RAND. He experienced an epiphany attending a War Resisters League conference at Haverford College in August 1969, listening to a speech given by a draft resister named Randy Kehler, who said he was "very excited" that he would soon be able to join his friends in prison.
Ellsberg described his reaction:
And he said this very calmly. I hadn't known that he was about to be sentenced for draft resistance. It hit me as a total surprise and shock, because I heard his words in the midst of actually feeling proud of my country listening to him. And then I heard he was going to prison. It wasn't what he said exactly that changed my worldview. It was the example he was setting with his life. How his words in general showed that he was a stellar American, and that he was going to jail as a very deliberate choice—because he thought it was the right thing to do. There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year. I left the auditorium and found a deserted men's room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I've reacted to something like that.
Decades later, reflecting on Kehler's decision, Ellsberg said:
Randy Kehler never thought his going to prison would end the war. If I hadn't met Randy Kehler it wouldn't have occurred to me to copy [the Pentagon Papers]. His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.
In late 1969—with the assistance of his former RAND Corporation colleague Anthony Russo—Ellsberg secretly made several sets of photocopies of the classified documents to which he had access; these later became known as the Pentagon Papers. They revealed that, early on, the government had knowledge that the war as then resourced could most likely not be won. Further, as an editor of the New York Times was to write much later, these documents "demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance".
Shortly after Ellsberg copied the documents, he resolved to meet some of the people who had influenced both his change of heart on the war and his decision to act. One of them was Randy Kehler. Another was the poet Gary Snyder, whom he had met in Kyoto in 1960, and with whom he had argued about U.S. foreign policy; Ellsberg was finally prepared to concede that Gary Snyder had been right, about both the situation and the need for action against it.
Throughout 1970, Ellsberg covertly attempted to persuade a few sympathetic U.S. Senators—among them J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and George McGovern, a leading opponent of the war—to release the papers on the Senate floor, because a Senator could not be prosecuted for anything he said on the record before the Senate.
Ellsberg allowed some copies of the documents to circulate privately, including among scholars at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Ellsberg also shared the documents with New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan who wrote a story based on what he'd received both directly from Ellsberg and from contacts at IPS.
On Sunday, June 13, 1971, the Times published the first of nine excerpts and commentaries on the 7,000 page collection. For 15 days, the Times was prevented from publishing its articles by court order requested by the Nixon administration. Meanwhile, while eluding an FBI manhunt for thirteen days, Ellsberg leaked the documents to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. On June 30, the Supreme Court ordered publication of the Times to resume freely (New York Times Co. v. United States).
On June 29, 1971, U.S. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska entered 4,100 pages of the Papers into the record of his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds—pages which he had received from Ellsberg via Ben Bagdikian—then an editor at the Washington Post.
The release of these papers was politically embarrassing not only to those involved in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but also to the incumbent Nixon administration. Nixon's Oval Office tape from June 14, 1971, shows H. R. Haldeman describing the situation to Nixon:
Although the Times eventually won the trial before the Supreme Court, prior to that, an appellate court ordered that the Times temporarily halt further publication. This was the first time the federal government was able to restrain the publication of a major newspaper since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to seventeen other newspapers in rapid succession. The right of the press to publish the papers was upheld in New York Times Co. v. United States. The Supreme Court ruling has been called one of the "modern pillars" of First Amendment rights with respect to freedom of the press.
As a response to the leaks, the Nixon white house staffers began a campaign against further leaks and against Ellsberg personally. Aides Egil Krogh and David Young, under the supervision of John Ehrlichman, created the "White House Plumbers", which would later lead to the Watergate burglaries.
In August 1971, Krogh and Young met with G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in a basement office in the Old Executive Office Building. Hunt and Liddy recommended a "covert operation" to get a "mother lode" of information about Ellsberg's mental state in order to discredit him. Krogh and Young sent a memo to Ehrlichman seeking his approval for a "covert operation [to] be undertaken to examine all of the medical files still held by Ellsberg's psychiatrist." Ehrlichman approved under the condition that it be "done under your assurance that it is not traceable."
On September 3, 1971, the burglary of Lewis Fielding's office – titled "Hunt/Liddy Special Project No. 1" in Ehrlichman's notes—was carried out by Hunt, Liddy and CIA officers Eugenio Martínez, Felipe de Diego and Bernard Barker. The "Plumbers" found Ellsberg's file but it did not contain the potentially embarrassing information they sought. Hunt and Liddy subsequently planned to break into Fielding's home, but Ehrlichman did not approve the second burglary. The break-in was not known to Ellsberg or to the public until it came to light during Ellsberg and Russo's trial in April 1973.
On June 28, 1971, two days before a Supreme Court ruling saying that a federal judge had ruled incorrectly about the right of the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg publicly surrendered to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts in Boston. In admitting to giving the documents to the press, Ellsberg said:
He and Russo faced charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 and other charges including theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years for Ellsberg, 35 years for Russo. Their trial commenced in Los Angeles on January 3, 1973, presided over by U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. Ellsberg tried to claim that the documents were illegally classified to keep them not from an enemy but from the American public. However, that argument was ruled "irrelevant". Ellsberg was silenced before he could begin. According to Ellsberg, his "lawyer, exasperated, said he 'had never heard of a case where a defendant was not permitted to tell the jury why he did what he did.' The judge responded: well, you're hearing one now. And so it has been with every subsequent whistleblower under indictment".
In spite of being effectively denied a defense, events began to turn in Ellsberg's favor when the break-in of Fielding's office was revealed to Judge Byrne in a memo on April 26; Byrne ordered it to be shared with the defense.
On May 9, further evidence of illegal wiretapping against Ellsberg was revealed in court. The FBI had recorded numerous conversations between Morton Halperin and Ellsberg without a court order, and furthermore the prosecution had failed to share this evidence with the defense. During the trial, Byrne also revealed that he personally met twice with John Ehrlichman, who offered him directorship of the FBI. Byrne said he refused to consider the offer while the Ellsberg case was pending, though he was criticized for even agreeing to meet with Ehrlichman during the case.
Due to the gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering, and the defense by Leonard Boudin and Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo on May 11, 1973 after the government claimed it had lost records of wiretapping against Ellsberg. Byrne ruled: "The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case."
As a result of the revelation of the Fielding break-in during the trial, John Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman, Richard Kleindienst, and John Dean were forced out of office on April 30, and all would later be convicted of crimes related to the Watergate scandal. Egil Krogh later pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and White House counsel Charles Colson pleaded no contest for obstruction of justice in the burglary.
It was also revealed in 1973, during Ellsberg's trial, that the telephone calls of Morton Halperin, a member of the National Security Council staff suspected of leaking information about the secret bombing of Cambodia to the NY Times, were being recorded by the F.B.I. at the request of Henry Kissinger to J. Edgar Hoover. Halperin and his family sued several federal officials, claiming the wiretap violated their Fourth Amendment rights and Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The court agreed that officials Richard Nixon, John N. Mitchell, and H. R. Haldeman had violated the Halperins' Fourth Amendment rights and awarded the Halperins $1 in nominal damages.
Ellsberg later claimed that after his trial ended, Watergate prosecutor William H. Merrill informed him of an aborted plot by Liddy and the "plumbers" to have 12 Cuban Americans who had previously worked for the CIA "totally incapacitate" Ellsberg when he appeared at a public rally. It is unclear whether they were meant to assassinate Ellsberg or merely to hospitalize him. In his autobiography, Liddy describes an "Ellsberg neutralization proposal" originating from Howard Hunt, which involved drugging Ellsberg with LSD, by dissolving it in his soup, at a fund-raising dinner in Washington in order to "have Ellsberg incoherent by the time he was to speak" and thus "make him appear a near burnt-out drug case" and "discredit him." The plot involved waiters from the Miami Cuban community. According to Liddy, when the plan was finally approved, "there was no longer enough lead time to get the Cuban waiters up from their Miami hotels and into place in the Washington Hotel where the dinner was to take place" and the plan was "put into abeyance pending another opportunity."
Reflecting on his time in government, Ellsberg has said the following, based on his extensive access to classified material:
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg has continued his political activism, giving lecture tours and speaking out about current events. During the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq he warned of a possible "Tonkin Gulf scenario" that could be used to justify going to war, and called on government "insiders" to go public with information to counter the Bush administration's pro-war propaganda campaign, praising Scott Ritter for his efforts in that regard. He later supported the whistleblowing efforts of British GCHQ translator Katharine Gun and called on others to leak any papers that reveal government deception about the invasion. Ellsberg also testified at the 2004 conscientious objector hearing of Camilo Mejia at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
He is a member of Campaign for Peace and Democracy.
In September 2006, Ellsberg wrote in Harper's Magazine that he hoped someone would leak information about a potential U.S. invasion of Iran before the invasion happened, to stop the war. Ellsberg call for further leaks follow the release of information on the acceleration of U.S.-sponsored anti-government activity in Iran that was leaked to journalist Seymour Hersh. In November 2007, Ellsberg was interviewed by Brad Friedman on his Bradblog in regard to former FBI translator turned whistleblower Sibel Edmonds. "I'd say what she has is far more explosive than the Pentagon Papers", Ellsberg told Friedman.
In a speech on March 30, 2008 in San Francisco's Unitarian Universalist church, Ellsberg observed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't really have the authority to declare impeachment "off the table". The oath of office taken by members of congress requires them to "defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic". He also argued that under the U.S. Constitution, treaties, including the United Nations Charter, become the supreme law of the land that neither the states, the president, nor the congress have the power to break. For example, if the Congress votes to authorize an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation, that authorization wouldn't make the attack legal. A president citing the authorization as just cause could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
On June 17, 2010, Ellsberg was interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on the Democracy Now! program regarding the parallels between his actions in releasing the Pentagon Papers and those of Private First Class Chelsea Manning, who was arrested by the U.S. military in Kuwait after allegedly providing to the WikiLeaks web site a classified video showing U.S. military helicopter gunships strafing and killing Iraqis alleged to be civilians, including two Reuters journalists. Manning reportedly claims to have provided WikiLeaks with secret videos of additional massacres of alleged civilians in Afghanistan, as well as 260,000 classified State Department cables. Ellsberg has said that he fears for Manning and for Julian Assange, as he feared for himself after the initial publication of the Pentagon Papers. WikiLeaks initially said it had not received the cables, but did plan to post the video of an attack that killed 86 to 145 Afghan civilians in the village of Garani. Ellsberg expressed hope that either Assange or President Obama would post the video, and expressed his strong support for Assange and Manning, whom he called "two new heroes of mine".
On March 21, 2011, Ellsberg along with 35 other demonstrators were arrested during a demonstration outside the Marine Corps Base Quantico, in protest of Manning's current detention at Marine Corps Brig, Quantico.
In 2012, Ellsberg became one of the co-founders of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
On June 10, 2013, Ellsberg published an editorial in The Guardian newspaper praising the actions of former Booz Allen worker Edward Snowden in revealing top-secret surveillance programs of the NSA. Ellsberg believes that the United States has fallen into an "abyss" of total tyranny, but said that because of Snowden's revelations, "I see the unexpected possibility of a way up and out of the abyss."
Democracy Now! devoted a substantial portion of its program July 4, 2013, to "How the Pentagon Papers Came to be Published By the Beacon Press Told by Daniel Ellsberg & Others." Ellsberg said there are hundreds of public officials right now who know that the public is being lied to about Iran. They all took an oath to protect the constitution of the United States, not the commander-in-chief, not superior officers. If they follow orders, they may become complicit in starting an unnecessary war. If they are faithful to their oath, they could prevent that war. Exposing official lies could however carry a heavy personal cost as they could be imprisoned for unlawful disclosure of classified information.
Ellsberg is a founding member of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. In September 2015 Ellsberg and 27 other members of VIPS steering group wrote a letter to the President challenging a recently published book, that claimed to rebut the report of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee on the Central Intelligence Agency's use of torture.
Ellsberg is the recipient of the Inaugural Ron Ridenhour Courage Prize, a prize established by The Nation Institute and The Fertel Foundation. In 1978 he accepted the Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace. On September 28, 2006 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.
Ellsberg has been married twice. His first marriage was to Carol Cummings, daughter of a Marine Corps brigadier general. It lasted 13 years before ending in divorce (at her request, as he stated in his memoirs Secrets). They have two children, Robert Ellsberg and Mary Ellsberg. In 1970, he married Patricia Marx, daughter of toy maker Louis Marx. They are the parents of a son, Michael Ellsberg, who is an author and journalist.
Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress
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