Daniel Ellsberg reflects at Mount Holyoke on lessons of the Pentagon Papers

This article originally appeared in the March 29, 2012 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Staff Reporter

SOUTH HADLEY—On Tuesday, Daniel Ellsberg flew across the country from his home in California on a flight delayed by hours, arriving at Mount Holyoke College close to dawn. That gave him a few hours to sleep before starting a series of appearances on area campuses, followed by an evening panel discussion titled, "Whistleblowing: From the Pentagon Papers to Wikileaks."

At 80, Ellsberg - the man who created a firestorm of controversy in 1971 by leaking secret documents about the Vietnam War to the New York Times - is still speaking out about the dangers of government secrets and the price to be paid for exposing them.

"I thought I'd go to prison for life," said Ellsberg as he talked over a cup of tea during an interview Wednesday at Mount Holyoke.

June marks 40 years since Ellsberg, a high-level military analyst who had worked for the U.S. Defense Department, the State Department and in the White House, claimed responsibility for giving documents about the history of the war in Vietnam to the Times. The first installment ran on Page One above the fold on June 13, 1971.

Ellsberg, a Harvard graduate and former U.S. Marine, had leaked the papers after becoming convinced that the war, conceived in falsehoods and colossal errors of judgment, was being waged by leaders who knew it was hopeless, but dared not admit it and change course.

The Pentagon Papers, as the documents became known, displayed a chasm between public claims of optimism and private truths that were kept hidden. Over and over, the papers showed, the government had essentially lied about the rationale for the American mission in Southeast Asia and its chances for success.

Ellsberg was brought to trial in 1973, but the charges against him were dismissed when it came to light that President Richard Nixon's infamous "Plumbers Unit" had broken into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist hoping to steal his medical file in order to discredit him. Since then, he has been a writer, speaker and activist.

He is regarded, in the phrase of Thomas Drake, a younger-generation whistleblower who also spoke on the Mount Holyoke panel Wednesday, as "the partriarch" of those who have risked careers and reputations to confront wrongdoing.

While in the area, Ellsberg said he planned to visit with Randy Kehler, an old friend and tax resister whose refusal to pay taxes led to a much-publicized, 1991 confrontation with federal authorities that forced Kehler and his wife, Betsy Corner, from their Colrain home.

Ellsberg said he first heard Kehler speak at an anti-war, draft resisters event in 1969 when Kehler talked about being willing to go prison rather than go to war.

"He made a very strong impression on me," Ellsberg said. So strong, he said, that he got up and left. "I went by myself to a men's room at the back of the auditorium, just by myself, and sat there on the floor and cried."

It was that moment, Ellsberg said, that he realized he would have to act on his own already strong feelings about the waste and folly of Vietnam.

Without Kehler's example, he said, "I wouldn't have copied the Pentagon Papers."

Keeping secrets

While he talked about his own past, Ellsberg also discussed much more recent cases. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier formerly stationed in Iraq who was charged with providing restricted national defense material to WikiLeaks, is the one now facing the prospect of spending his life in prison, Ellsberg said.

"The ability to get information out of government, if people were willing to do it, has greatly improved" since his day, Ellsberg said. "Manning has been accused of putting out millions of documents. I put out 7,000 pages and I couldn't have done that without the latest technology, which was Xerox."

Ellsberg said that he has always believed that governments have legitimate reasons to keep some secrets for some period of time. But exposing those that don't need to be kept, he said, is essential to a functioning democracy. And in that context, he said, "we still have much, much, much too little of it."

There is still a great deal, he said, that American citizens should know - and don't - about certain events, such as the decision to invade Iraq. And internal debates are no doubt going on at this moment about whether or not the U.S. or Israel should attack Iran, he said.

Having seen U.S. leaders come and go, Ellsberg said that President Barack Obama is "the most secretive of administrations," despite having campaigned on pledges of transparency. The administration, he said, has retained and expanded many post-9/11 practices initiated during the Bush administration - among them, warrantless wiretapping, the use of drones, indefinite detention and the continued use of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And the Justice Department under Obama, he said, has been aggressive in seeking prosecutions against suspected leakers.

Ellsberg, who supported Obama in 2008, said he's been disappointed, though not shocked, by Obama's tenure. Nor has the relative lack of a public outcry surprised him.

"Since 9/11, any president is going to be subject to much less challenge on those issues," he said. "I never expected Obama to ease up from the powers that Bush had bequeathed him - but I think he has extended the abuses and made them bipartisan. So the media just doesn't report on it."

Asked if that meant he'd oppose Obama's re-election, Ellsberg shook his head and smiled. "The Republicans have been giving us a demonstration of why he has to be supported again," he said.

He won't, however, stop speaking out. "We have freedoms today that we will not have after one more 9/11 or one more war. So this is the time to use our freedoms."