Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

Daniel Ellsberg is very much On The Record

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Daniel Ellsberg – the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers – was described by Henry Kissinger as The Most Dangerous Man in America. Today he came to talk to the Nieman fellows and in the course of a very intense lunch hour, we covered Wikileaks and whistleblowers, secrets and lies, sex and acid trips. Whew.

A little background. As many of you know, Daniel Ellsberg WAS the quintessential insider. As a young man, he went straight from Harvard to the Marine Corps. He operated as a military analyst at the highest levels of the US government. He was a hawk on Vietnam. He was a man trusted by the Pentagon to access information that went “layers above” Top Secret.

He came to see America’s war in Vietnam as “unjustified homicide”. He leaked thousands of pages of documents – the Pentagon Papers – that revealed the intentional escalation of the war – directly contradicting the statements of successive American Presidents. The battle between those who publish and those who would ban went all the way to the US Supreme Court, and led in 1971 to its most important decision on press freedom – that the press is “meant to serve the governed, not the government.”

Ellsberg faced a potential prison sentence of 115 years until the case against him collapsed. The White House campaign to “get Ellsberg” led ultimately to the scandal of Watergate, the resignation of President Nixon, and nine months after that resignation, the end of the war in Vietnam.

Today Daniel Ellsberg campaigns vigorously on behalf of the Wikileaks whistleblower Private Bradley Manning – and was arrested for his cause last Saturday and on Sunday. He came to the Nieman Foundation partly to ask me about the comment of the State Department spokesman PJ Crowley, who famously finds Manning’s current treatment in detention to be “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid”.

We had a lot to ask – and debate – about how much secrecy is justifiable, about whether Manning should be prosecuted, about the moral standing of Wikileaks.

And Ellsberg had a lot to say – about Nixon, about Vietnam, about Obama. I think it’s safe to say that in terms of press freedom, he’s extremely pessimistic about where we stand today.

Here are just a few of his quotes.

On secrecy. Total transparency in government would be “ridiculous”. But he agrees with Julian Assange, that “almost nothing needs to be secret permanently”.

On why whistleblowers act. One of the motivations, he says, is “the example of others acting on loyalty to principle, and willing to pay a personal price, to save lives”.

On what he learned from the Nixon tapes. “Nixon wanted to get more leaks out there [on his Democratic predecessors]”. “The Pentagon Papers in themselves didn’t do him any harm at all”. Nixon was heard to say “What we really need is an Ellsberg!” But Ellsberg says Nixon feared what MORE he might have to leak – as an example, he said, evidence of nuclear threats that had been made against North Vietnam -and so “he had to shut me up”. Watergate was about the hunt for material to blackmail him. (Yes, this was the bit where the conversation veered off to sex and LSD before coming back to secrets and lies.)

On NSA wiretaps today, as a threat to Congress, to journalists and to the public. The NSA may soon be able to pose a threat “the Stasi could only dream of”. “We have crossed the abyss, we have gone beyond it.” There’s a claim that in itself could provoke pages of argument and days of debate…

Ellsberg is a professional campaigner now – as he puts it, since 1968, his life has been about “effecting information” – freedom of information. He says the results are “not encouraging”. He notes that President Obama has allowed the prosecution of five whistleblowers, “more than all previous presidents put together.”

He leaned forward in his chair as he spoke to our Nieman group at Lippmann House today and he jabbed his finger forward for emphasis. “I came to Harvard and I came here because I want to alert you”, he exclaimed. We don’t yet have an Official Secrets Act like the Brits. But we might be heading that way.

How does he judge the performance of the press, of journalists like us, today?
“The press does much less in penetrating secrecy than it should”.

How does he rate us?
“Better than any other institution in our society… but terribly.”

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

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