Daniel Ellsberg, ‘the most dangerous man in America,' comes to Sonoma
Before Julian Assange, before Edward Snowden, before Chelsea Manning, there was Daniel Ellsberg.
It's a name many of us have heard all our lives, first as a shadowy defense department consultant who spilled the beans on the U.S. government's decades of lying about Vietnam, then as poster boy in a landmark Supreme Court case on freedom of the press, and more recently as a critic of the very nuclear policy he helped craft, over 50 years ago.
But most of all, he's the man who brought down Richard Nixon – albeit not directly. Instead his release of the top-secret “Pentagon Papers” led to a federal indictment on espionage, which in turn led to Nixon's hand-picked crew of dirty tricks operatives known as the Plumbers breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in search of incriminating evidence.
They didn't find much of use, but the Plumbers continued their illicit investigations at the Watergate Hotel a few months later, where they were interrupted in mid-theft and arrested. One thing led to another, and despite his comfortable re-election in 1972, Nixon resigned from office in August, 1974, thereby avoiding pending impeachment.
It was Henry Kissinger's fear of what else Ellsberg may have had in hand that led him to call him “the most dangerous man in America,” a phrase that became the title of a 2009 documentary on Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
All of which gives Ellsberg the catbird seat on some of the most important political events of the 20th century, and with it a rare perspective on the current state of political crisis. He'll be speaking in Sonoma next Monday, June 4, the latest of the Sonoma Speakers Series parade of guest lecturers.
“Ellsberg has a lot to talk about, and we are honored to have him take our stage and share his knowledge, experiences and his very interesting life with our Sonoma audience,” said Kathy Witkowicki of the Sonoma Speakers Series. “The fact that the event is sold out is proof that the general public wants to hear what this man has to say.”
With a new book out, and the recent chronicle of the Pentagon Papers in the Oscar-nominated “The Post,” the 87-year-old former defense department strategist, think-tank consultant, and constant gadfly to the secretive and powerful finds himself once again with a lot to say, and an audience eager to hear it.
In “The Post,” Matthew Rhys (of “The Americans” TV series) portrays a nervous, driven Ellsberg, trying to get the top-secret government studies of the war in Vietnam before anyone who will publish them. In that movie it was Ellsberg's colleague in domestic espionage, Andrew Russo, who clips the top and bottom “top secret” notations off the papers before they are photocopied.
In reality, Ellsberg revealed, it was his 10-year-old daughter Mary who did the scissors-work. And his 13-year old son, Robert, ran the photocopier.
The story is found in “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” which Ellsberg published in 2002. Just last year Ellsberg released “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” and the dangers of nuclear war continue to concern him.
“I tried to publish this book in 1975, as soon as the war was over,” Ellsberg told the Index-Tribune by phone from the Berkeley hills home he shares with his second wife, Patricia. “But it was turned down, they said they couldn't sell more than 1,400 copies. We've done more than that now.”
The nuclear strategy thinking and documents he shares in “The Doomsday Machine” is based largely on his own work in the field starting in 1958 at the RAND Corporation, a think tank and frequent defense department resource. “From 1958 until 1964, I was an employee of the RAND Corporation, largely consulting for the defense department and the White House on nuclear command and control and strategy.” He would have been just 27 when he started down this path.
We asked him about the Pentagon Papers, today's whistle-blowers and why he was called “the most dangerous man in America.”
Has nuclear strategy changed in the last 60 years since you worked with RAND?
Unfortunately, very little. I tried to help Secretary (Robert) McNamara change it, but we failed, essentially, it didn't change it much. And that was true for the people who came after me, too. For generations, people tried to change Air Force targeting and scheduling and whatnot with very little effect.
There's a part in the book when you say that, during your Pentagon Papers trial (1973), you hid copies of sensitive U.S. nuclear planning materials that you intended to leak to the public shortly after the Pentagon Papers was published. What were those materials, and what happened to them?