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Daniel Ellsberg, ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ comes to Sonoma

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Daniel Ellsberg

June 4: The Sonoma Speakers Series hosts Daniel Ellsberg at Hanna Boys Center Auditorium on Monday, June 4, at 7 p.m. He will be interviewed on stage by Laura Zimmerman. Sorry, this event is sold out.

June 10: Daniel Ellsberg, in conversation with Peter Coyote, will discuss his new book ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.’ The event is a benefit for Petaluma’s Literacyworks non-profit.

It will be held Sunday, June 10, starting at 4 p.m. at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd.

Tickets are $35 and include a copy of “The Doomsday Machine.” Tickets available at Petaluma Copperfields, 140 Kentucky St.

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.”

Daniel Ellsberg

June 4: The Sonoma Speakers Series hosts Daniel Ellsberg at Hanna Boys Center Auditorium on Monday, June 4, at 7 p.m. He will be interviewed on stage by Laura Zimmerman. Sorry, this event is sold out.

June 10: Daniel Ellsberg, in conversation with Peter Coyote, will discuss his new book ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.’ The event is a benefit for Petaluma’s Literacyworks non-profit.

It will be held Sunday, June 10, starting at 4 p.m. at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd.

Tickets are $35 and include a copy of “The Doomsday Machine.” Tickets available at Petaluma Copperfields, 140 Kentucky St.

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?

It was notes of my own work, even one important one from the Nixon Administration on nuclear analysis. But largely on command and control, the nature of the war plans, notes and estimates – things that I had acquired in my years of work on the subject. (My brother) put them in a cardboard box inside a green garbage bag that was buried in a landfill. They were lost.

Well if you hide something in a green garbage bag in a dump, I think it would be hard to find.

It wasn’t that, it was that Tropical Storm Doria scattered the landmarks all around, and the dump itself. So a year and a half worth of searching was just unable to turn it up.

There was a documentary about you and the Pentagon Papers called “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Who said that about you?

That was Henry Kissinger, and he was referring not to the Pentagon Papers, but to his fear – which was quite reasonable really but was in fact not the case – that I had documents on Nixon’s nuclear threats against North Vietnam. And he felt that I “had to be stopped at any cost,” that’s the rest of the quote, to keep me from putting out these other documents.

Did you say it was reasonable to assume you had them?

Yes, I knew the people who had access to them, and had helped generate them. Those people had resigned over Cambodia some months earlier. I wish they had given those documents to me, and they could have, but they didn’t.

I’ve always been under the impression that your release of the Pentagon Papers, and those recently published about the nuclear threat, was due to your allegiance to a higher loyalty, and not realpolitik. Would that be a fair way to put it?

It was allegiance to my oath, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. You can call it a higher loyalty, but that is the oath that we take, everybody in the armed services and the government, and not to any lesser loyalty, that’s the only oath we take.

Seems like we still can use more of that loyalty.

Yes, absolutely. I’d been violating it for a long time, as had the presidents I served and everybody I worked with. We’d all been violating that oath by keeping silent when we knew the president was lying us into war, and continuing the war.

Was there a moment when you said you have to do this, get the truth out about it all?

The revelation was that this was a reasonable and right thing to do. And I got that directly from the example of young Americans who were going to prison as an act of non-violent protest against the war, ready to pay with their own freedom to make that message, that the war was wrong. That put it my head that it was something I could do, and should do. Without their example, I wouldn’t have thought of doing what I did do.

You’ve expressed admiration for Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning. Would any leaker earn your respect, or is it someone whose release of information advances the cause of peace?

I don’t know of any leaker who has leaked information that they knew to be untrue, in other words they just lied. That’s for presidents to do. However, leakers do put out information without authorization for a great variety of reasons, not always admirable or even credible.

But when you say “whistle-blower,” that’s a special form of leaker, a relatively rare kind, where somebody’s putting out information … about wrong-doing, or reckless or dangerous or criminal behavior, by their own team or their own party or their agency, information that risks their own membership in that organization, or their own career. And possibly risks prison.

That motive is something I respect, I do respect, even when I might not agree with the views of the particular person. But I could respect their willingness to risk their career to get this information to the public.

I’m not saying there should be no secrets – I don’t believe that. Therefore I’m not saying that every revelation of a secret is admirable, good and effective. No, I definitely think there have been bad leaks. But if you were to look at that smaller set of whistle-blowers, people who have leaked to prevent wrong doing, there haven’t been too many bad ones, but in principle there could be.

Are you working on anything else now?

As a matter of fact, I just minutes ago answered an email from my editor. I’m doing an “afterword” for my book when it comes out in paperback in December this year; the afterword has to be in by mid-July. My editor said, “I’m curious to know what you’ll be saying in the afterward, given this rollercoaster we’re on.”

And I wrote her back saying I’m curious to know what stage of the rollercoaster we’ll be on – whether the Korea summit will be on in June, and whether or not it’s on, will there or will there not be imminent prospects of nuclear war.

I think I’ll know better on that by late June. And then it’s vacation time.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.