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Daniel Ellsberg, the Original Big Leaker

Why a decades-old act of defiance still hasn't been surpassed


For decades, Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, has used his celebrated past to condemn the present. He has given hundreds of talks about the alleged crimes and deceits of every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama; demanded the impeachment of George W. Bush; called on government employees to leak plans for bombing Iran; and been arrested on several occasions for protesting U.S. foreign policy.

None of this drew much notice from anyone outside of the anti-imperialist left. But now, in the wake of WikiLeaks and the NSA revelations, Ellsberg, the pioneer of Big Leaking, has become everyone’s commentator of choice. He does not disappoint. “In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material—and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago,” Ellsberg wrote in the Guardian. Ellsberg also regards Julian Assange and Bradley Manning as heroes and has raised money for WikiLeaks.  

One can view such generosity as the latest act of anti-authoritarian solidarity by a 1960s radical or, less kindly, as an old man’s attempt to preserve and extend his legacy as the first American to pass explosive government secrets to the media. In any case, Ellsberg has been eager to bestow his blessing on Snowden and Manning and to echo their civil libertarian alarms. In the Guardian, Ellsberg wrote that Snowden “gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the U.S. constitution.”

Whatever his motivations, Ellsberg’s admiration for the two contemporary leakers neglects what distinguishes him from them, and, ultimately, may make his defiant act more significant. Most Americans probably don’t realize that, until the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg was a respected, if self-doubting, member of the club. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and, after a stint as a Marine officer, returned for a PhD in economics. Then he moved on to the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, becoming a favorite advisor first to Robert McNamara and then to Henry Kissinger. “I have learned more from Dan Ellsberg," Kissinger told an audience at Rand, "than from any other person in Vietnam.” Ironically, Ellsberg’s first visit to the country in 1961 had convinced him that the U.S. could never defeat the rebellion led by Ho Chi Minh. But he largely kept such thoughts to himself.

In 1968, following Richard Nixon’s election as president, Kissinger had Ellsberg draft a range of options in Vietnam for the new administration to consider. After meeting with the future Secretary of State for two days at a posh Manhattan hotel, Ellsberg left with the “expectation that they would act on this and get us out.” Only after Nixon made clear that he intended to push on to victory did Ellsberg, who enjoyed the highest security clearance, read all the way through the classified 7,000-page history of U.S. policy—officially titled, “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967”—and decide to make copies for the press. In sharp contrast, neither Manning nor Snowden even finished college; they honed their hostility toward the national security state in league with fugitive clusters of hackers.

At the time, Ellsberg’s status as an insider was critical to explaining both his leak and its historic consequences. Before he started logging all-nighters bending over a slow but reliable Xerox machine, Ellsberg kept his own copy of the Papers inside a personal safe at Rand headquarters in Santa Monica. It was far easier to keep “top secret” documents secret then than it is in the digital age when an Army private like Manning and the employee of a private contractor like Snowden can access millions of classified documents with a few clicks on a keyboard.

Manning and Snowden seem to oppose government secrecy on principle. Snowden, in fact, says he took the job at Booz Allen Hamilton explicitly to get his hands on classified material that he could leak. But it was what Ellsberg discovered in the Papers, not their classified status itself, that drove him to abandon his career as a trusted courtier to leading policy-makers.

Diplomatic cables and memos dating back to World War II confirmed what the anti-war movement had been saying all along: Since the Truman administration, the primary aim of American leaders had been to prevent an independent Vietnam that communists would control. Not until Ellsberg read the whole record of deception on high—in which, at times, he had been complicit—did he come to believe that advising the likes of McNamara and Kissinger was a worthless task. His leak was an an act of atonement as well as civil disobedience: Releasing the Papers released him from a decade of mounting guilt.

Naturally, to the men at the White House, it was a horrifying betrayal. Kissinger, afraid his closeness to Ellsberg would damage his relationship with Nixon, convinced the president that the knowledgeable leaker had become "the most dangerous man in America. He must be stopped at all costs." That resolve led to the undercover raid on the Los Angeles office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist by the notorious Plumbers, under the command of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. The effort turned up no usable dirt, but it was an essential warm-up for the break-in at the Watergate a year later.

The escalating scandal prevented Nixon from continuing to fund America’s crumbling ally in Saigon or to send B-52s back to bomb North Vietnam. Thus indirectly, Ellsberg probably helped end the carnage that cost the lives of 60,000 Americans and close to three million Vietnamese. And he did so as a committed, if late-arriving, activist in the mass movement to stop the war.

Manning and Snowden had no need for papers, much less a copy machine. But neither do they enjoy the kind of passionate support from millions of Americans that Ellsberg received after the Times published his hefty document and Nixon and his underlings defamed and sought to silence him. Before they made big news, neither young leaker belonged to a social movement or had articulated the unwavering anti-militarism which has been Ellsberg’s mission for the past four decades. A dozen years after September 11, both are riding a wave of general distaste for a state which keeps expanding the surveillance of its citizens. It is a leaderless alarm against snooping, not a growing insurgency with a defined ideology and purpose.

The lack of such a movement is a big reason why Manning will likely serve many years in prison, and Snowden will face a harsh prosecution, if he ever returns home to face charges. Back in the Nixon era, Ellsberg was willing “to go to prison just to expose lies about murder.” But a judge ruled that “improper government conduct” had fatally tainted his case and dismissed it.  

Not many Americans see Obama as Nixon reincarnated—unlike Ellsberg who has called the president “a drone assassin, someone who’s launched an unconstitutional war.” Americans, according to recent polls, seem divided over the merits of Snowden’s acts, but they are far more concerned with the state of the economy than whether the government keeps a record of the phone numbers they call. If the administration succeeds in making the case that the NSA’s snooping squelched a number of terrorist attacks, the controversy may soon pass more swiftly and with less import than did the ruckus Ellsberg touched off in the 1970s.

Still, the whistleblowers he praises are, in one sense, legitimate inheritors of the movement that inspired his rebellion and helped bring a deeply unpopular war to a close. In June 1971, one day after the Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, H.R. Haldeman told his boss Richard Nixon what he thought the significance of the disclosures would be: "To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment." Snowden and Manning could not have put it better themselves.

Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University. His latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.