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Daniel Ellsberg Explains Why He Leaked The Pentagon Papers


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Daniel Ellsberg, became one of the best-known opponents of the Vietnam War in 1971 when he leaked a secret Defense Department study of the war that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the country's leading newspapers. That story is the basis for the new film "The Post" starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. In this scene, Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian is meeting Ellsberg, who's hiding out in a motel, eluding an FBI manhunt. Piles of papers are spread out over the two beds in the room. Matthew Rhys plays Ellsberg. Bob Odenkirk plays Bagdikian.


MATTHEW RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Ben.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) Dan.


RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) The study had 47 volumes. I slipped out a couple at a time - took me months to copy it all.

ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) What the hell?

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Well, we were all former government guys - top clearance - all that. McNamara wanted academics to have the chance to examine what had happened. He would say to us, let the chips fall where they may.

ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) Brave man.

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Well, I think guilt was a bigger motivator than courage. McNamara lies as well as the rest, but I don't think he saw what was coming, what we'd find. But it didn't take him long to figure out - well, for us all to figure out. If the public ever saw these papers, they would turn against the war. Covert ops, guaranteed debt, rigged elections - it's all in there. Ike, Kennedy, Johnson. They violated the Geneva Convention. They lied to Congress, and they lied to the public. They knew we couldn't win and still sent boys to die.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, now 86, has a new book about his days before the Vietnam War when he worked on American nuclear war strategies in the late '50s and early '60s. Ellsberg was appalled by much of what he found and wishes he'd been able to leak those plans along with the Pentagon Papers. His book is called "The Doomsday Machine."


DAVIES: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. You became famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. And you tell us at the beginning of this book that you copied not just the Vietnam study but a lot of other material from your safe at the RAND Corporation about U.S. nuclear war plans. What were you going to do with that material?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I planned to release that as soon as the Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, had had whatever effect they could have on the Vietnam War. The nuclear information, I thought then and now, was actually more important. But the bombs were falling in Vietnam at that time, and I wanted to shorten that war as much as I could.

DAVIES: You went to work for the RAND Corporation, where you worked on high-level military strategy. Explain what the RAND Corporation was and what kind of work you did.

ELLSBERG: RAND, which stands for R and D - research and development - was really essence on research for the Air Force set up as a nonprofit corporation to do long-range research. And in particular, when I came there in 1958 for the summer and then later permanently in 1959, our obsession really was trying to plant our strategic forces in such a way that they couldn't be destroyed in a first strike by the Soviet Union. Those were the years that we all believed at RAND and in the Air Force that there was a missile gap in favor of the Russians and that a Russian surprise attack was a real possibility. And the idea was to assure retaliation for that so as to deter it so that no war would occur.

DAVIES: You know, this wasn't just a job for you, was it? I mean, it was kind of a special place to be. And it wasn't just a 9-to-5 paycheck thing for you, was it?

ELLSBERG: Not at all, I was working in the summer, especially when I arrived to get up to speed, probably 70-hour weeks there, reading top-secret or secret material - most of it was secret, actually, at RAND - and working on trying to avoid a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. So nothing in the world seemed as important. In effect, we thought we were trying to save the world, although we weren't very confident we'd be able to do it.

DAVIES: So you focused in your research and in your work at RAND on decision making in circumstances where information is incomplete or ambiguous. And you wanted to study how commanders in the military at all levels, right down to pilots, would make decisions on whether to attack Soviet targets in certain circumstances. And the research is fascinating as you describe it. What kind of access did you as the civilian have to military personnel?

ELLSBERG: Well, as a civilian consultant to the Commander in Chief Pacific Admiral Harry D. Felt at that time, I was doing a study for Office of Naval Research and looking at the actual reaction that could be expected at various levels to various execute messages, messages to go or - there weren't messages to not go, actually. There was no stop message. That's a little footnote here. But once a go message was received at any level, there was no provision whatever for stopping that or rescinding it or bringing it back.

DAVIES: This is one of the jaw-dropping things as we read the book. If there was a launch, there was literally no way to recall a bomber. You can't recall missiles. But, you know, things that had pilots - jet fighters and bombers - there was no way to send them - to bring them back?

ELLSBERG: Once they'd gotten an authenticated message that they were to execute the war plans - but the startling thing that I discovered at every level was that the general image that people had then and to this day that a message with the right code could only come from the president himself was never true. That was always a myth. At least it was from the late '50s, when President Eisenhower had delegated authority - his authority - to launch nuclear weapons to theater commanders in case there was an outage of communications, or Washington had been destroyed, or even the president had been incapacitated, as President Eisenhower was a couple of times.

That's almost essential that there be delegation like that in a nuclear era. Otherwise, a decapitating attack, as they call it, an attack on the command and control system, would paralyze us. A single bomb on Washington would paralyze our retaliation. Well, that could never be allowed, and it never has been allowed.

DAVIES: So not just the president but theater commanders have the authority, under some circumstances, to launch a nuclear attack. And these are experienced, high-level commanders. But what you found, I noted, when you looked in the Pacific is that these theater commanders had to be in communication with dozens and dozens of bases throughout the Pacific. And the question arises then, what about a base commander who has a number of fighter pilots or some aircraft - under what circumstances might they proceed on their own to launch an attack? What did you find?

ELLSBERG: Well, again, if they were out of communication with their superiors, a lot of them had authorization in the Pacific, I found, in the early '60s. As far as I know, that continued. I don't know if it's true today, and we ought to find out. But actually, there were people even at a lower - as at a single base - you probably read an anecdote I had about Kunsan in Korea - in South Korea - the base possibly closer to communist territory of any of our bases in the world.

And the commander there clearly believed that he had the authority simply as a base commander to send his planes off if he thought they were endangered. So at that point, had there been what he thought was an attack - for example, an accident on some other base that he heard about or a crisis that was going on - he felt - he told me that he would send his planes off.

DAVIES: There is a remarkable chapter in your book called Questions For The Joint Chiefs. When you write that President Kennedy, coming into the White House - he did not have, nor did anyone on his team have a copy of, essentially our plan for nuclear war, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan - and that when they asked for it, they were - you know, that the military was sort of reluctant. And then they gave a briefing but not the actual plan itself. You had a copy. You examined it, and you wrote some questions. You - what troubled you about the plan that you saw?

ELLSBERG: Well, many things. It was a very strange plan. I'm not the only one who's called it the worst plan in human history. This was the plan for general war. It was an all-out attack on every city in the Soviet Union and China and attacks, in effect, in most of the Eastern Bloc because of air defenses and command and control. That kept for no reserves, created fallout that would kill perhaps a hundred million people in West Europe for our own weapons if the wind were in the right direction for that.

And many - and a hundred million in other contiguous areas of the Soviet Union like - neutrals like Austria and Finland and Afghanistan actually but also several hundred million in the USSR and China - several hundred million killed. That added up to an intention in a U.S. first strike, if we preempted or if we escalated a war in Europe, to 600 million dead that they were calculating.

DAVIES: My guest is Daniel Ellsberg. His new book is "The Doomsday Machine." We'll continue our conversation after just a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Daniel Ellsberg. You'll remember that he leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. He has a new book called "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner" about his early days doing nuclear war planning for the Air Force.


DAVIES: You're best known, of course, for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of the Vietnam War. And you had spent many years for the government in Vietnam examining the war, concluding that it was futile, that there was no way to win it. And, you know, you had spent many years as a young man, as a real patriot. I mean, you truly believed in the country. You believed in the security clearances, right?

ELLSBERG: Pardon me. I think I'm going to make it clear, but I wouldn't even want the question - to raise that question, in a way. I am a patriot, and that has never changed.

DAVIES: I understand. And forgive me for putting it that way. I mean, you are devoted to doing the right thing for your country. But at that time, you were - you respected all of the high-level security clearances that you had. And it must have been hard for you to take the step of taking this top-secret document and making it public. What did it take to get you to make that step?

ELLSBERG: Without young men going to prison for nonviolent protests against the draft, men that I met on their way to prison, no Pentagon Papers. It wouldn't have occurred to me simply to do something that would put myself in prison for the rest of my life, as I assumed that would do. So, obviously, that was not an obvious decision to make, except once I'd seen the example of people like Randy Kehler and Bob Eaton and others and David Harris, who did go to prison to say that this war was wrong - the Vietnam War was wrong - and that they refused to participate in it.

DAVIES: How hard was it to actually copy the material?

ELLSBERG: Well, in those days, it was one page at a time. We didn't have these zip, zip, multi-page collators and whatnot machines that they have now or the - of course, the digital capability. So it took me a long time - months, actually.

DAVIES: So you would stay at night in the office copying and then come back to work during the day?


DAVIES: Did you - did night watchmen ever come upon you or anything?

ELLSBERG: Well, twice in that office, which was a small advertising office owned by a friend of a friend, really - twice during that period, police came to the door because she had turned the key the wrong way and set off the burglar alarm. And on one of those occasions, my children were there. That was the one time. Police came in and found my son running the Xerox machine.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLSBERG: No, I think I was running the Xerox machine, and he was collating. Or it might have been the other way around. He was then 13. And my daughter, who was 10, was cutting off top secret from the tops and bottoms of the pages with the scissors. The reason they were there was that I expected to be in prison very shortly. I'd hoped to get the papers out quickly, and that didn't happen in the Senate.

But I wanted them to know that their father was doing something in a businesslike way - a calm, sober way that I thought had to be done. And I did let my older son know in particular that it might - in fact, would probably result in my going to prison. And that was an example that I actually wanted to pass on to my children - that they might be in such a situation.

DAVIES: So it was very clear that Nixon regarded you as a really dangerous man because, you know, he had information - you'd leaked these secrets, and there was information about his own internal thinking about Vietnam. And it was the actions of, you know, operatives of the Nixon administration that led to the dismissal of charges at your trial because we learned that they, in fact - they planned a break-in at your psychoanalyst's office and some other things, too, right? What else did they do?

ELLSBERG: Well, Bernard Barker - Macho Bernard Barker of the Bay of Pigs, a CIA asset - said that his mission was to break both my legs. But I don't think that would have shut me up totally in the hospital bed. I think they probably wanted something to happen to my jaw. But they were going to attack me in the course of a rally that I was speaking to on the steps of the Capitol on May 3, 1972. And they brought 12 of these CIA assets, mostly Bay of Pigs veterans, up and was shown my picture and said I was to be incapacitated totally.

And when their prosecutor told me this later, I said, well, what does that mean? Kill me? He said, the words were to incapacitate you totally. But you have to understand these guys never use the word kill - use neutralize - all right? - terminate with extreme prejudice. They use a lot of euphemisms, CIA people, for assassination.

DAVIES: You know, you - your trial ended when the government actions taken against you were exposed, and there was a - the charges were dropped. You took action to disclose government secrets then that you felt the American public needed to know. And I'm wondering what your attitude is today towards classified information and how you regard the actions of, you know, Chelsea Manning, say, and Edward Snowden.

ELLSBERG: You know, I said earlier, without draft resisters like Randy Kehler or Bob Eaton, no Pentagon Papers. Well, I was very gratified to have Edward Snowden say on a Skype meeting - a couple of times, actually - say that without Daniel Ellsberg, no Ed Snowden. That was very nice to hear because I'd never gotten feedback like that. I'd been urging people to use their judgment and their conscience for decades at that point, and it just hadn't happened - to put out information that the public needed to know, and it just hadn't happened.

For example, in the Iraq War, I think that if there had been an Edward Snowden or - and now that I've met him - at a higher level with greater access than he had - or a Chelsea Manning with greater access than she had in the - 2002, there would have been no Iraq War, no ISIS, no - nothing that we've seen later. That was a mad venture based on terribly unreal - totally unrealistic beliefs.

And I think that if the information had been put out, Congress would not have gone along with that war as they did - just as I'm very sorry to say if I'd put out the information in my safe in the Pentagon about our widening war that was projected in 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two senators who voted against that widening - the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - told me, if you'd put that out, there would have been no vote in the committee. It would have not passed the committee. And if they bypassed that to go to the floor of Congress, it would not have passed.

So he's telling me that I had had the power to avert the Vietnam War. I think that's true not only of me. That's a heavy burden to bear. I share it with a thousand others who had that kind of access. You know, when I said that Roger Morris had - did have the access to the nuclear target folders in 1969, and Nixon feared that I had those from Morris, I didn't because he didn't put them out. And later, Roger told me that was the failure of which he is most ashamed and that he most regrets in his life. He said, we should've thrown open the safes and screamed bloody murder because that's exactly what it was.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ELLSBERG: This was a pleasure - very good questions. Thank you.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg's new book is "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews a documentary about foreign policy in the closing months of the Obama presidency. It's called "The Final Year." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON'S "22-M (OPUS 58)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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