En español │While working at the RAND Corporation think tank in 1968, high-level Pentagon analyst and former Marine Corps officer Daniel Ellsberg gained access to a top-secret study of the Vietnam War commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Seven thousand pages long, the study revealed that the war had been a failure from the start, and that many thousands more American lives would be lost as it ground on, with no victory in sight. Appalled by the toll of a war he had helped plan, Ellsberg made clandestine photocopies of the documents, which he leaked to The New York Times in 1971.
The events leading up to this decision, and its aftermath, are the subject of "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," which was a 2009 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature. It chronicles Ellsberg's transformation from devout Cold Warrior to world-famous whistle-blower and the enormous consequences of his actions for himself and his family, the Nixon presidency, and the nation. Now 79, Ellsberg is an unrepentant gadfly and committed anti-war activist who is still regularly arrested for demonstrating his convictions.
We spoke to him in New York, where he was visiting family and promoting the film. ("The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" will be released on DVD on July 20 by First Run Features.)
Q: Were you disappointed that "The Most Dangerous Man in America" didn't win an Oscar?
A: Well, I saw all the predictions that "The Cove" would win, and it was a very worthy film, so I didn't think the odds of our winning were very great. But the nomination should increase the audience, and a lot of people got to see the clip during the Oscars show, so that should be helpful.
Q: Why a documentary about the Pentagon Papers now?
A: I had offers for documentaries or feature films very early on, 30 years ago, and for a number of reasons I didn't want to do it then. I didn't want it to look as if I was cashing in on the event, selling secrets. But I was drawn to the work the filmmakers [Judy Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith] had done previously, and their interests jibed with mine. We were in the midst of the Iraq War, and it seemed to be a replay of the Vietnam War in some respects. We were lied into the Vietnam War with the Tonkin Gulf episode in almost the very same way that lies got us into the Iraq War. And the media was as cooperative or gullible in both cases. So it seemed unusually timely.
Q: And do you also see parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan?
A: Judy and Rick were anxious to finish the film while George W. Bush was in office because they didn't think it would look as timely afterwards. Unfortunately, unhappily, it does. President Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war, especially since December, means basically that we’re re-enacting the events of Vietnam to a very large extent. I personally believe that he is deceiving the country in the same way that Lyndon Johnson did.
Q: It was courageous of you to leak the Pentagon Papers. It was also courageous of The New York Times and other newspapers to publish them. Do you think that today's media would have the same courage?
A: Since 9/11 the fear of being labeled unpatriotic is very intense in the media, and whips them into line pretty regularly. Nevertheless, from a number of events recently, I do think that if somebody turned up with documents—authentic documents—that showed government lies or government criminality, they would get printed.
Q: Do you believe that government secrecy of the sort you exposed in 1971 is still a threat to our democracy?
A: I think the situation now is probably much worse than it’s ever been. The NSA [National Security Agency] is quite free, without supervision by anybody—not courts, certainly not Congress. Congress has not even been able to find out what NSA is doing with respect to American citizens. They simply refuse to answer the question to congressional committees. So you have a situation now where the NSA has the freedom—the bureaucratic freedom—to pry into the e-mail, Internet, credit cards, communications of American citizens untrammeled.
Q: In the movie, you describe experiencing a transformative moment watching anti-war activist Randy Kehler announce that he was headed to prison for his convictions. Do you still have the occasional transformative moment?
A: I would say yes, without any question. I find myself acquiring new heroes and people that I want to meet, and congratulate and learn from, who showed civil courage. Who risk their careers, or even their freedom, in order to save lives or to save our Constitution. People who give me encouragement and hope and strength to take new actions myself.
Q: How influential was your wife, Patricia, in your decision to leak the report to the press?
A: She was the one, actually, who pushed me into making more copies so the FBI couldn't get them all. At one point, when we thought the FBI would be coming very shortly, because of a story written by Tom Oliphant. She said, “Well, you’ve been talking about getting copies of these made. It’s time to get off your ass and do it.” I always remember the phrase, because she'd never used language like that before or since.
Q: What impact did your whistleblowing and the events afterwards have on your relationship?
A: Our having done that together is a memory and experience that has bonded us for 40 years. We've easily survived the usual dry times or hard times that occur in every marriage because we were partners for years in this effort.
Q: "The Most Dangerous Man in America" has an intergenerational angle—your son Robert, then 13, and daughter, Mary, then 10, also assisted in copying the report. Looking back, do you think it was a good and proper thing to get them involved in what was potentially a criminal act?
A: I didn't mean to involve my daughter at all. I thought she was too young to understand what was going on. On the other hand, I wanted to leave my son with the memory that his father had done this believing it was the right thing to do, the patriotic thing to do. That doing something that sent you to jail might be the right thing to do, and that he might have to do something like that himself at some time in life. That was, I thought, a legacy I could leave him.
Q: And what do you think will be your legacy?
A: Well, I think this movie is part of it. I believe it has the power to inspire a fraction of those who see it to take action, to consider acts of civil courage and of truth telling. And in so doing, they might save countless lives.
Q: You hope to inspire a new generation of whistle-blowers?
A: I’ve never known a whistle-blower who regretted having done it. Even when they paid a very high personal price. People tell themselves that it’s no use taking a risk or paying a cost because it’s obviously impossible for it to have any real effect. Well, that’s not true.
Q: If you could see any one government secret revealed what would it be?
A: I would like to see the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan right now. Now, not five years from now. Not 30 years from now. It could save an awful lot of lives.
Q: Henry Kissinger called you "the most dangerous man in America" back in 1971. Are you still dangerous?
A: Well, I wish I had information that made me fully dangerous to this administration. I’m speaking out about what I think, but I doubt if they regard that as being as dangerous as I wish they did.
Q: A bonus question: does Xerox still make a good copier?
A: Yes, they do. I'm very jealous when I use them. They make copies zip, zip, zip. And they collate and put things in. I could have done it in fraction of the time if I had that!