Q-and-A with Daniel Ellsberg: Connecting Students to the World; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley Daniel Ellsberg


High School Students'
E-Mail Exchange with
Daniel Ellsberg

May, 1999


Leaking the Pentagon Papers

Did you plan to take the documents or was it a spur of the moment? What was the main reason that made you decide to do it?

Terri Rayburn's American History Class, Wallenberg Academic High School, San Francisco

I actually started to copy the Papers almost as soon as I thought of the possible usefulness of doing so, triggered by a particular incident of official lying and by an urgent sense that Nixon was about to escalate the war. However, the journey that brought me to that recognition was a long one.

My main reason for revealing the historical studies in the Pentagon Papers was to reveal patterns of official deception about plans for escalation that would lend credibility to my claims that Nixon was about to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors.

If I had current documents proving what I knew about Nixon's plans -- which came from oral comments and given confidentially by members of his administration -- I would have released those instead of the historical studies, but I had to make use of what I had.

What happened after the publication? Arrested? Attempts on your life? How has it affected your life today?

Terri Rayburn's American History Class, Wallenberg Academic High School, San Francisco

After The New York Times was enjoined by a federal court temporarily from publishing any more of the Pentagon Papers, my wife and I went underground, giving out additional copies of the papers to other newspapers, several of which were also enjoined, until the government gave up trying to stop publications. During those two weeks, we were the subject of what was described by the FBI as the biggest manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping. After I had run out of copies, which were distributed with the help of friends and strangers in the antiwar movement, I surrendered to arrest and eventually faced indictment on twelve felony charges, facing a possible 115 years in prison.

Unknown to me at the time, Nixon directed a number of illegal actions against me during the period of my trial in order to silence me on revealing his own plans in Vietnam. One of these ventures did involve an attempted assault on my body if not my life, on the steps of the Capitol on May 3, 1973, when twelve Cubans were brought up from Miami to "incapacitate" me totally. (They backed off at the last moment.)

Nixon's need to conceal his responsibility for these acts against me was a major motive for his further acts of cover-up and obstruction of justice that led to his resignation to avoid impeachment and conviction, which, in turn, made the war endable.

The exposure of his acts led to the dismissal of charges against me. I was, of course, no longer employable in my earlier work for the Executive Branch as researcher, consultant, or official; but the perspective that led me to take these actions has informed my efforts in all of my life against the nuclear arms race and against unwise or wrongful military interventions.

Do you have any regrets about releasing the Pentagon Papers or would you have done anything differently?

Doug Woodbrown's American History Class, Marin Academy High School, San Rafael

Yes. I regret that in 1964 or early 1965 I did not release the documents in my possession at that time to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These documents were in my safe in the Pentagon. Later they were among the documents in the Pentagon Papers that I copied and gave to the Senate in 1969 and later to the newspapers in 1971. But if I had released them during the 1964 presidential campaign or before the open-ended escalation on the ground in mid-1965, I believe that all the war that came afterwards could well have been averted. That is a heavy burden to bear.

How did the information released by the Plumbers in the wake of burglarization of your psychiatrist's office affect you?

Doug Woodbrown's American History Class, Marin Academy High School, San Rafael

The Plumbers did not acquire any information about me in their burglary of my psychiatrist's office, and whatever information they released as a result of their efforts to "neutralize" me did me no harm; for instance, the judgment in a CIA psychological profile of me which they requisitioned that I had "acted from a higher sense of patriotism." (They weren't happy with that particular result and ordered that a second profile be prepared.)

Do you feel that the American people supported your actions with regard to the Pentagon Papers?

Doug Woodbrown's American History Class, Marin Academy High School, San Rafael

Who supported or opposed your decision to publish the documents?

Terri Rayburn's American History Class, Wallenberg Academic High School, San Francisco

Certainly, I think the overwhelming majority of Americans, after they became aware of the content of the Pentagon Papers, felt that they had had a right to that information, that it had been wrongfully withheld from them, and that it was relevant to their current political decisions as citizens. Whether they felt I had acted rightly in taking the initiative in releasing this information was another question. A great many people clearly approved of what I had done. For example, over 25,000 people contributed donations to the defense of myself and Tony Russo. On the other hand, many Americans felt I had acted wrongly, especially in view of my earlier promises to keep this information secret. I never saw the results of a poll addressed to the question of my personal act or its implications, so I don't really know how the overall population would break down on those questions.

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