UPDATED: Recollections of significant interactions with one of America’s most courageous men.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
I first met Daniel Ellsberg, who died on Friday at 92, inside a House committee hearing room on Capitol Hill in 2006. It was a hearing about whistleblowers. We were both sitting towards the back of the sparsely attended room.
I don’t recall how we began speaking, but I had just returned from a trip to Vietnam and Dan voraciously questioned me about my experiences there. He wanted to know if I thought the motive for U.S. involvement had been economic or purely ideological. He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. But that apparently was of no consequence to him.
Among his many supremely, human traits was that as a man as famous as he had become, he didn’t succumb to the awful, unapproachable egoism that well-known people can bestow on themselves. There are many journalists speaking or writing now about their experiences with Dan. That’s because he was open to any serious person who had a curiosity about the things that intensely interested him.
Later that year, in 20o6, I was invited to a 35th anniversary dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington to commemorate the passing of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg to Senator Mike Gravel in 1971.
I only briefly spoke with Dan that night, but a year later I had a book contract to tell Gravel’s story. Mike had become a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Dan agreed to write the foreword to the book (and pointed out how many people mistakenly called it a “forward” instead of “foreword”). As he was a major part of Gravel’s story I interviewed him for the book.
During one interview I was on the phone with Dan in an empty Amtrak train headed to Washington. In the distance, at the other end of the car, a guy was standing who looked exactly like the arch-neocon Bill Kristol. I told Dan. He said, “If you talk to him tell him ‘Fuck you from Dan Ellsberg.” But we returned to the interview.
I regret not going up to the guy to ask him if he was Kristol. If he was, I would have handed him the phone and told him I have Dan Ellsberg on the line and he has something he wants to tell you. (I especially regret it after John Kiriakou’s story in CN about Ellsberg.)
Ellsberg told me he had gone in 1971 to several senators, including George McGovern, who was running for president, asking them to read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record because they had constitutional immunity. They all chickened out.
Dan told me he initially thought that if a senator read the Papers in Congress then the newspapers would report on it, and what he was revealing would become known. But then he figured out it happens the other way around: the Senate actually reacts to the press, not the press to the Senate.
So he leaked the Papers to The New York Times. After just two days, the Nixon Department of Justice shut down publication on June 15, 1971. The Times had published very little of the 7,000-page study in the two days before the injunction. On the very next day, Ellsberg arranged to send the Papers to Gravel, the only senator who had the guts to take them and read them into the record.
Ellsberg had learned that Gravel was conducting a filibuster to stop renewal of the military draft and he called Gravel, asking him if he wanted a copy of the Pentagon Papers.
They made an arrangement whereby Ellsberg, who was hiding out from the F.B.I. in a motel in Cambridge, MA, gave copies of the Papers, bound by a dog’s leash, to Ben Bagdikian, then an editor at The Washington Post. One copy was for the Post and one for Gravel.
Bagdikian, who said he felt uncomfortable as a journalist being a messenger to a U.S. senator, bought two seats on a flight from Boston to Washington. One seat was for him, and the other for the Papers.
Bagdikian and Gravel met in front of the Mayflower Hotel a few blocks from the White House, where they transferred the Papers from Bagdikian’s car to Gravel’s. Then they went inside to have a drink, as Gravel told me, as though nothing special had happened.
Gravel then spent days cutting off “Top Secret” from each page. Ellsberg surrendered at a federal courthouse in Boston on June 28, 1971. The next day Gravel brought the Papers onto the Senate floor to read them as part of his filibuster. A suspicious Republican senator figured Gravel he was up to something, seeing a big flight bag next to his desk.
In fact one Democratic senator, Ed Muskie, came over and jokingly asked Gravel on the Senate floor, “What the hell do you have there Mike, the Pentagon Papers?” And indeed he did.
But the Republican senator called for a quorum vote and it failed. So Gravel went to plan B and convened a hearing in the Capitol basement. There he read the Papers over several hours on national TV, broke down in tears, and put the rest into the record.
The next morning the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the DOJ’s prior restraint and publication in the newspapers resumed.
It was from Ellsberg that I learned the little known fact that the Nixon DOJ empaneled a grand jury in Boston to prosecute New York Times reporters under the Espionage Act for publishing the top secret material (just as the Trump and now the Biden administration is trying to do to Assange.)
The grand jury collapsed when it became known that the F.B.I. had wiretapped Ellsberg’s phones, meaning the government had also listened in on the Times reporters. That was part of the prosecutorial misconduct that led to a mistrial of Ellsberg’s Espionage Act prosecution and to his freedom.
In 2018 I interviewed Ellsberg and Gravel about these events:
In the foreword to my book with Gravel, Ellsberg wrote this about where he got his courage from:
“At the height of the Vietnam War, in the late summer of 1969, I met young American draft resisters who were on their way to prison. Their example put the question in my mind: ‘What could I do to help end this war if I’m ready to go to prison for it?’ If they could do this, I thought, I could do it. That kind of courage was contagious.'”
“I had participated in a terrible, indecent fraud in Vietnam that had lied us into continuing and escalating a hopeless and wrongful war — something that was reproduced when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and could happen again in Iran if we do not stop it now. I thought, in the fall of 1969, that by exposing the secret history of Vietnam, it might help to get us out of that terrible war.”
“My message to such officials is this: ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the war has begun and the engine of war is unstoppable. Before the war or the next escalation, consider accepting the personal risk of exposing lies and revealing the truth to the public through the press and the Congress, with documents.'”
It was a message Dan repeated many times, including when he was awarded the Sam Adams prize on April 11 at Dan’s home in California. “Do what I wish I had done in ’64, not what I waited till ’69 and ’71 to do. Act like Katharine Gun and Ed Snowden and Tom Drake, Bill Binney, and many others on the list of Sam Adams awardees, in particular, Ed Snowden and Julian Assange,” he said (video).
When other men might tire of life, Dan persevered until the end in his defense of whistleblowers like Tom Drake, who warned about illegal mass surveillance at the NSA; Edward Snowden, who leaked the files proving it; John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on the C.I.A. torture program; and Chelsea Manning, who made the Iraq and Afghan war files as well as the Diplomatic Cables available to WikiLeaks.
Ellsberg spoke out into his ninth decade. He wrote four important books, wrote countless articles, appeared at protests (where he was arrested several times), on television and webcasts, including numerous times on Consortium News‘ CN Live!, where he defended the only publisher and journalist ever charged under the Espionage Act — Julian Assange.
When I reported the testimony from Spanish witnesses read in Assange’s extradition hearing in September 2020, revealing for the first time that the C.I.A. had plotted to kidnap or poison Assange, Dan sent me a message expressing cautious optimism, saying this was worse than what had happened to him during his case, which led to a mistrial and his freedom. On Oct. 1, 2020, he wrote in an email:
“These sworn allegations, by expert witnesses, if true (they reported being able to supply voluminous documentary and video evidence) imply that the CIA in the Trump Administrations carried out crimes — including illegal surveillance (in this case, of Assange’s interactions with his lawyers) and consideration of poisoning him in the Ecuador Embassy — which correspond closely to the Nixon administration crimes against me whose exposure during my trial led to dismissal of charges against me and Tony Russo, and to impeachment hearings that forced Nixon’s resignation.
So far, these explosive revelations (like the whole four weeks of testimony) remain uncovered by the NYT and the Washington Post (one AP story a day late). (Wild contrast to the press reaction to exactly comparable revelations toward the end of my trial 47 years ago). Historic. What comes of them…is a major test (alongside all the others) of the state of our republic today.”’
He then sat for this interview with us on the topic:
With the prospect of Assange’s extradition to the U.S. as early as this week, this test of the state of the U.S. republic appears to be failing miserably. In the days or weeks before he may be sent to face espionage charges for revealing U.S. war crimes, Julian Assange has now lost his most prominent and fiercest advocate.
And the world has lost one of its greatest advocates for peace.
Dan appeared on our show numerous other times to discuss Assange. He also sat down with GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun on CN Live! on Sep. 27, 2019, shortly after the release of Official Secrets, a feature film about Gun’s leaking of documents showing how the U.S. was spying on members of the U.N. Security Council to pressure them for their vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq. It was an effort that failed.
In March 2019, I visited Dan in his Bay Area home with its spectacular view of the bay. We talked in depth about the Espionage Act as I was working on a piece about it in relation to the Official Secrets Act and Assange.
We also disagreed about the Mueller investigation and whether it had conclusively proved that Russia hacked the DNC. (Since the WikiLeaks publications of those documents, not oral statements, were totally accurate, it was information about the election that was being spread, not disinformation. Thus ultimately, the source is irrelevant.) I disagreed with Dan that Mueller had proven anything, given that his indictment would never be tested in court.
Dan was a loyal Democrat, on the left-wing of the party to be sure. But since the 1990s it has no longer been FDR’s party, moving to the center-right. Since 2016, neocons have migrated there from the Republican Party. I was disappointed that Dan, like Noam Chomsky, did not take a stand against both parties, particularly on foreign policy, where they are indistinguishable in their promotion of war to further U.S. imperial interests — something Dan certainly opposed.
The last time I saw Dan — not on a computer screen — was at a birthday dinner in Maryland in 2019. He virtually cornered me in the kitchen, where I was attempting to eat some of the leftovers, trying to convince me the U.S. had a two-party system and there was no choice but to support the Democrats.
He was uncomfortable being a “hero,” because he believed he just did what he was supposed to do, and especially because more recent whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden were considered traitors.
Because he put the vital subjects that mattered most to him before himself — nuclear weapons, illegal surveillance, the First Amendment or Julian Assange — it was never about Dan Ellsberg. For him it was about the issues threatening the republic, indeed even humanity.
That stood out starkly in this increasingly narcissistic, social-media age. He was kind and unassuming and accepted anyone into his orbit who had a legitimate thing to say. And that is why it was such a privilege for me, as for countless others, to have known him.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette and The Star of Johannesburg. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, a financial reporter for Bloomberg News and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe