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Media/It's Time to Take Risks

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The Guardian: It's Time to Take Risks

Link
http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,857099,00.html
Country
United Kingdom
Date
December 10, 2002
By
Duncan Campbell


A little more than 30 years ago, the leaking of 7,000 pages of Pentagon documents, which exposed an extraordinary catalogue of lies and duplicity on the part of the US government, helped to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, a former marine company commander, who had served in Vietnam, leaked the documents, risking a life sentence to do so. Now he is finally telling the whole story of how he became perhaps the most important whistle-blower of the past half century.

It is a bright autumnal day in Berkeley, California, and Ellsberg, now a sprightly 71, is having a rest day from a cross-country tour to promote his memoirs, Secrets. It is his account of how he, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, who had worked in the Pentagon under defence secretary Robert McNamara and for the state department in Vietnam, was finally driven by his conscience to reveal how successive US governments had stumbled into a war that cost more than a million Vietnamese and 55,000 American lives, and how successive presidents had lied to the American people about the conflict's conduct and consequences. Ellsberg photocopied what were to become known as the Pentagon Papers, and then tried to persuade politicians to release them and alert the country. When that failed, he gave them to the New York Times. To ensure that the papers would all be distributed, he went on the run, prompting what was described as "the largest FBI manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping". When the FBI finally caught up with him in June 1971, he was charged with 12 felonies and faced 115 years in jail.

He might well still be in prison were it not for the almost psychopathic desire of President Nixon and his team to extract revenge: a burglary of Ellsberg's psychoanalyst's office was authorised in the hope of finding information that might discredit him or, when publicised, drive him to suicide. The Watergate burglars, Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, carried it out. A team of heavies was recruited to break Ellsberg's legs. His phone was tapped. It also emerged, during his trial in 1973, that the judge had earlier been offered the post of director of the FBI, a job he coveted.

Once these plots became known, the judge had to abandon the trial and acquit Ellsberg. The Pentagon papers also helped to so discredit the war that they became one of the key factors in the US's final withdrawal and Nixon's humiliating resignation. Ellsberg became a counter-cultural hero.

Secrets recounts this story, filling in the many gaps that remained at the time of the trial. It is also, in a way, a love story about how he fell for his wife, Patricia Marx, and her pivotal role in ensuring that the papers were leaked.

The Ellsbergs now live in a rambling, unpretentious home in Berkeley, surrounded by buddhas and roses. Ellsberg has been speaking so much that his voice is almost gone but he talks with the same intensity that took him into the dock three decades ago. He sees many parallels between then and now, with the country on the brink of another war.

"One of the key differences is that the military now are clearly against this, which was not the case with Vietnam. The military hated the way Lyndon Johnson conducted the war but they wanted to get into it. This military clearly does not want the war so they're leaking. The reasons Bush has given are ridiculous - democracy, give me a break."

He lists "oil, oil and oil" as the main reasons for the present war plans. He also anticipates an "incident" that will be used as a rationale for the first US strike, just as the Gulf of Tonkin incident - a supposed attack on a US destroyer - precipitated deeper US military action in Vietnam. "Bush will want to claim, just as Johnson did, that he was immediately protecting American troops. He will want to say 'I'm bombing because I have intelligence that Americans are at immediate risk. They are putting chemical warheads on missiles, we think. I can't take the chance.'

"I believe Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz are using our own troops as bait. There will be deaths, and they know that."

Ellsberg has noted that there have been frequent leaks about the war plans in recent weeks. "There is great dissent and that is clearly the major reason for the leaking. It is clear that the administration is filled with people who believe this is reckless, unnecessary, foolish ... I am using every opportunity to say to people in the government who are in the position that I was then, and who know that their president is lying us into a wrongful and reckless war, to do what I wish I had done in 1964-65: to go to Congress and the press with documents and tell the truth. That would be a risk but there are times when big risks are worth that to save a lot of lives."

Ellsberg says that he doesn't like telling people to take risks that he is not taking, which is why he is announcing that his book contains some still unclassified secrets - one about a dialogue between Johnson and the then Canadian prime minister, Lester Pearson, in which nuclear war was discussed as an option in Vietnam. He is challenging attorney general John Ashcroft to prosecute him for breaking the law.

Ellsberg is understanding about how people in power are co-opted into a system in which leaking becomes hard. "There is no set of genes, no hypodermic injection you can take which makes you immune to going along with cruel, indefensible policies that your team and your boss and your president say is what they want to do. I did it, but I don't think I was particularly corrupt for doing that. I don't think there is any human who is incapable of keeping their mouths shut about what they know is wrong."

Britain crops up periodically in the discussion. He is appalled that we still have an Official Secrets Act: "It is an outrage. I'd love an opportunity to go to England and testify to anyone on my experience and break their law. You cannot be a democracy in foreign affairs and have the amount of secrecy unchallenged that we have in America or you have in Britain. It's not just a joke, it's something that has to be resisted and changed."

The book has revealing vignettes of Henry Kissinger and how he wanted to use journalists to present him as a ladies' man. Ironically, Kissinger had been a big admirer of Ellsberg's, telling an audience of Rand personnel in 1968: "I have learned more from Dan Ellsberg than from any other person in Vietnam." This credibility, and the fact that Ellsberg was a Harvard-educated former company commander in the Marine corps, who had been under fire in Vietnam, was what made him so dangerous.

The tapes he reprints of Nixon plotting to damage him is like eavesdropping on a Mafia family dinner:

Nixon: Let's get the son-of-a-bitch into jail.

Kissinger: We've got to get him.

Nixon: Don't worry about his trial ... try him in the press. We want to destroy him in the press ... Is that clear?

Kissinger and (attorney general) John Mitchell: Yes.

Since the 70s, Ellsberg has earned a living from lecturing and writing, although anti-nuclear activism is his "top priority". He has three children and five grandchildren and a bad back, but shows no signs of slowing down. He has been arrested on many occasions, protesting against US military actions.

The almost universally friendly reception of the book has encouraged him. Senator and presidential contender John Kerry has praised him for the courage "which undoubtedly saved American lives in the battlefield". Actor Martin Sheen recommends the book as "essential reading for any American who wants to understand true patriotism". Yet had it not been for the Nixon team's criminality, he says, his release date with good behaviour would not have been until 2008.

However, Ellsberg expresses dread at what he fears is an approaching war. "I don't want to test whether Iraqis will fight in their own country for this tyrant, and I do not want to test what Saddam will do if we really set out to kill him," he says. "I can't think when I have felt that it was as ominous as this."

· Secrets by Daniel Ellsberg is published in the US by Viking.

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