Twenty years after he released confidential government documents detailing the secret history of the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg was still at it Thursday, calling for the release of a new generation of "Pentagon Papers" on the Persian Gulf War.
Ellsberg and Tony Russo, his co-defendant from the court battles now two decades old, joined other anti-war activists in using the Pentagon Papers anniversary to decry what they described as the government's suppression of information and analysis and the Pentagon's effort to control the release of news during the war.
Ellsberg yearned aloud for someone who would follow his lead of 20 years ago, emerging from the ranks of government to expose the secrets behind the nation's most recent conflicts.
"I feel that nothing in my life has been wasted," Ellsberg said. "And I put that to other officials who now are mistakenly keeping secrets to themselves. People should not wait for the bombs to fall as I did. Even if they fear as I feared--prison."
A former Marine, Ellsberg was working at Rand Corp. when he and Russo, a Rand strategic analyst, decided to make public secret Pentagon documents that contradicted many official U.S. statements regarding the war. The New York Times commenced publication of the volatile documents on June 13, 1971.
Ellsberg was later subjected to wiretapping by President Nixon's so-called "Plumbers" and his psychiatrist's office was burglarized by the CIA. Critics accused Ellsberg and Russo of treason while supporters hailed them as courageous patriots.
Charged with violating federal secrecy laws, Ellsberg and Russo were ultimately acquitted of the charges. Since then, they have been involved in the anti-war movement and related causes.
Still often asked what right did he have to reveal the documents, Ellsberg responded bluntly: "I say, what right did I have to conceal them?"
He emphasized that in his role as a military analyst, prior to the release of the Pentagon Papers, he "was part of the conspiracy that got us into the war in 1964. . . . We're talking about the deliberate deception of the public . . . about lying the country into war. . . .
He and Russo were joined in the press conference by former CIA Agent Ralph McGehee, author of a CIA expose, "Deadly Deceits"; Russo's former legal counsel, Peter Young; Aris Anagnos, president of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action; and Rhoda Shapiro of the Los Angeles Coalition Against U.S. Intervention in the Middle East.
Confidential information, the activists said, should be released not only on the Gulf War, but also on the 1990 U.S. invasion of Panama and U.S. actions, direct or covert, in many other conflicts over the last two decades.
Only on Wednesday, Ellsberg noted, had Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf disclosed to a Senate committee that American military planners had anticipated a "worst-case estimate" of 20,000 U.S. casualties, breaking an official silence on the subject.
"Why are we hearing it now? Because it ended happily--from the American point of view," Ellsberg said. ". . .It would seem from what Schwarzkopf is telling us, in his view, is that we lucked out. . . . Will we know the estimate next time? That's the point here."
"We're the government," Russo added, "and the people in the government are our servants. And they act like kings." If Congress and the American people had been aware of that Pentagon estimate, he said, the nation would have been more reluctant to enter the war. Although U.S. casualties in the 43-day war proved much lower--147 killed and 357 wounded--those and the massive Iraqi losses could have been avoided if the United States and allied nations had continued with the policy of economic sanctions, he argued.
"The same effect could have been achieved without having sacrificed 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis," Russo said. He also cited a medical analysis that estimates as many as 170,000 Iraqi children may die due to diseases unleashed because of the damage to Iraqi water and sanitary systems.
The speakers contended that the Iran-Contra affair and other government secret operations show that covert missions and official secrecy remain a guiding principle of U.S. presidents and the Pentagon. Ellsberg urged government officials, the press and public at large to "challenge the secrecy system and show that it is antithetical to democracy."
When a reporter asked if all secrets from the nation's latest war should be revealed, Ellsberg promptly agreed.
"Yes, the war's over," he said. "This would be a good time."