Daniel Ellsberg's role in leak of Pentagon Papers gets a second look

Daniel Ellsberg remembers the day he learned that time may indeed heal all wounds.

"By the end of the Cold War, around 1989 or so," recalls Ellsberg, who had been despised and disowned in the '70s for leaking classified documents about the Vietnam War, "I'd be in a meeting with someone, and they wouldn't leave the room."

This small triumph — he offers a shy smile — may not sound like cause for celebration. But when you've been called "the most dangerous man in America" by Henry Kissinger, you take your good news where you can get it.

Ellsberg's growing unease about the Vietnam War, his decision to leak the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers to the press and members of Congress, and the turmoil he experienced afterward are the subjects of POV's "The Most Dangerous Man in America," an Academy Award-nominated documentary that PBS broadcasts Tuesday.

When he leaked documentation of U.S. decision making about the war, starting in 1971, Ellsberg fully expected to be demonized by the Nixon White House. But being ostracized by his former co-workers at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica took him by surprise.

"It was a good 15 or 20 years before anyone at Rand would be in the same room with me," he says. "They didn't want the question raised, 'What's your relationship with Daniel Ellsberg?' And not one of them wrote me a letter because they didn't want a letter of theirs to show up in my trash — which the FBI had been going through."

These days, Ellsberg, 79, lives a more secure and reclusive life than he did in the tumultuous '70s. He and his wife, Patricia, dwell in a ranch house tucked away behind redwoods a few miles north of Berkeley with a street address out of order from his neighbors. The house is well situated — with a view of the San Francisco Bay — but not luxurious: It's got more books than furniture.

Ellsberg was a kind of "insider" decades before Russell Crowe tangled with the role. A young, serious-minded, Harvard graduate with legendary analytic abilities, he worked at Rand as a strategic analyst in the late '50s. A former Marine officer, he was eager to fight for democracy against what he saw as Stalinist dictatorships around the world.

He went to work at the Pentagon in 1964, just as the Gulf of Tonkin incident — an ambiguous sea conflict used by President Johnson to ramp up American involvement — broke. When Ellsberg saw that his research was being used to justify bombing of civilians, and dug deeper into the history of the U.S. involvement with Indochina, he began to have serious moral doubts about the war. The civilian deaths, as he saw it, were effectively murder. "Keeping silent in public," he says in the film, "made me an accomplice."

So by October 1969, then back at Rand, he walked out of its Santa Monica offices most nights with folders of the "Vietnam War Study," and he and his sons spent evenings in their Malibu home photocopying 7,000 pages on the war and its buildup. The papers showed that the government had been lying about the scope and aim of the war for years.

When Ellsberg passed the documents to politicians, less happened than he'd hoped. And for weeks after he handed the information to the New York Times, the paper published nothing.

But on June 13, 1971, the Times published the first of its related stories, and after efforts by the White House to squelch the report, Ellsberg passed his documents to the Washington Post and other papers as well. He went into hiding even as "the plumbers" who would later become tangled in the Watergate break-in raided his Los Angeles psychiatrist's office in an attempt to discredit him.

Ellsberg soon surfaced and was arrested. The best-case scenario, he thought, was that he might escape prosecution, move somewhere remote, and teach at a small college. He was indicted on conspiracy and faced 115 years in prison.

He fully expected to go to jail, and never see his children again, except "through thick glass."

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" follows the turning of Ellsberg from Cold Warrior to outlaw, as well as the 1973 decision of mistrial that set him free.

The film, which uses old footage and is narrated by Ellsberg, includes recent interviews with late historian Howard Zinn; former New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith; who wrote some of the paper's stories on the documents, and Nixon counsel John Dean.

Ellsberg was approached about telling his story on film as far back as the early '70s but had repeatedly rebuffed offers. "I didn't want to look like I was selling secrets," he says now.

He also wanted to get his story down in print first, and published "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" in 2002. Much of his narration in the film comes from the memoir.

Back in the house, Ellsberg is a bit worn out after staying up on a recent night before, drinking green tea while writing an article for a policy journal about secrecy and whistle-blowing. The subjects continue to consume him.

Ellsberg was critical of George W. Bush's administration for what he regards as its disdain for transparency, but also blames the Obama White House for continuing the cloaked practices in the war on terror. He's heartened by the recent cache of documents released by WikiLeaks on the Afghan war, though he thinks newspapers are more credible places to publish than the Internet. But he applauds the site for offering a clearer look at what the U.S. government is up to: "There should be a Pentagon Papers out ever year," he says.

There's very little apparent self-congratulation to Ellsberg. Although he was attacked by political opponents for betraying his country, Ellsberg's regret is rather that he didn't leak documents earlier — in 1964 when the conflict was still escalating.

"I'm one of a few dozen people who could have prevented the Vietnam War," he says, drumming his finger on his wooden table with every syllable. A Democratic Congress would have turned on Johnson, he thinks, if they had seen how bogus his war justifications were. "But I was very inhibited – I felt like I was breaking my promise."

It's human nature that troubles him the most.

"Humans are herd animals," he says. "They depend very much on being part of the group, and to remain part of the group, they'll do anything. And a much larger number will go along with anything. And the broadest form of that is keeping your mouth shut."

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