Why I Did It!: An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg

An interview with Daniel Ellsberg concerning government security, government hypocrisy, and the Pentagon Papers.

On Thursday Evening, February 15, 1973, REASON editor Manuel S. Klausner and Hank Hohenstein travelled to the Ellsberg- Russo Defense Headquarters, to interview Daniel Ellsberg of the now famous Pentagon Papers case, which is still in trial in federal court in Los Angeles as we go to press.

Dr. Ellsberg was indicted June 25, 1971 for his activities in making the Pentagon Papers public. His effort to publicize the Pentagon Papers began in September 1969 with an attempt to have the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hold hearings on the matter. Not meeting with success in the Congress, he turned to the press and in June 1971 the NEW YORK TIMES and other newspapers began to publish excerpts from the papers. In December 1971 a superseding fifteen count indictment was issued which additionally named Anthony J. Russo, a RAND colleague, as codefendant. The major statutes involved in the charges are: espionage, theft of government property, and conspiracy.

Dr. Ellsberg, born in Chicago in 1931, received his degree in economics with highest honors from Harvard College in 1952, followed by a year at Cambridge. He then enlisted in the Marine Corps, served as a rifle company commander and participated in the Mediterranean during the Suez crisis. He graduated number one in his class of 1,100 newly commissioned Second Lieutenants at Basic School, Quan tico, Virginia. And, as Hank Hohenstein (also a former Marine) has observed, "'Anyone can graduate with highest honors from Harvard, but it takes a very unique person to be number one among officers of Marines."

After leaving the Marines, Dr. Ellsberg returned to Harvard University to become a member of the Society of Fellows and to receive his Ph.D. in economics in 1962. Also during this time he was a strategic analyst at RAND Corporation and a consultant to the Department of Defense. During this period he participated in numerous studies, and was on the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the Cuban missile crisis. He went to Vietnam in 1965 for the State Department and served on General Lansdale's senior liaison team. He then was transferred to become a Special Assistant to Deputy Ambassador William Porter. Hepatitis forced his return to the U.S. in 1967 and he returned to RAND.

Dr. Ellsberg then began working on the McNamara study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam. This study is now known as the Pentagon Papers. In late 1968 he coordinated the development of a range of policy "options" on Vietnam for Henry Kissinger. He also prepared National Security Study Memorandum No. 1 in 1969, which was a set of questions sent to all agencies dealing with Vietnam and then helped to summarize the answers to those questions for President Nixon.

"The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine" is an award winning essay by Dr. Ellsberg which was published in 1970 for the M.I. T. Center for International Studies. His book, PAPERS ON THE WARS, was published by Simon and Schuster in July 1972. It may be of interest to our readers to learn that Daniel Ellsberg entered the Marine Corps approximately eight months after Hank Hohenstein (who assisted Manuel Klausner in interviewing Ellsberg) had enlisted. Though they had never served together, their training was very similar and both became infantry officers and served in infantry battalions. Their paths, though diverse, were entwined with the Department of Defense, since Hank remained very active in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1969. As late as 1968 he was privileged to attend various secret briefings when the credibility gap became too great to tolerate. As Hank states, "One did not have to read the newspaper nor be an especially astute tactician to understand that the military were not only deceiving the American people but even dedeiving themselves and that we were fighting a war we had lost militarily. But more importantly, because of our actions in Vietnam, we had lost the 'other war,' the war for the people."

Hank (who was featured several weeks ago in TIME as one of the San Diego Ten, a group of conservative and libertarian tax resistors recently on trial in San Diego) adds, "I sadly remember, and I'm certain Dan does also, the often heard comment, 'Hell, Marine, any war is better than no war."

Dan Ellsberg is a bright, articulate, and fascinating individual. Although he is not a libertarian, he does espouse certain positions which are in harmony with the libertarian philosophy. REASON expects this interview to provoke controversy among our readers, and we look forward to hearing your reaction to Ellsberg's views and actions.

REASON: First of all, Dan, is there an untold story about the Pentagon Papers and your disclosure of the Papers?

ELLSBERG: There are various stories that the Justice Department would probably like me to put out at this point, but I think that would tempt them too much to bring a second indictment in Boston. The current indictment deals only with the period during which the Papers were copied and given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It ends in September 1970. The Boston Grand Jury that has been investigating the distribution side of the Papers that went beyond the Congress, really only began sometime after September 1970. So if I were to talk about that now it simply would encourage them to indict a lot of people that later helped me in the distribution process that ended with the Pentagon Papers getting out to the newspapers. I don't care to talk about that.

REASON: What did you want to accomplish? What was your purpose in embarking upon the activities that led to your dissemination of the Pentagon Papers?

ELLSBERG: The only thing that I could personally hope to achieve by my own efforts was to make these documents available to the American public for them to read and to learn from. I couldn't force them to read the documents-let alone to learn from and act on them-but I could hope to make it possible for them to read them as opposed to the situation where the studies were sitting in my safe at the Rand Corporation. In that situation I was almost the only person in the country authorized to study and derive lessons from them. The theory was that those lessons would be put to use by the Executive Branch. But what the Pentagon Papers told me when I read them was that the Executive Branch was determined not to learn lessons from its experience in Vietnam. While the United States Government had experienced a series of failures that called for a change in our policy, successive administrations had really seen our experience as a succession of adequate successes. Each President had managed to postpone the day when the country, and specifically when he, would have to acknowledge a mistake or defeat. To this day, of course, no President has acknowledged any such mistake or defeat. So Richard Nixon is the fifth president in a row who counts his Vietnam policy a success to this point. The history in the Pentagon Papers told me that if others were to learn a different lesson it would have to be people outside the Executive Branch and they would have to have the physical capability to read the papers. So the papers had to leave my safe.

I tried first through the Senate and did not really succeed in making it available even to the whole of Congress, let alone to the people. Ultimately it was through the newspapers that the American public first saw large sections of the Pentagon Papers. But it wasn't until the Executive Branch had been induced to bring out its own declassified version through the Government Printing Office and Beacon Press brought out a somewhat fuller version-the so-called Senator Mike Gravel version-that I felt my task had been accomplished.

REASON: Did you also have a purpose in disclosing the Pentagon Papers of trying to show any detriment in the Government's policy of classifying information?

ELLSBERG: Yes. A very important secondary objective-second only to the objective of getting a change in our Vietnam policy-was the hope of changing the tolerance of Executive secrecy that had grown up over the last quarter of a century both in Congress and the courts and in the public at large. It seemed to me that our Vietnam policy reflected an accumulation of Executive power, which in turn had exploited very critically this tolerance of Executive secrecy. In other words, I felt that without the widespread willingness to allow the Executive to keep secret the mass of information about its own operations and intentions, it wouldn't have been possible for the Executive to steal away so much power from the Congress and the public and to free itself from the kinds of checks and balances that were intended in the Constitution. Precisely because Congressmen realized over the years that they lacked the information on which to criticize Executive policy or to suggest changes, they have opted out from an active role in the field of foreign policy. But by the same token, it was the Executive Branch itself which was denying them this information. So that what we saw was one more confirmation of the axiom on which I think our Constitution was originally built, which is, "power corrupts-even Americans." Power encroaches upon the challenges of the opposition, and officials in the Executive Branch, given a chance to paralyze opposition by practicing secrecy and deception, will use that power. l think that the Vietnam war was one cost of that process. The price we paid for allowing a single branch of Government to emerge as dominating almost exclusively the field of foreign policy and defense policy has been a quarter century of the Vietnam war-which means the price has been a couple of million of Vietnamese lives and over fifty thousand American lives, and 135 billion dollars in the last eight years alone.

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