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“The Most Dangerous Man in America”: New Documentary Chronicles Story of Daniel Ellsberg, Whose Leak of the Pentagon Papers Helped End Vietnam War

StorySeptember 16, 2009
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Daniel Ellsberg once faced espionage charges and possibly life in prison after leaking what became known as the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page classified history outlining the true extent of US involvement in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg’s actions directly contributed to the end of Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War. His story is chronicled in the new documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. We speak to Ellsberg, his wife Patricia, and the film’s co-director, Judith Ehrlich. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryJul 02, 2007How the Pentagon Papers Came to Be Published by the Beacon Press: A Remarkable Story Told by Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Dem Presidential Candidate Mike Gravel and Unitarian Leader Robert West
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest was described by Henry Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America.” He once faced espionage charges and possibly life in prison. The Nixon administration made attempts to ruin his life, going so far as to break into his psychiatrist’s office with the hope of uncovering incriminating information. Yes, I’m speaking about Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon analyst who leaked to the press in 1971 what became known as the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page classified history outlining the true extent of US involvement in Vietnam.

Daniel Ellsberg’s actions directly contributed to the end of the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War. His story is chronicled in a new documentary called The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It opens today in New York at the Film Forum.

    DANIEL ELLSBERG: It was the evening of October 1st, 1969, when I first smuggled several hundred pages of top-secret documents out of my safe at the RAND Corporation. The study contained forty-seven volumes, 7,000 pages. My plan was to Xerox the study and reveal the secret history of the Vietnam War to the American people.

    NEWSCASTER: The FBI was trying to find out who gave the New York Times a copy of a Pentagon secret study.

    MIKE GRAVEL: Pow!, like a thunderclap, you get the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, and the country is panicking.

    HENRY KISSINGER: This is an attack on the whole integrity of government. If whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can’t have orderly government anymore.

    HEDRICK SMITH: I mean, it was just staggering. The raw, top-secret, eyes-only documents.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper.

    PATRICIA ELLSBERG: In the first year of marriage, we’re talking about him going to prison for the rest of his life.

    REPORTER: Dr. Ellsberg, do you have any concern about the possibility of going to prison for this?

    DANIEL ELLSBERG: Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?

    EGIL KROGH: We felt so strongly that we were dealing with a national security crisis. Henry Kissinger said that Dr. Daniel Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America” and he had to be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

We’re joined in the firehouse studio by Daniel Ellsberg, as well as his wife Patricia and filmmaker Judith Ehrlich, co-director with Rick Goldsmith of this new documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, leaked the top-secret study of US decision making in Vietnam. The documents became known as the Pentagon Papers. At the time, he was a top US military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation.

Well, we welcome you all to Democracy Now! Actually, let’s begin by talking about why you decided to make this film.

JUDITH EHRLICH: Well, Daniel had written his autobiography Secrets a few years before, and at the time — I mean, this happened thirty-five years ago, or it happened thirty-five years before we started the film. And we — it seemed like a lot of people suddenly got interested in the story. And it’s — I think we, among some other filmmakers, felt that it was amazing no one had made this story. It seemed like such a natural political thriller; without having to concoct anything, what a great story, that, you know, here was someone who had — had made this act of conscience that really ended up bringing down the Nixon administration. And once we — the more we learned about it — I mean, we were of the generation that knew this story, we thought. But the more we learned about it, the more we thought, “What a fabulous story! What a great lesson for everyone about standing up for what’s right!”

AMY GOODMAN: Dan, it was forty years ago, come October 1st.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s how, actually, the film begins, where you’re narrating, and you say, “On October 1st, 1969…” What happened?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I left the Pentagon Papers inside a briefcase, which I took out of the RAND Corporation and took to the small advertising firm of the friend of a friend of mine, and spent the night xeroxing them, took them back in the morning, took some more out the next day, and did that month after month. It was a 7,000-page job, and they were very slow Xerox machines in times, so it took quite a while.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the decision making that went into this. I mean, you were a top Pentagon official, RAND Corporation executive.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I had worked for — as a consultant to Henry Kissinger and to Richard Nixon just before they came into office, in December of ’68 and January of ’69 in the White House, giving them options, pros and cons of various approaches in Vietnam, and then drafting for Secretary — the assistant secretary to Nixon, Henry Kissinger, a set of questions that we asked to all the bureaucracies. And I worked over those questions for him in the White House in February.

And they pointed, by the way, to essentially an endless war in Vietnam, which is not exactly what Nixon had campaigned on. He had talked about getting out, and yet — he talked about getting out with honor, which really meant, to him, victory. And what he was hearing from the questions that I drafted for him, which were answered by the Joint Chiefs, was that the ability of a Vietnamese to operate without US air support indefinitely was never. That meant an indefinite US commitment to Vietnam. That’s not what the public was being told.

AMY GOODMAN: In early 1965, Daniel Ellsberg received orders from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to compile a report on atrocities perpetrated by the Viet Cong. McNamara hoped the intelligence would convince President Johnson to launch a systematic bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

We’re going to go back to the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

    DANIEL ELLSBERG: About 4:00 a.m., I got what I was looking for. The colonel told me we’ve just gotten info that two American advisers appeared to have been captured and killed. I asked for graphic details, to make it concrete, dramatic. The colonel told me that their bodies showed signs of being dragged, perhaps by chains. I said, “Good, good, more like that. Wow! Jesus! This is it. Anything else? Anything like this anywhere else?” This was the only incident of its kind they found. It may have been the only one in the Vietnam War up to that point involving Americans, but one was enough for my report. At 6:30 a.m., I wrapped it up. A little after 9:00, McNamara came back from the White House and told my boss to thank me for my input. It was exactly what he needed.

    That’s, in fact, the most shameful episode I can think of, that I really did at a critical moment help McNamara persuade the President, by information I gave him, that he should start a systematic campaign of bombing, to which I was totally opposed.

    TOM OLIPHANT: Dan Ellsberg felt everything with great intensity, but nothing more so than this notion he had of his own culpability for everything he had done in the early years of the war. He had an important role in what became the most ridiculously disproportional bombing campaign in the history of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former Boston Globe reporter Tom Oliphant, an excerpt from The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It’s opening tonight at the Film Forum and will air around the country.

Patricia, your role in all of this is very significant, considering — wasn’t it your first date with Dan, now your husband, that brought him to his first peace protest?

PATRICIA ELLSBERG: Yes, he was working at the Pentagon at the time, and I was — had a radio program on WNYC and was covering the march. And he asked me out for — to see the cherry blossoms, which would have been very tempting. I said, “No, I’m covering this march and wanted to be there myself.” And he said, “I can’t do that. It’s my first Saturday off in seven months working around the clock.” And I said, “Well” —-

AMY GOODMAN: Around the clock where?



PATRICIA ELLSBERG: On Vietnam. And I said, “Well, I’m going to be at the march, so if you want to have a date, come with me.” And he did. And it was -— he was very nervous that there might be photographers and that it would get into the Pentagon that he spent his Saturday marching around the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: So you are the root of all Dan’s problems that started there. Now, how did you make that decision? That’s quite significant. You were a Pentagon official, and you’re standing in the midst of a peace rally, holding Patricia’s tape recorder?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, look at her.

A friend of mine, who was a Trotskyist, once — it’s in the movie — once was telling me that if you’re a Trotskyist and you stand on a soapbox, you’re going to get knocked off, from the left or the right, but somebody is going to knock you off. And I said, “Paul” — Jacobson — “how does one come to be a Trotskyist?” He said, “Oh, it’s like anything else. I met a girl.” And that’s the way it is.

AMY GOODMAN: But so, there you were, fearful that your face would appear in the Washington Post or the New York Times the next day.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, then they would have understood, if she was in the picture, too.

AMY GOODMAN: But what did that peace protest that day, but also the other peace protests, mean to this man, you, who Henry Kissinger called “the most dangerous man in America,” when you were inside? What were the effect of these peace protests?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Really, my attitude was not that different from most people inside the Pentagon. In other words, they regarded it as a hope — especially the ones who had been there. By the time we wrote the Pentagon Papers, nearly all the people had been in Vietnam for one or more years, so they all felt it was a hopeless, endless struggle with no end in sight. They would have been glad to see us out, even though some of them became high officials under Reagan and elsewhere. It was not a bed of hotbed radicals. They were people who had been in Vietnam and knew that there was no success to be had, nothing of the sort that Obama talks about now when he speaks about metrics of success in Viet — in Afghanistan, or what I’ve come to call Vietnamistan.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of Randy Keeler, the longtime tax resister, as we know him today, peace activist, and then how you actually leaked the papers?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the difference that it made was, as I said, practically everybody who had been to Vietnam concluded that the way we were doing it would lead to no success whatever, merely to an escalating bloody stalemate, which is what it did under both Johnson and Nixon.

The question was what you might do about that. And most of them did their job, got their retirement eventually, had the excitement of working in Vietnam and feeling important, or they moved to other things. They moved to the Peace Corps, or they moved out of government some way or other, and they washed their hands of it. Even McNamara, when he left, when he was fired in March of ’68, then went to the World Bank and tossed off Vietnam, did nothing, while the war went on for seven more years. So the question really was, what do you do about this pessimism there? And most people regarded it as fully the responsibility of the President or the public or the Congress, and for them to move on and not look toward the past, as Obama likes to say now.

In my case, I thought, I had been there, I’d been part of it, even when I’d criticized what was going on, like the bombing, which I’d criticized from the beginning. Nevertheless, I’d taken part in it, under orders. So I thought, alright, we’re there, it’s my job to do something to get us out.

Randy Keeler showed me that I could do something that I had never thought of, and that was risk my clearance, risk my career, risk my new relationship or my regained relationship with Patricia, go to prison for the rest of my life — very heavy costs — with the possibility of informing the public in a way that would save hundreds of thousands of lives. And when I saw Randy, who was going to prison as a draft resister, rather than go to Canada, rather than to be a CO, I realized I could do what they did, and it put the question in my head: what can I do now that I’m willing to go to prison?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back and find out how you actually leaked the Pentagon Papers and play more clips of the film. Daniel Ellsberg, our guest, his wife Patricia Ellsberg, and Judith Ehrlich, who is co-director of the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking, well, with “the most dangerous man in America,” to quote Henry Kissinger and the title of the new documentary about his life. We’re talking about Daniel Ellsberg with him and his wife, Patricia Ellsberg, and Judith Ehrlich, who has made the film.

How you leaked the Pentagon Papers, Dan?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I took them out of the — you know, in a briefcase. And I would have to take them out past the RAND guards, who could have asked, as they now do — the Ellsberg rule. They now ask to open the briefcases and look at them. And in those days, people other than me — I had always obeyed the rules very well, kept everything in the safe, but a lot of people did take their work home at night. And the guards didn’t tend to look at it. So I would walk past them and, at first, with the fear that the moment might come when I would be suddenly caught violating the dozens of secrecy agreements that I had made. I would take them to a Xerox machine at the advertising office of a friend of mine and spend all night, usually, xerox them one by one, number of copies of them, on a very slow machine that moved — not like the ones now that spit them out and collate and could have helped me very fast.

AMY GOODMAN: And Patricia, all your kids were involved with this?

PATRICIA ELLSBERG: No, these are Dan’s children from his first marriage. He got married when he was nineteen.

AMY GOODMAN: But they were involved?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I involved them, because I expected that within days they would come out through Fulbright and that I would be arrested immediately and would never get out, that I’d be in for life. So I figured that I’d see them only, and they’d never have an explanation that their father had not gone crazy and not become a traitor. And I wanted them to see that I was doing something that was — I felt was right for the country, and I was doing it in a straightforward way, and I hadn’t gone crazy. And I wanted to leave the legacy to my older son, who was thirteen, especially.


DANIEL ELLSBERG: Robert — that the day might come when he would have to feel that that was the best thing he could do, that he would have to break the law in support of his own country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to back — go back to the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America, this excerpt focusing on how the Nixon White House responded to Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers. It begins with John Dean, former White House counsel to President Nixon.

    JOHN DEAN: I think that there is probably some good justification for the strong feelings Nixon had. He would make a decision in the National Security Council and the next day read it on the front page of the New York Times or some other newspaper. This makes it virtually impossible to govern.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Just because some guy is going to be a martyr, we can’t be in a position of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government. I just say that we’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball. The main ball is Ellsberg. We’ve got to get this son of a bitch.

    JOHN DEAN: The leak of the Pentagon Papers changed the Nixon White House. It really is what some of us have called the beginning of the dark period. I mean, it was rough and tumble before, but it got down and dirty. So it’s really a defining event for the Nixon presidency. And this is when Egil Krogh, Bud Krogh, was selected to head up the so-called Plumbers unit.

    EGIL KROGH: I was summoned to the Oval Office by the President. John Ehrlichman and I met with him. There was some suspicion that Dr. Ellsberg had access to the more recent war plans that had been developed by the Nixon administration and would be able to release those documents. I came from that meeting feeling very strongly that I was dealing with a national security crisis, and I was to take any means necessary to respond to it.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The difficulty is all the good lawyers always say, “Well, we’ve got to win the court case.” Screw the court case. Let’s convict the son of a bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s done.

    EGIL KROGH: The President had decided to set up a special investigations unit in the White House staff.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: We’ve got to get a better team.

    CHARLES COLSON: There’s one guy on the outside. He’s hard as nails. His name is Howard Hunt.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: He could do it. And I’ll direct him myself. And I play it gloves off. Now, God damn it, get going on it.

    EGIL KROGH: Did Daniel Ellsberg work alone? Was he working with some other people? Was it part of a conspiracy? And it was in that context that a proposal was made by E. Howard Hunt to get information that could be used to discredit Dr. Ellsberg. A covert operation ought to be undertaken to examine all of the files still held by Dr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. This went to John Ehrlichman. Underneath that proposal were two lines: approve of the line, disapprove of the line. He wrote his large “E” after “approve” and then put in “under your assurance it is not traceable.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Egil “Bud” Krogh, White House aide to President Nixon, an excerpt from the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The Nixon —- the White House response, they were fearful you had more than you actually did.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah, they were fearful that I had evidence that they’d been making nuclear threats from 1960 on, which they continued to do. They weren’t finished with them. So they didn’t -—

AMY GOODMAN: This was through Kennedy.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah, for — no, this was for Nixon.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, but from Kennedy on through to —-

DANIEL ELLSBERG: No, Nixon had not made nuclear threats. Nixon had made nuclear threats starting in 1969. This is now ’71. And, of course, he renewed them, as the paper shows, in ’72. There’s a slot you may not show of Nixon saying to Kissinger -— it makes Kissinger look better than the directors were happy about. But Kissinger says, “Laos? How many did we kill in Laos? Oh, about 200,000.” “No, no,” says Nixon. “No, I’d rather use a nuclear bomb. Got that, Henry?” And Henry says, “Oh, I think that would be too much.” He says, “A nuclear bomb? Does that bother you? I just want you to think big for Henry, for Christ’s sakes. You worry about the civilian casualties. I don’t give a damn.”

AMY GOODMAN: Patricia, talk about when Dan Ellsberg was charged, faced, well, life in prison and what that meant, the decisions you made. In the film, it talks about the night you both were having dinner and went to the movies with Roz and Howard Zinn. You see your house on television. You just happen to turn it on. You see it being raided. And a few days later you go underground, and then your husband facing the rest of his life in prison. What role did you play? What did you talk about in those times?

PATRICIA ELLSBERG: In seeing the film, which brings back these memories from decades ago, it really struck — the pivotal moment, perhaps, in my adult life was the time when Daniel said, “I think that I want you to read the papers.” He had protected me, because it was top secret. He didn’t want my fingerprints on the copies. “And I’m considering putting out the papers,” because he knew that Nixon was going to expand the war and that the peace — the peace plan was not going to work. So this is our first year of marriage, first few months of marriage. And I was thirty-two, and I had spent a lot of years looking for Mr. Right. I had not been married before.

And I’m reading documents that are horrifying to me. Amy, I saw something that Dan hadn’t seen, that in the language that was being used by the leaders of our country, they were using words like “one more turn of the screw,” “ratchet up the water-drip technique,” and much phrasing, much, much language of torturers. And I was horrified at the indifference to human suffering of both Americans and Vietnamese, their indifference to Congress, to the American public, the manipulations.

And so, Dan said, “Should I put these out?” And I said, with tears in my eyes, “These have to get out to the American public,” knowing that my beloved husband, who I still love after forty years — he’s still my hero — might go to prison for the rest of his life. And I look back at that, and I am really proud. I’m really proud of — I was not groomed to be chopping top secrets off documents as we were about to publish —- to copy them so that they could be given out to more newspapers.

AMY GOODMAN: The Times held them for a long time. You weren’t even sure if they were going to do the -—

DANIEL ELLSBERG: No, I wasn’t sure they’d come out. I gave them in early March, and they didn’t come out until August — or June, rather.

AMY GOODMAN: You gave them to the Washington Post, and what people might not realize is you got them to newspapers all over the country.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes, people have been puzzled often when they tell it lately about why did we go underground. In fact, Pete McCloskey was asking me recently, you know, “Why didn’t you just turn yourself up?” And he had forgotten that the Times and the Post had been interviewed — had been enjoined. If it had stopped there and it would prove possible to just stop the process and look at it closely and think about it a little more —-

AMY GOODMAN: Enjoined by the courts.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: By the courts -— the Supreme Court would have gone at least 5-to-4 for holding up the injunction.

AMY GOODMAN: Former New York Times reporters Hedrick Smith and Max Frankel also appear in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America. This is Hedrick Smith.

    HEDRICK SMITH: I walked into this hotel room, where he and I holed up. And Neil says, “Rick, look at what we’ve got!” I mean, it was just staggering. The raw, top-secret, eyes-only documents, from Earle Wheeler to General Westmoreland, from Johnson to Taylor. You could go back and see, yes, Kennedy did send in troops in violation of the Geneva Accord. Yes, Johnson did start the buildup before he said he was going to. I remember writing this story. These guys were lying through their teeth when they were talking to us. And here it is in black and white. There’s no way of denying it.

    MAX FRANKEL: The editors immediately understood that this thing was so sensitive and was going to have to be kept under wraps, and so they decided to move the whole thing out of the New York Times offices and to go and rent a suite at the Hilton.

AMY GOODMAN: The Supreme Court ultimately decided, of course, on behalf of the New York Times and made history. I mean, as you point out in the documentary, Judith, I mean, all over this country this is a case cited probably every single day for freedom of the press. And you were acquitted in the treason.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: No, the charges were dropped. There was no decision. Just before it went to the jury, the judge, having found out that they had hidden or he couldn’t find the records of the wiretap, things that he had asked for just the day before, finally concluded there is a gross pattern of governmental misconduct here that, quote, “offends the sense of justice.” So he dismissed the charges with prejudice, meaning we couldn’t be tried again.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask, back then to today —- at the time, your colleagues at the RAND Corporation, people you valued and trusted, wouldn’t even go near you, called you at traitor, a number of them. And end with today, which is, what you think should be done today.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I look at this film, and I watch the bombs falling, and all I can see in my mind are the bombs, the same bombs, falling over Afghanistan, or Vietnamistan, and Iraq right now. And we’re really facing, at this moment, a crisis of decision that’s just like the one that’s in the film, which I failed at the time, where the President is doing something that I feel will be a disaster, and I kept my mouth shut about it, the change from 70,000 men in the spring of ’65 to an open-ended commitment, starting with another 50,000, which I knew was on the way to hundreds of thousands. I didn’t tell about that, and nor did anyone else. There was a lot of dissent in the administration about that, but we were overruled. We saluted Clark Clifford, Vice President Humphrey. Again, we have a vice president who apparently is against the application, another parallel. James Jones, the military man, can see what I can see and anybody can see, who has memories of Vietnam: there is no success at the end of this tunnel. There is only a stalemate, which could persist indefinitely.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think we’ll see a new Dan Ellsberg?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: We need people to put out, to tell the truth, and to do it, not the way I did, not after the escalation, not after the bombs have fallen, but right now. Right now. And for the Congress to hold the hearings that will entertain those people.

AMY GOODMAN: The film The Most Dangerous Man in America opens at the Film Forum. Then it will be in Santa Monica, which is right across from the RAND Corporation, significantly, on the fortieth anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.

JUDITH EHRLICH: Yeah, it’ll open on [inaudible] -—

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I wish it were in DC this month. We’re going to do everything we can to get it there, because I think this film actually, by showing that actions by an individual of telling the truth, at great cost or risk, can make the difference. And that’s the critical thing that keeps people’s mouths shut: it won’t make any difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, and Judith Ehrlich, co-director of The Most Dangerous Man in America, thanks for joining us.

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Up Next

How the Pentagon Papers Came to Be Published by the Beacon Press: A Remarkable Story Told by Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Dem Presidential Candidate Mike Gravel and Unitarian Leader Robert West

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