Whistleblower leaked U.S. government's assessment on war to the media
Daniel Ellsberg, the history-making whistleblower who by leaking the Pentagon Papers revealed longtime government doubts and deceit about the Vietnam War and inspired acts of retaliation by President Richard Nixon that helped lead to his resignation, has died. He was 92.
Ellsberg, who announced in February that he was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, died Friday morning, according to a letter from his family released by a spokesperson, Julia Pacetti.
Until the early 1970s, when he revealed that he was the source for the stunning media reports on the 47-volume, 7,000-page Defence Department study of the U.S. role in Indochina, Ellsberg was a well-placed member of the government-military elite.
'Talent for discretion'
He was a Harvard graduate and self-defined "cold warrior" who served as a private and government consultant on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, risked his life on the battlefield, received the highest security clearances and came to be trusted by officials in Democratic and Republican administrations.
He was especially valued, he would later note, for his "talent for discretion."
But like millions of other Americans in and out of government, he had turned against the years long war in Vietnam, the government's claims that the battle was winnable and that a victory for the North Vietnamese over the U.S.-backed South would lead to the spread of communism throughout the region.
However, unlike many other war opponents, he was in a special position to make a difference.
"An entire generation of Vietnam-era insiders had become just as disillusioned as I with a war they saw as hopeless and interminable," he wrote in his 2002 memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
"By 1968, if not earlier, they all wanted, as I did, to see us out of this war."
The Pentagon Papers
The Pentagon Papers had been commissioned in 1967 by then-Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a leading public advocate of the war who wanted to leave behind a comprehensive history of the U.S. and Vietnam and to help his successors avoid the kinds of mistakes he would only admit to long after.
The papers covered more than 20 years, from France's failed efforts at colonization in the 1940s and 1950s to the growing involvement of the U.S., including the bombing raids and deployment of hundreds of thousands of ground troops during Lyndon Johnson's administration.
Ellsberg was among those asked to work on the study, focusing on 1961, when newly-elected President John F. Kennedy began adding advisers and support units.
In 1959, Ellsberg was working as strategic analyst at the RAND Corp., a global policy think-tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., and consulted for the Defence Department and the White House on nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans and crisis decision-making.
He spent two years in the mid-1960s with the State Department in Vietnam, where he learned first-hand how casually military and political officials lied. There, he became convinced the conflict was unwinnable, in part through the firefights with the North Vietnamese that he survived.
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Xeroxing top secret documents
Encouraged by a close friend from Rand, researcher Anthony J. Russo, Ellsberg had decided by the fall of 1969 that the Nixon administration would continue the policies of other presidents and that the McNamara study needed to be seen. His life would soon resemble an espionage thriller.
Ellsberg removed some of the bound, classified volumes from his safe in the Rand offices, placed them in his briefcase and walked past security guards and a sign reading "Loose Lips Sink Ships."
With Russo's girlfriend owning an advertising agency, Ellsberg spent months copying the documents on an office Xerox machine, sometimes helped by his teenage son, Robert. On occasion, the office alarm would mistakenly ring, police would show up, and leave soon after.
Ellsberg became so worried that he began slicing off the "Top Secret" markings from the papers, in case authorities wanted to inspect more closely.
The Pentagon Papers were first published in The New York Times in June 1971, with The Washington Post, The Associated Press and more than a dozen others following.
The classified papers documented that the U.S. had defied a 1954 settlement barring a foreign military presence in Vietnam, questioned whether South Vietnam had a viable government, secretly expanded the war to neighbouring countries and had plotted to send American soldiers even as Johnson vowed he wouldn't.
'The most dangerous man in America'
The leaker's identity became a national guessing game and Ellsberg proved an obvious suspect, because of his access to the papers and his public condemnation of the war over the previous two years.
With the FBI in pursuit, he turned himself in to authorities in Boston, became a hero to the anti-war movement and a traitor to the war's supporters, labelled the "most dangerous man in America" by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, with whom Ellsberg had once been friendly.
The Nixon administration quickly tried to block further publication on the grounds that the papers would compromise national security, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favour of the newspapers on June 30, 1971, a landmark First Amendment ruling rejecting prior restraint.
Nixon himself, initially unconcerned because the papers predated his time in office, was determined to punish Ellsberg and formed a renegade team of White House "plumbers," endowed with a stash of White House "hush money" and the mission of preventing future leaks.
Ellsberg faced trials in Boston and Los Angeles on federal charges for espionage and theft, with a possible sentence of more than 100 years. He had expected to go to jail, but was spared, in part, by Nixon's rage and the excesses of those around him.
The Boston case ended in a mistrial because the government wiretapped conversations between a defence witness and his attorney.
Charges in the Los Angeles trial were dismissed after Judge Matthew Byrne learned that White House "plumbers" G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt had burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Ellsberg is survived by his second wife, the journalist Patricia Marx, and three children, two from his first marriage.
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