Pentagon whistleblower Ellsberg given months to live
The man leaking vital data before it was fashionable
Comment Daniel Ellsberg, an American former military analyst who became one of the most significant whistleblowers in US history, has made peace with death.
In a letter [PDF] released this month, Ellsberg informed friends and followers that he has inoperable pancreatic cancer and has been told by doctors that he has an estimated three to six months to live.
Ellsberg served in the US Marine Corps and in 1959, took a job at RAND Corporation as a strategic analyst and served as a consultant to the Defense Department and the White House on matters of nuclear war. He joined the Defense Department in 1964 and returned to RAND in 1967, where he began working on a secret study of US policy in Vietnam from 1945 through 1968 that had been commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
This was in the midst of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). And in 1969, Ellsberg, with the help of former RAND colleague Anthony Russo, began providing Senator William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with material from the McNamara study in an effort to oppose the escalating conflict.
As Ellsberg tells it, "Despite the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, Senator Fulbright still held back from bringing out the documents in hearings, for fear of Executive reprisal."
So following the invasion of Laos in 1971, Ellsberg gave most of the study, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, to the New York Times. The Times began publishing excerpts of the material on June 13, 1971.
The US Justice Department promptly sought an injunction to prevent the Times from publishing further details from the report and contemplated bringing criminal charges against newspapers and reporters.
"When the Times was enjoined from publishing it further after three installments – the first such prior restraint in American history and a clear challenge to the First Amendment – I gave copies to the Washington Post and eventually, when the Post and two other papers were also enjoined, to nineteen papers in all," Ellsberg says.
The result was a major legal challenge to First Amendment free speech and free press protections. The Nixon administration sought to prevent further publication of the top secret study but the US Supreme Court on June 30, 1971, sided with the press and removed the injunction.
Six months later, on December 30, 1971, Ellsberg and Russo were indicted under the Espionage Act.
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"When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars," said Ellsberg in his letter.
"It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed (and was). Yet in the end, that action – in ways I could not have foreseen, due to Nixon’s illegal responses – did have an impact on shortening the war. In addition, thanks to Nixon's crimes, I was spared the imprisonment I expected, and I was able to spend the last fifty years with Patricia and my family, and with you, my friends."
Ellsberg and Russo were lucky in their enemies – the Nixon administration's misconduct, which included breaking into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, destroying documents, and illegal wiretapping, led to the dismissal of charges in May 1973.
Subsequent whistleblowers have had more difficulty avoiding legal consequences for their actions. Thomas Drake, who exposed government waste and abuse, was poorly treated by the US prosecutors. Edward Snowden, who leaked details of NSA surveillance programs, took refuge in Russia rather than face the US justice system.
Julian Assange, who oversaw Wikileaks, continues to fight a UK government decision to extradite him to the US. Chelsea Manning, who was acquitted of "aiding the enemy" for allegedly giving military and diplomatic material to Wikileaks but found guilty of other espionage charges, spent seven years in prison on a 35-year-sentence that was commuted by President Obama in 2017.
While not everyone views these whistleblowers in the same way – some see heroes and others see traitors – it's important to remember that whistleblowing serves a crucial democratic function. The press and the people of America depend upon whistleblowers to help hold government officials accountable and we should celebrate the act if not the individual.
And every so often, even the government recognizes this, as demonstrated by the recent passage of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Whistleblower Improvement Act.
Ellsberg has chosen not to undergo chemotherapy because it holds no promise for him. But he remains committed to advocating for peace. "As I look back on the last sixty years of my life, I think there is no greater cause to which I could have dedicated my efforts," he wrote.
Government Accountability Project CEO Louis Clark praised Ellsberg in an email to The Register.
"Daniel Ellsberg is a national hero for blowing the whistle on a war that we should not have fought, and which our top leaders lied about to the American people," said Clark.
"Through his example, he paved the way for thousands of whistleblowers who similarly risk their careers and even freedom to disclose national security problems, health and safety dangers, violations of law, abuses of authority, and gross waste throughout government and within corporations.
"In honor of his legacy, we must prevail upon Congress and state legislators to finally produce adequate legal protections for all whistleblowers in order to take the sacrifices of national security whistleblowers to heart."
This hack salutes the courage of those like Daniel Ellsberg who put themselves at risk for the sake of the truth. ®