There was very little precedent when Daniel Ellsberg began leaking top secret classified government documents during the Vietnam War.
Five decades later he shared with students — and anyone else who was interested — that non-violent activists like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were behind his disclosures because that’s how he could make an impact to stop an “unjust war.”
Ellsberg spoke virtually with fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden Saturday during the free and public Ellsberg Archive Project conference, hosted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Their conversation marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers — documents that showed the United States government knowingly downplayed the lack of success in the war that killed more than two million civilians and troops over two decades.
Ellsberg and Snowden talked about their patriotic duty and love of the Constitution as their reasons for releasing government secrets. As former public servants who had high-ranking security clearances, both released secret documents to journalists to inform the public about government action.
Ellsberg released documents with the intention of slowing and eventually stopping the Vietnam War.
“Averting nuclear war was my highest priority,” he said.
Ellsberg said he had always taken pride in being able to keep government secrets. However, it was an “open secret,” he said, that the United States was not doing as well abroad as the government said. Public sentiment had turned against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, when Ellsberg started releasing documents that showed the government knew there was no way to win.
He knew releasing documents to the public to create a debate based on facts would be the best way to check the government’s power, he said.
“I suddenly realized for the first time that I’ve been going on the wrong principle here,” Ellsberg said. “That leaking wasn’t necessarily against our interests, against the President’s interests, or the wrong thing to do. This was very good it got a debate for the first time in Congress.”
Ellsberg faced retaliation for the releases. He was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, which did not, and still does not allow for the defendant to explain their reasoning for the release. Snowden and other whistleblowers have faced similar charges for leaks.
While charges against Ellsberg were dismissed in 1973, Snowden is currently living in Russia to avoid prosecution in the U.S.
“The government is not very creative in their response to being exposed. The response is retaliation,” Snowden said Saturday, describing the charges against him and why he lives in exile. “I don’t believe the U.S. government will ever pardon me because I don’t believe they have the political courage not to… admit they have made a mistake.”
Ellsberg said, “Ed would be crazy to come back for a trial.”
“Without amending the Espionage Act or rescinding it you cannot get a fair trial for a whistleblower in this case,” he said.
That’s why for many years very few people followed in Ellsberg’s footsteps as whistleblowers of the U.S. government, he said.
“After 39 years of the Pentagon Papers I have been able to say ‘do what Chelsea Manning did’ and three years later ‘do what Ed Snowden did’ and you have Reality Winner and definitely Daniel Hale and the others,” Ellsberg said about fellow whistleblowers who have released documents over the past decade that show potential overreach by the U.S. government. “They are paying a very high price.”
Ellsberg and Snowden both warn that the government will continue to overreach, and it is up to Americans to fight back. However, people need facts to make those decisions, they said, which government documents can offer.
Looking at the 20-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other international crises “these catastrophes can be changed by individuals putting the truth out,” Ellsberg said.