Death of a Whistleblower
SOME OF YOU have powerful memories of Daniel Ellsberg, who died June 16, 2023. You remember the impact he had on the way Americans thought about the war in Vietnam when he leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971.
In 1967, he contributed with 33 other analysts at the RAND Corporation, to a top-secret 47-volume study of classified documents on the conduct of the Vietnam War. These 7,000 pages of documents, became known collectively as the "Pentagon Papers”. Throughout 1970, Ellsberg attempted to persuade a few sympathetic U.S. Senators, J. William Fulbright, and George McGovern, to release the papers on the Senate floor, because a Senator could not be prosecuted for anything said on the record before the Senate. Then, in 1971, he released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers.
He was charged under the Espionage Act. Right now, the Espionage Act is in the headlines for a different reason: It’s the law under which Donald Trump faces charges for hiding classified documents. But most Espionage Act prosecutions are about people seeking to inform the public. Ellsberg was asked if he had regrets about his actions. Ellsberg said he felt bad only because he hadn’t shared the information sooner.
Ellsberg never went to prison—but not for lack of trying on the government’s part. But because of the gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering, the judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg on May 11, 1973, after the government claimed it had lost records of wiretapping against Ellsberg.
The Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case ruled 6 to 3 against the governments attempt to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. There were 9 different opinions.
Ellsberg described his reaction to hearing Randy Kehler, a draft resister speak that changed his worldview. It was the example he was setting with his life. He was going to jail as a very deliberate choice – because he thought it was the right thing to do.
Ellsberg commented: “There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year. If I hadn't met Randy Kehler it wouldn't have occurred to me to copy [the Pentagon Papers]. His actions spoke to me as no mere words would have done. He put the right question in my mind at the right time.”
Let’s hope we all have the right question in our minds at the right time.
Daniel Ellsberg’s courage, integrity, and devotion to the truth and democracy is a model for all of us and has inspired other organizations to honor his work.
We were proud in 2018 to add the name of Daniel Ellsberg to the Sebastopol Living Peace Wall. He personally sat on this stage.
Thank you, Daniel Ellsberg.