Daniel Ellsberg, the man largely responsible for the release of the Pentagon Papers, spoke at the Watergate complex Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of the Watergate Living and Learning Community.
Ellsberg, who spoke at the community’s first event five years ago, spoke about how his decision to release the Pentagon Papers and how it affected him and the course of American history. He also urged government employees to supply the media with classified information about the Iraqi war.
The 7,000-page Pentagon Papers detailed the U.S. decision-making process during the Vietnam War. With Ellsberg’s decision to leak the papers prompted the belief among Americans that the United States had no way of winning the Vietnam War; they also perceived that successive administrations had a blatant disregard for the lives of soldiers.
As a result of the paper’s release, Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official, was unsuccessfully put on trial for 12 felony counts that would have carried a sentence of up to 115 years in prison. The paper’s release also made him the target of Nixon administration officials, he said, because they anticipated that the papers could have a negative impact on their political agenda.
The same people that were sent to break into the Watergate were ordered to “incapacitate” him and even broke into his psychoanalyst’s office in an attempt to gain information that would be damaging to his reputation.
Today, Ellsberg is committed to trying to recruit members of the government to do what he did 35 years ago: leak confidential information to the press. Specifically, Ellsberg wants the public to know the extent to which the Bush administration knew about prisoner abuse in Iraq.
“Nearly all Americans think I’m asking them to break the law,” Ellsberg said. “I’m not … the United States has no law prohibiting leaking confidential documents.”
In a dramatic turn of events, one of the event’s attendees revealed that she had worked in the Bush Department of Justice and was subsequently fired and criminally investigated for leaking information about John Walker Lindh, an American who joined the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Because of her actions, the woman said she was blacklisted from government jobs and is on the Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list. Despite her distressing experience, she said that she would leak again because of the effect it had on the American public.
Ellsberg commended the former Bush administration official’s decision. “Don’t do what I did, don’t wait,” he said.
Professor Daniel S. Jacobs, director of the Watergate 723 LLC, located on the Hall of Virginia Avenue’s seventh floor, introduced Ellsberg to the group. Watergate burglars used a room on HOVA’s seventh floor to stage their botched break-in operation of a Democratic office in the Watergate in 1972. At that time, HOVA was a Howard Johnson hotel.
“The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq only make the issues that arose from the Pentagon Papers more poignant,” Jacobs said.
Ellsberg said that had he not released the Pentagon Papers, there is little chance that the Nixon administration would have needed to retaliate against him and that part of the Watergate investigation would not have surfaced.
“Vietnam and Watergate have everything to do with one another,” Ellsberg told the 60 people in attendance.
Freshman Stavan Desai praised Ellsberg for his courageousness.
“It is good to have someone in the public eye that after all these years and tribulations, including threats on his life, have the moral courage to tell the truth and convince others to do what is morally right and just,” Desai said.
Ellsberg is just one among many “key players” to speak about Vietnam and the Watergate scandal to the LLC. Past speakers include former U.S. attorney Earl Silbert and ex-Nixon aide John Dean.