Last night I got a chance to view the excellent 2009 documentary film “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”
Of course, it is impossible to mention the Pentagon Papers now without thinking “Wikileaks,” and I admit that it was an interest in the parallels and differences in the cases that put that selection in my Netflix queue. It turned out to be a far more rewarding choice than I had expected. The film brings the 40-year old Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers sequence of events to life as vividly as the Private Manning/Wikileaks case is alive now. And without that historical knowledge and context one’s awareness of the Wikileaks case is impoverished.
Surprisingly, one of the most eye-opening aspects of the film is a greater awareness of the massive technological differences between the two eras even as so many of the issues and politics seem hauntingly similar. One wonders about the degree to which that did and did not make a difference. Has the Internet and digitization really made whistle-blowing and information leakage more of a check on government power?
Daniel Ellsberg had to physically smuggle 47 volumes out of the Pentagon, one or two, day by day, in his briefcase. He then had to manually copy 7,000 pages, one by one, on the slow-scanning Xerox machines of the early 1970s without any auto-feeding mechanisms that allow us to dump multiple sheets into the hopper and walk away for a few minutes. The process of simply getting a leakable copy available for dissemination took full time work for several months.
Ellsberg, like Private Bradley Manning, was immediately prosecuted for a violation of the Espionage Act – and so was the New York Times for publishing the materials. The Times articles were suspended through a federal injunction. But Ellsberg was able to avoid arrest by the FBI and remain in hiding for several weeks. During that period he gradually created a snowball effect by having copies of the Papers delivered to different newspapers. The Washington Post was first, but it, too, was quickly silenced by a federal injunction. Then the Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer joined in with articles and revelations from the Pentagon Papers. In the end, only 17 organizations – all of them within U.S.jurisdiction – was what it took to make the release of the papers perceived as irreversible. The coup de grace came when U.S. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska read large sections of the Papers into the Congressional Record as part of an anti-war filibuster. Thus, there is nothing new about the Internet’s ability to replicate information beyond recovery, it has simply provided a qualitative leap in the speed and scale of such replication, and globalized its scope.
Reliance on paper media simultaneously made the process more fragile and risky, while also making certain aspects of it far more forgiving, and easier for dissidents and whistleblowers to maneuver within. For example, had Ellsberg been discovered during the long copying process, the revelations could have been contained. At the same time, post-disclosure it is harder (though not impossible) to imagine Manning or Assange remaining unapprehended for weeks in this age of credit cards, identity documents and regimented travel. A reliance on digital networks actually would make the dissemination of the documents more traceable than the meeting on the street in front of a Washington hotel to move a big bundle of papers from one car trunk to another. Moreover, because newspapers were, unlike the Internet as a whole, legally institutionalized the U.S. – even under Nixon – relied on legal measures (not DDoS attacks and threats of assassination) to go after the publishers. And there was an independent judiciary to contend with. In New York Times Co. v. United States (403 U.S. 713) the government lost its Espionage Act case on First Amendment grounds, 6-3, producing a critical free speech precedent regarding the burden of proof for prior restraint.
While the technological and publishing environment seems radically different, one is struck by the similarities in the political debate. It just hits you in the face, especially since this documentary was made more than a year before the Wikileaks controversy hit. While Ellsberg (untainted by any sex scandal) comes across as a more ethical and principled person than Assange, it is actually Private Manning, not Assange, who is his counterpart. Like Manning, Ellsberg was deeply motivated by his opposition to a war and a growing outrage at the way the American people were being lied to about both the rationale for and the conduct of the war. Both Manning and Ellsberg were former soldiers, and analysts inside the military. If you cross out the name Assange and replace it with Manning, the documentary strongly supports the assertion that Daniel Ellsberg himself made recently in a news release on the Wikileaks case: “…EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.”
White House recordings quoted in the film show that President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger viewed Ellsberg’s act as a fundamental attack on the integrity of government. It was Kissinger who called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America.” It was Nixon who said “he is putting himself above the President of the United States, above the Congress, above our whole system of government, when he says that he would determine what should be made public.” Privately, in the inner sanctum but preserved on tape, Nixon said “we gotta get this son of a bitch.” And, in what should be a warning to those who would overreact to Wikileaks, it was that desire to “get the son of a bitch” that became the defining moment and downfall of the entire Nixon Presidency. Nixon’s creation of the “plumbers” unit (to plug leaks) and his attempt to discredit Ellsberg through surveillance was of course what led to the Watergate break-ins and his impeachment and resignation. In a Congressional hearing on the Watergate, Nixon aide Erlichmann tries to justify it by saying that “the President wanted to make sure that nothing like this [the Ellsberg leaks] could ever happen again. Thus, Assange is right that leaking of privileged information disequilibrates systems of power.
That recalls another poignant moment in the film about the implications of secrecy, when Ellsberg, a senior defense analyst, is meeting Henry Kissinger, the incoming Secretary of State. He recalls that he said to him:
“Henry, you’re about to get a lot of clearances, higher than top secret, that you did not know existed. That’s going to have a sequence of effects on you. First, a great exhilaration, that you’re getting all this amazing information that you didn’t know even existed. And the next phase is, you’ll feel like a fool, for not having known any of this. But that won’t last long. Very soon, you’ll come to think that everyone else is foolish. What would this expert be telling me, if he knew what I knew? So in the end, you’ll stop listening to them.”
The film ends with an inspiring quotation from Ellsberg:
“The courage we need is not the fortitude to be obedient in the service of an unjust war, to help conceal lies, to do our job for a boss who has usurped power and is acting as an outlaw government. It is the courage at last to face honestly the truth and reality of what we are doing in the world and act responsibly to change it.”