Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who in 1971 leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers detailing the history of U.S. policy in Vietnam, tells NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday that unlike Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, he "did it the wrong way" by trying first to go through proper channels — a delay that he says cost thousands of lives.
"I really regarded [it] as anathema ... leaking as opposed to working within the system," Ellsberg says, speaking to NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "I wasted years trying to do it through channels, first within the executive branch and then with Congress."
"During that time, more than 10,000 Americans died and probably more than a million Vietnamese," Ellsberg says.
"That was a fruitless effort, as it would have been for Manning and Snowden," he says.
Ellsberg, then an analyst with the RAND Corporation, leaked a study of U.S.-Vietnam relations from 1945-1967, known colloquially as the Pentagon Papers, handing over the document to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers.
The release of the Pentagon Papers proved politically embarrassing for President Richard Nixon and the Watergate break-in, which eventually led to Nixon's resignation, was part of a broader White House effort to identify the source of such leaks.
Ellsberg was eventually charged with espionage, theft and conspiracy, but the charges were later dismissed, unlike the case of Army Private Bradley Manning, who was convicted on similar counts last week for releasing secret diplomatic cables and other material to Wikileaks.
The decision to go public with the Pentagon Papers — which detailed a pattern of deception regarding Vietnam and the Vietnam War that spanned several presidential administrations — was a difficult one, according to Ellsberg.
"I decided it was worth a life in prison to do that," he says.
Asked whether he thinks Manning and Snowden, the CIA contractor who leaked details of secret U.S. electronic surveillance activities to The Guardian newspaper, had been discerning in what they chose to release publicly: "Yes, that's obvious with Snowden," he says.
"The public has been very misled about Manning, I would say," Ellsberg says. "They talk about his being indiscriminate. That's simply false. Like me and like Snowden, he had access to communications intelligence higher than top secret. He gave none of that out."
Since The Guardian's exposés, based on information obtained from Snowden, first broke in June, "the whole focus has been on the risks of truth telling, the risks of openness, which are the risks of democracy, of separation of powers," Ellsberg says.
"I've really heard nothing at all about the risks of a closed society, of silence, of lies," he says.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer. Now this is one of the most famous leakers in U.S. history.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I really regarded it as anathema to think of leaking, as opposed to working within the system and giving our criticisms within the system that looked to me entirely legitimate.
WERTHEIMER: That's Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, the New York Times published the first of what became known as the "Pentagon Papers," documents leaked by Ellsberg, which contained an accurate but secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg, who was at the time a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, had contributed to the "Pentagon Papers."
The documents told a very different story from then optimistic one being sold to the public and to the U.S. Congress. For more than a decade, Ellsberg had agonized over the lies and the body count.
ELLSBERG: Do I keep my silence, go along with presidential deception, not reveal it to Congress of the public, or should I take what I knew was the very great risk of giving Congress a real indication of where the country was going on this? And I decided that it was worth a life in prison to do that.
WERTHEIMER: Daniel Ellsberg was eventually charged with espionage, theft and conspiracy, though the charges against him were later dismissed. He spoke to us about U.S. Army Private, Bradley Manning, who last week was found guilty of espionage after he leaked thousands of documents to WikiLeaks. And he talked about NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who was just granted temporary asylum by Russia and moved out of the Moscow airport.
We spoke with Daniel Ellsberg at his home yesterday and asked him about the "Pentagon Papers." When you made the decision that you felt like you ought to reveal to the country and the Congress that President Nixon was not being straight, how did you decide what you wanted to leak? I mean, what would make a difference?
ELLSBERG: I didn't have at that moment the documents that would have demonstrated that. All that I did have was the history of Vietnam decision making from 1945 to 1968, 23 years ended before Nixon came into office. But I hoped that proving that four previous presidents, or five depending who you wanted to count, had deceived the public in very similar ways and people should guess that the present president's following in their footsteps.
WERTHEIMER: Does it make a difference in your own mind that you tried not to do it, that you tried to get other people enlisted in your cause before you did it?
ELLSBERG: Not really in my own mind. I'm given credit for that now, in contrast to Snowden and Manning. I did it the right way. I would say I did it the wrong way. I wasted years of trying to do it though channels, first within the executive branch and then with Congress. During that time, more than 10,000 Americans died, and probably more than a million Vietnamese.
So that's not a point of pride with me that I did what I should have done going through channels. That was a fruitless effort as it would have been for Manning and Snowden.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that, particularly Bradley Manning, but also to some extent Snowden, were discerning about what they were trying to release or trying to bring to light?
ELLSBERG: Yes, that's obvious with Snowden. The public has been very misled about Manning, I would say. They talk about his being discriminate. That's simply false. Like me and like Snowden, he had access to communications intelligence higher than top secret. He gave none of that out. He deliberately choose to put out information that was, as we would say in the Pentagon, only secret, which was frankly below the level that I had time to read in the Pentagon where I was for a year.
Apparently I was missing more than I realized because this secret material he put out, which I would have thought was pretty routine, actually revealed a great deal of criminality going right up to the White House. I was surprised. Apparently it's become so routine to violate the law in terms of turning people over to be tortured and refusing to investigate it, that it doesn't take anything higher than secret to do that anymore.
WERTHEIMER: The most recent leak of documents from Snowden did, I think, give some considerably insight into the kind of surveillance that the NSA is doing, specifically search queries that analysts could do to find something suspicious. Isn't it conceivable that this could give potential terrorists a window into how to avoid capture?
ELLSBERG: The whole focus has been on the risks of truth telling, the risks of openness, which are risks of democracy and a separation of powers. I've really heard nothing at all about the risks of closed society, of silence, of lies.
WERTHEIMER: Well, let me ask you about that. What do you think are the secrets that should be kept, circumstances that must not be leaked?
ELLSBERG: Oh, very specifically, the overhearing of suspected terrorists, people you have probably cause or reason to believe are associated with terrorism. No problem getting warrants for that. And of course, that needs to be kept secret. The secrecy of getting everybody, listening to everybody, protects no one. As Senator Leahy has pointed out, they have been able to come up with no convincing evidence that that dragnet program has prevented any terrorism. As I say, these risks of advantage to terrorists, I wouldn't say totally implausible or unreal, but hypothetical, not realized, whereas the risks of our closed policy are measured in real blood.
Remember, they talked about Manning and then later Assange and then later also Snowden as having blood on their hands. Well, they haven't found any, whereas the hands of the people who are using their judgment to keep these secrets from the American people are bloody up to their elbows.
WERTHEIMER: That's Daniel Ellsberg, who is famous for leaking and helping to publish the "Pentagon Papers." Mr. Ellsberg, thank you very much.
ELLSBERG: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.