- By Jude Sheerin & Brandon Drennan
- BBC News, Washington DC
Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who exposed the extent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, has died at 92.
He died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Kensington, California, his family said.
The 1971 Pentagon Papers leak of the former US military inspector led him to be called “the most dangerous man in America”.
This led to a Supreme Court case as the Nixon administration sought to block publication in The New York Times.
But the espionage charges against Ellsberg were eventually dismissed. “Daniel was a truth-seeker, a patriotic truth-teller, an anti-war activist, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, a dear friend to many, and an inspiration to countless others. He will be loved. We will all miss him,” Ellsberg’s family said in a statement obtained by NPR.
For decades, Ellsberg was a tireless critic of government overreach and military intervention.
His opposition crystallized in the 1960s when he advised the White House on nuclear strategy and evaluated the Vietnam War for the Defense Department.
What Ellsberg learned during that period weighed heavily on his conscience. If the public knew, he thought, political pressure to end the war might prove irresistible.
The release of the Pentagon Papers – 7,000 government pages exposing the fraud of several US presidents – was a result of that reasoning.
The government’s public statements about the war and its negative connotations helped bring the conflict to an end and, ultimately, led to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon.
Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, told the BBC that Ellsberg was “the grandfather of whistleblowers”.
His intervention “radically changed public opinion on the Vietnam War”, Rusbridger told Radio 4’s World Tonight programme. He said the case against him set a precedent and that “no American government has ever tried to ban a document on the grounds of national security.”
The Pentagon Papers created a First Amendment conflict between the Nixon administration and the New York Times, which first published stories based on the papers — which were dismissed by government officials as espionage that compromised national security. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of freedom of the press.
Ellsberg was indicted in federal court in Los Angeles in 1971 on charges of theft, espionage, conspiracy, and other charges.
But before the jury could reach a verdict, the judge dismissed the case, citing serious government misconduct, including illegal wiretapping.
In the middle of the case, the judge said, he was offered the job of FBI director by a top aide to President Nixon.
It was also revealed that there was a government-sanctioned burglary in Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
Ellsberg was born in Chicago on 7 April 1931, and grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Before reaching the Pentagon, he was a Marine Corps veteran with a Harvard doctorate who served in the Departments of Defense and State.
According to Rusbridger, recent whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden were “cast” by Ellsberg.
Pentagon Papers Case “Who Defines the National Interest: The Government of the Day or Conscientious People Like Daniel Ellsberg?” He told the BBC that it made him think.
Years after the Pentagon Papers leak, Ellsberg continued his quest to hold the government accountable.
During an interview in December 2022, he told the BBC Hartog that he was the secret “back-up” for the leak of the WikiLeaks documents.
In the WikiLeaks case, Julian Assange’s organization released 700,000 classified documents, videos and diplomatic cables provided by a US military intelligence inspector in 2010.
Ellsberg said Mr Assange “can count on me to find a way to get it”. [the information] out”.
After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February and doctors telling Ellsberg he had three to six months to live, he spent recent months thinking about the Pentagon Papers and blowing the whistle more broadly.
In an email obtained by the Washington Post in March 2023, Ellsberg wrote: “When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would spend the rest of my life behind bars. If it was to hasten the end of the Vietnam War, it may not have seemed that way.”
Politics Published an interview With Ellsberg on June 4, the publication asked him whether, by then, the whistle-blowing was worth the risk, despite his view that it didn’t make the government honest.
“When we’re facing a pretty final catastrophe. When we’re on the verge of blowing up the world over Crimea or Taiwan or Pakmut,” he replied.
“From the point of view of the survival of a civilization and eight or nine billion people, when everything is at stake, is even a small chance of having a small effect worth it?” he said. “Answer: Sure…one might even say mandatory.”