Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

A dying Daniel Ellsberg talks about Discord and the power of leaks

Posted by M. C. on April 26, 2023

Confronting terminal cancer, the man behind the Pentagon Papers sees new dangers in the Ukraine war

Daniel Ellsberg, right, shakes hands in September 1971 in Washington with future senator and secretary of state John F. Kerry, then head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (The Washington Post)

Daniel Ellsberg, the person responsible for perhaps the biggest leak in U.S. government history — the Pentagon Papers — said the latest disclosures of classified information show that the world still faces some of the same dangers that spurred him to act more than 50 years ago.

Ellsberg, who is 92 and dying of pancreatic cancer, said he is struck by the similarities between the Vietnam War and the current war in Ukraine — two conflicts in which a superpower, he argued, could be tempted to use nuclear weapons.

He pointed to some of the classified U.S. government documents posted on social media in recent months indicating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become something of a military stalemate likely to drag into at least next year. Ellsberg has said he was trying to end the Vietnam War in 1971 when he leaked a huge cache of government secrets showing that multiple U.S. administrations knew the war was going badly while publicly declaring their optimism for victory.

“I’m reliving a part of history I had no desire to live again. And I hoped I wouldn’t. And by the way, that makes it easier to leave — this is where I came in,” Ellsberg said in a video interview, his voice increasingly raspy as he spoke surrounded by books in his California home.

A family photo of Daniel Ellsberg. (Robert Ellsberg)

The war in Ukraine, he said, “feels very similar to Vietnam. The war is stalemated, that seems so obvious now except for the fact that both sides totally deny it. What these new leaks show is what the Pentagon Papers showed, that the insiders all know that. They know that they are fighting a stalemate.”

Ellsberg argued that Ukraine “is not just another war” because of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “It’s not Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. None of those had any real possibility of blowing up the world. This one really can.”

Like many intelligence experts, Ellsberg sees big differences between the suspected leaker in the recent social media case — 21-year-old Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard — and his own role in transmitting the Pentagon Papers, a case that redefined legal precedent on matters of a free press and the First Amendment.

Authorities have arrested Teixeira for allegedly posting classified documents to a social media group of like-minded young men interested in video games and guns.

To Ellsberg, that sounds like a young man who was trying to show off to his friends, a way of saying, “Look who I am, look what I have access to.”

But Ellsberg scoffed at the notion that Teixeira has done any serious harm to the country.

“There is no reason to believe that it harmed American national security in any measurable way,” he said, blaming what he called a government “mystique of secrecy” for overstating the potential harm. “At the Pentagon, top secret is like toilet paper, it’s nothing.”

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