Three Close Encounters with Daniel Ellsberg

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by Trudy Reagan


The story of the Pentagon Papers was recently made into a documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man in America", which came across as a real spy thriller. Daniel Ellsberg had been on the inner decision-making circle, unsuccessfully advising Johnson the Vietnam war couldn't be won. Then Nixon was elected, and he blew the whistle.

In an interview after the showing of the movie, he observed:

When Obama became President, he was made aware of levels of "Top Secret" he never knew existed. One's first reaction is, "It's flattering to be included in this inner circle." The next is, "My God, this is what really goes on?" and the third is "How can anybody but us make these decisions, since they don't know what we know?"

That's how people become co-opted.

On three different occasions after Ellsberg became a national celebrity or pariah, I ran into him while doing peace work. He was always doing the work with every fiber of his being.

I. 1984

On a 1984 trip east from my Palo Alto, California home, I stopped in Washington, DC. I joined an ad-hoc women's group lobbying against the MX missile. By calling it the "Peacekeeper" Ronald Reagan was trying to sell this missile with multiple warheads to the American public. This was at the time peace groups were also lobbying for a Nuclear Freeze resolution to put a hold on new nuclear bombs. The group obtained appointments with five congresspeople to visit. I thought I was not much impressed by the trappings of power, but the aura on Capitol Hill quite took my breath away. One favorite visit was with Senator Patrick Moynihan, a real scholar and humanist. He met us on the steps of the Capitol, explaining he was on his way to a meeting in a little-known, very secure, room in the dome.

I was in the office of Senator Gary Hart and with his aide, when Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers 11 years before, was ushered into the room with us, and quickly became enraged by their patient explanations of what was politically possible. He stormed out saying, I'm fed up with politics as usual!

After all that effort, Congress voted for the non-binding Nuclear Freeze resolution, but also for the MX Missile so they wouldn't look "soft on the Russians".

II. 1986

In 1986, a real danger of war on Nicaragua loomed. The Navy had illegally mined its harbors. Congress passed a resolution against more aid to the Contra armies fighting the Sandinista Government. The Contra vote would prove ineffective against presidential resolve).

June 28th, three days after the Contra vote, the battleship USS Missouri hove into San Francisco, and demonstrators from the Emergency Response Network, which pledged to act out in the event of a US attack, gathered at Piers 30-32 to meet it. Not realizing that even numbered piers were south of the Bay Bridge, I went up near Fisherman's Wharf to Pier 31. I encountered six other stranded people, one of whom was Daniel Ellsberg. Soon, a March Monitor showed up in a car to ferry us south, and Ellsberg regaled us on the way with an account of his last demonstration, at the Nevada Test Site. He started toward the forbidden fence, and was greeted by police, who said,

You're too late. We've made all our arrests for the day.

Oh, no you haven't

said Ellsberg, and lunged at the fence.

500 people had gathered at Pier 31 when "Mighty Mo", the Missouri, docked. One could see the wind catch the bell bottom trousers of hundreds of sailors, which flapped like little flags at a used car lot. Folks willing to be arrested wore yellow arm bands, and 150 were.

III. 2004

One of the dramatic moments of the 2004 ACLU National Conference held in San Francisco was my third close encounter with Daniel Ellsberg, looking older. While he spoke, I was sitting in the first row, as usual, the better to sketch speakers.

He recounted to us that during his trial for smuggling out the Pentagon Papers and making copies of them, evidence presented came from an FBI file on him. This is how he learned of surveillance on him. Later, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), he learned that there were 27,000 pages, then an addition of 13,000 pages. Nixon wanted to know who his co-conspirators were, yet there were none. Dissatisfied, Nixon set up the "Plumbers" unit in the White House to plug "leaks." Nixon covered up Watergate for fear operation would be revealed. Ellsberg pointed out that while such snooping was illegal then, at present under the Patriot Act they're now perfectly legal. Moreover, George W. Bush didn't hesitate to break the law, for instance in the Valerie Plame case. Ellsberg found parallels to his own case: Her husband was a whistle-blower, and a vindictive president broke the law.

He voiced his dismay about No-Fly Lists, and lists of residents and citizens with Muslim names, comparing this to the Red Squads of the 1930s, and blacklists of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.

This is the time for civic courage! People in Germany who remember Hitler (they are now 80 years old) are very concerned about us! They were not more cowardly that we at the rise of Hitler. Polls show that people are willing to be spied on in return for "security." Rather than wait for a scandal, what may happen is a leak that causes a break.

I'm going to address this remark to the FBI agents. I know you are in the back of the room. And, because I know that your audio equipment doesn't work very well, I'm going to say this slowly and clearly:

Consider being whistle blowers.

In his husky voice he said,

I wish I had done so years earlier. It would have saved the country so much grief!


Trudy Myrrh Reagan has contributed "Blockheads" and other cartoons to Bad Subjects, and more of her artwork can be seen at her website.

Copyright © Trudy Reagan. All rights reserved.

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