- Written by Judd Sherin and Brandon Drinon
- BBC News, Washington, DC
Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who exposed the extent of US involvement in the Vietnam War, has died at the age of 92.
His family said he died at his home in Kensington, California, of pancreatic cancer.
The 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers led the former US military analyst to describe him as “the most dangerous man in America”.
This led to a Supreme Court case in which the Nixon administration attempted to block publication in The New York Times.
But the espionage charges against Ellsberg were eventually dropped. Daniel was a truth-seeker and honest patriot, anti-war activist, beloved husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, dear friend to many, and an inspiration to countless. “We all missed her,” Ellsberg’s family said in a statement obtained by NPR.
For decades, Ellsberg has been a vocal critic of government overreach and military interventions.
His opposition crystallized during the 1960s, when he was a White House adviser on nuclear strategy and assessed the Vietnam War for the Department of Defense.
What Ellsberg learned during that period had a major impact on his conscience. He believed that if only the public knew, the political pressure to end the war might prove irresistible.
The release of the Pentagon Papers – 7,000 government pages that exposed deceptions by several US presidents – was the result of this logic.
The papers contradicted the government’s public statements about the war, and the disclosures they contained helped end the conflict and, ultimately, sowed the seeds for President Richard M. Nixon’s downfall.
Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told the BBC that Ellsberg was the “grandfather of the whistleblower”.
Speaking on Radio 4’s “World Tonight” programme, Rusbridger said his intervention had “radically changed public opinion on the Vietnam War”. He said the case against him set a precedent, and “no U.S. government has ever attempted an injunction against Paper on national security grounds since.”
The Pentagon Papers created a First Amendment clash between the Nixon administration and the New York Times, which first published stories based on the papers—which government officials cast as an act of espionage that threatened national security. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of freedom of the press.
Ellsberg was charged in Los Angeles federal court in 1971 with 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.
Halfway through the case, the judge said, a top aide to President Nixon offered him the position of director of the FBI.
As it turns out, there has been a government-sanctioned robbery of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
Born in Chicago on April 7, 1931, Ellsberg grew up in suburban Detroit, Michigan. Before arriving at the Pentagon, he was a Marine Corps veteran with a Ph.D. from Harvard University and worked in the Departments of Defense and State.
According to Rusbridger, recent whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden were framed by Ellsberg.
He told the BBC that the Pentagon Papers affair had led him to think, “Who will determine the national interest: Is it the current government or people with a conscience like Daniel Ellsberg?”
Ellsberg continued his quest to hold government accountable years after the Pentagon Papers leak.
During an interview in December 2022, he told BBC Hardtalk that he was the secret “backup” for the WikiLeaks document leak.
In the WikiLeaks case, Julian Assange’s organization released more than 700,000 classified documents, videos and diplomatic cables, provided by a US Army intelligence analyst, in 2010.
Ellsberg said he felt Mr Assange “could count on me to find some way to get him [the information] Outside”.
In the wake of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in February, in which doctors told Ellsberg he had three to six months to live, he has spent recent months reflecting on the Pentagon Papers and whistleblowing more broadly.
In a March 2023 email obtained by The Washington Post, Ellsberg wrote: “When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to believe I would spend the rest of my life behind bars. Hastening the end of the Vietnam War, as unlikely as it seemed.”
Politico released an interview With Ellsberg on June 4, and in, the publication asked him if whistleblowing was worth the risk despite his opinion that it didn’t make the government more honest.
He replied: “When we finally face a catastrophe. When we are about to blow up the world over Crimea, Taiwan or Bakhmut.”
“From the point of view of the civilization and survival of eight or nine billion people, when everything is at stake, could it be worth even a small chance to have a small impact?” He said. “Answer: Of course… You could even say it is a duty.”
“Infuriatingly humble analyst. Bacon maven. Proud food specialist. Certified reader. Avid writer. Zombie advocate. Incurable problem solver.”