Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. defence analyst who in 1971 went public with proof of how the U.S. government was deceiving the public about the Vietnam War, is one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time.
His fame has increased recently thanks to Steven Spielberg’s film The Post, which is up for an Oscar for Best Picture this weekend.
But what is Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers, really like in person?
Adrienne Arsenault, co-host of CBC’s The National, spoke with Ellsberg at his home in Berkeley, Calif. The wide-ranging interview began with the legendary story of the Pentagon Papers, but then got into uncharted territory.
Ellsberg spoke about the “untold story.” It involves a second lesser-known set of documents he copied while working as an analyst at Rand Corporation — ones about secret U.S. plans for nuclear war and the projected death toll that worried him even more than Vietnam.
Then he took Arsenault on a tour of his home office, even down to the crawlspace crammed with his personal collection of books and papers. It’s tucked away into filing cabinets, boxes and shelves, all arranged — with a curious sense of doom — according to categories with names like Lies, Secrecy, Nuclear Notes and Catastrophe.
Watch the highlights from their conversation in the videos below, and see the tour of Ellsberg’s sprawling archive.
The Nixon tapes
Back in 1971, a disgusted Daniel Ellsberg decided he could no longer stand that Americans were being lied to by their government about the Vietnam War. He made a decision to show them the truth.
Ellsberg, a strategic analyst at Rand Corporation, spent months photocopying thousands of pages of classified reports about what the U.S. government really knew of the war, and leaked them to the New York Times and other media.
The U.S. government was rocked by Ellsberg’s disclosure of these Pentagon Papers, and it made every effort to discredit him.
Ellsberg and Arsenault listened to 1971 Oval Office recordings of President Richard Nixon. “We’ve gotta get this son of a bitch,” Nixon says on the tape.
Nixon adds that his administration can’t allow “a fella to get away with this sort of wholesale thievery,” because “otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government.”
As it gets personal, the anger in Nixon’s voice is plain. Ellsberg describes how Nixon’s statements on the tape ultimately spelled the end for his presidency.
“He’s signing his death warrant as a president,” Ellsberg says.
The doomsday machine
Ellsberg read a dramatic passage from his recent book The Doomsday Machine, which involves leaked information about a U.S. government plan for nuclear war. The plan is something he calls “multi-genocide.”
“Estimates by the joint chiefs of how many they would kill if we initiated nuclear war: 600 million dead,” Ellsberg says.
“This piece of paper should not exist, it should never have existed. Not in America, not anywhere,” he adds.
“It depicted evil beyond any human project, ever.”
The basement archive
Ellsberg still has copies of the government papers he leaked to the press decades ago, along with other documents collected over a lifetime. Many, many other documents.
He takes Arsenault on a tour of the fascinating material he has stored in his home. It is an excursion through decades of books, papers, boxes and filing cabinets bursting with information, starting in his home office and ultimately ending in the cramped basement under his home.
Largely tucked under the house and carved into a hillside is a room crammed with piles of books and file folders, Ellsberg’s treasure trove.
Back behind the boiler, past the wooden frame bent from the last earthquake, there’s another room. At this point the ceiling is so low, it’s more of a crawlspace. More boxes, more documents.
“I get the feeling you could get lost for days in here,” Arsenault says.
“Days?,” Ellsberg replies. “Years …”
Arsenault asks the 20th century’s most famous whistleblower what documents he most wants to see leaked to the public today.
Ellsberg doesn’t hesitate.
At the top of his wish list, he says, is a set of documents that “I am certain exist in the Pentagon, in the CIA, and even probably in the White House,” about how many people would die on all sides of the conflict as a result of a war with North Korea.
He suggests U.S. President Donald Trump may be under a delusion about the reality of attacking North Korea, and it’s urgent that such a report be made public, even though it could mean grave risk for the leaker.