Ellsbergspeaks at Ted Mann

Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the famous Pentagon Papers in 1971.

by Ahnalese Rushmann

Of all the parallels that politicians, pundits and the public draw between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, perhaps no one has a more distinctive insight on the issues than Daniel Ellsberg.

The former military analyst, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, spoke Tuesday at Ted Mann Concert Hall.

Ellsberg is often credited with swaying public opinion to help end the Vietnam War and the reign of former President Richard Nixon.

“Wow, I hope I’m never in a situation where I have to lie to the public like that,” he recalled saying then, to his future wife.

Ellsberg, 76, was studying the United States’ policies in Vietnam at a global think tank in the late 1960s when he photocopied the 7,000-page study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Two years later, he gave it to 19 newspapers, including The New York Times, which broke the story.

Viewed as treasonous by some and brave by others, the former Marine faced multiple felony counts and a possible 115 years in prison. But after two White House investigators broke into his psychiatrist’s office looking for leveraging information, charges were dismissed on grounds of governmental misconduct.

The discussion was part of the University’s Great Conversations series, pairing a University faculty member with a special guest of their choice for a one-hour, onstage conversation.

Ellsberg was also scheduled to attend the Rarig Center production “Peace Crimes,” a play based on the Minnesota Eight, a group of men nabbed by the FBI for breaking into state draft board offices. Ellsberg testified at their trial in 1972.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, participated in the dialogue with Ellsberg.

A self-proclaimed “very politically-aware teenager” when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, Jacobs recalled the national exposure that ensued.

“You could not watch TV news or read a newspaper for several years after the Pentagon Papers without reading major stories related to it,” Jacobs said.

Ellsberg’s visit should encourage people to think about post-Sept. 11 and Iraq policy discussions that have gone on behind closed doors, he said.

“Should those discussions be made public, knowing that they’ll ignite intense public debate?” he said. “Or should they be kept private to protect American national security?”

Ellsberg said it’s possible for government insiders to keep secrets from the public for decades because they know their sense of importance is at stake.

“They know that if they break that promise, they will lose their jobs,” he said.

While these questions remain relevant ones today, Tuesday’s audience was an older crowd.

Charles Kuyava said he was eligible for the draft during the Vietnam War, and that it was unfortunate more students didn’t come out to hear Ellsberg speak.

He said while he didn’t remember exactly how the public reacted to Ellsberg releasing the papers, he respected his audacity.

“It’d be nice if there were more people doing that now,” Kuyava said.

Despite some likenesses and comparisons drawn, there are still notable differences between the Vietnam era and today, Margy Ligon, producer of Great Conversations, said.

Students should think about the significance of having an all-volunteer army instead of a draft, Ligon said.

Jacobs said now, public knowledge of government information has been enhanced by the Internet’s ability to reach a larger audience faster.

“Ellsberg epitomizes the dilemma of dissent in open society that faces external threats to its security,” Jacobs said, adding that people continue to get upset today and used President George W. Bush’s wiretapping without warrant as an example.

On the other hand, he said, the Pentagon Papers contributed to a vigorous protest movement that is unrivaled today.

“The Pentagon Papers were a match that helped to ignite a country,” Jacobs said.

After having decades to think about his monumental decision, Ellsberg had advice for those in a similar position.

“Don’t do what I did,” he said. “Don’t wait until the war has started.”

The potential for a positive impact on society outweighs personal stakes, Ellsberg said.

You might lose your job, he said, “But you might save hundreds of thousands of lives.”