June 25, 2023
Remembering Daniel Ellsberg

Prabir Purkayastha

DANIEL Ellsberg, an inspiration to the Vietnam generation of the 60s and 70s for his leaking of the Pentagon papers, died at 92 of pancreatic cancer. He refused medicines as he knew that, at best, it would extend his life only by a few months, preferring to die with his family and friends. After he released the 7,000 pages of Pentagon papers in 1971, Henry Kissinger paid him the highest accolade: “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs”.

The Pentagon papers, a Rand Corporation study commissioned by Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and submitted in 1968, showed that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. And yet the US continued the futile war, killing tens of thousands in South Vietnam and enlarging it to an air war against North Vietnam and Cambodia.

Seymour Hersh had broken the story of the My Lai massacre in November 1969. For two years, Ellsberg, who had photocopied the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon papers around the same time, had tried to get US Congressmen to take up this issue and failed. His recourse was to go to the press, knowing he would probably be in jail for a good portion, if not the rest of his life.

Ellsberg was in his early 40s, with a brilliant career and one of the highest security clearances for a civilian. His “betrayal” of the security state was inexplicable to the US establishment. He was on a journey which would have taken as far as he wanted to go inside the Security State – the fusion of military, civilian and the military-industrial complex – that was taking over the United States. No other insider at this level had ever defected from the security state, either before or after.

Ellsberg escaped being convicted of leaking government secrets, not because the judiciary was kind to whistleblowers then. President Nixon was anxious about what Ellsberg might release further regarding his and Kissinger’s threats of using nuclear bombs against North Vietnam. Nixon created an illegal team known as the White House Plumbers – officially, the White House Special Investigations Unit. It was tasked with breaking into the psychiatrist’s office who was treating Ellsberg and finding something that could be used to destroy his credibility. They failed to find anything worthwhile.

It was the same White House Plumbers breaking into the Democratic Party Headquarters in Watergate and its exposure that finally brought President Nixon down. It also damaged the US government’s case against Ellsberg beyond repair, letting him walk free. The Vietnam War finally ended when the liberation forces captured Saigon, with helicopters lifting from the roofs of the US Embassy and other “safe houses”. The same pictures, if not worse, that we saw in Kabul recently.

While the Pentagon papers leak made Ellsberg famous, or in the eyes of the US establishment infamous, he had even more damaging documents that he was quite sure would lead to his spending the rest of his life in prison. This was his discovery that the US had built a Doomsday Machine that could, with a single human or technical failure, unleash the destruction of the world. He had decided that he would keep these documents safe and first publish the Vietnam documents as the anti-war movement was gathering momentum, and later the papers detailing the Doomsday Machine. Unfortunately for him, the papers, which were with his brother, got destroyed in an accident. While he could write about it, he no longer had the documents that could substantiate what he was saying. In the last fifty years, most of these documents are now in public domain.

Vietnam War led to Ellsberg’s defection from the elite of the US security establishment to first a whistleblower and then a lifelong activist for peace. He defected from the US security state and identified himself with the global anti-war movement. Young people like us then were demonstrating before the US Embassy and other establishments (for me, the USIS building in Kolkata) in support of the Vietnamese people. When I meet people of my generation anywhere in the world, and I ask them how they joined the Left movement, most say that it was the anti-Vietnam War movement that had radicalised them. We were the Vietnam generation! In Ellsberg’s case, this transformation was far more radical: he was at the core of the security state!

We do not have another example after Ellsberg – somebody who rose to the highest ranks in the security establishment – and then defected to the people with their secrets. But the leaks have continued. With the US security state’s hunger for collecting and centralising information, the digital infrastructure it built to store the information has grown exponentially. So has its vulnerabilities. A large number of people have access to this information, not because they are at the core of the security state but because such systems need to be maintained by a large number of lowly techies. Consequently, they have access to this top-secret information that the security state is storing in the networked system spread across the world: from the Five Eyes – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – to the lesser eyes in Europe the NATO and EU countries. In the US alone, it appears 1.3 million persons have access to this “ultra-secret” data. This is the Achilles heel of the security state. That is why Chelsea Manning, Snowden and now Taxiera can leak information that was meant for the highest echelons of the US government.

This was Julian Assange’s contribution: he understood the nature of modern technology. He understood that many more people have access to this information, and it is possible to “exfiltrate” this information out of the bowels of the security state. And once it is exfiltrated, if there is an infrastructure for sharing this information, it would radicalise the world. Ellsberg needed two years before he could make his knowledge of the futility of the Vietnam War public. The WikiLeaks infrastructure makes it possible to do this almost instantly. This is how we saw the Collateral Murder video – the US helicopters shooting down two Reuters reporters in Baghdad that Chelsea Manning had sent to WikiLeaks.

The US government cannot forgive the exposure of its global, neocolonial exercise that WikiLeaks has provided and still provides. This is why the need to make an example out of Assange.

The Ukraine War brings to fore the other concern that Ellsberg had: that the US military had essentially a Doomsday Machine, prepared to execute a first strike against its “enemy” and hope that its missile shield would take out the weakened retaliation its enemy would launch. This was a blueprint for a winnable nuclear war and not mutually assured destruction. In answer to a question prompted by Ellsberg in 1961, the total death toll, as calculated by the Joint Chiefs, from a US first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, China and all other countries was estimated as “to be roughly six hundred million dead”. Or one-fifth of the world’s population then. That was in 1961 when the nuclear arsenal was much smaller and the bombs far less powerful. Today, it would end the world as we know it, make no mistake.

The Ukraine war is between Russia and NATO – Ukrainian soldiers but NATO supplying weapons, ammunition, armour, missiles and full operation theatre support. We are on the brink of a nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO, which can be triggered by a misunderstanding or a simple accident. In the past, a flock of geese or a full moon had triggered missile strike alerts and can do so again. That is why we need to remember Ellsberg and his commitment to the peace movement once again. He is not with us after spending a lifetime in his struggle for global peace. This goal is even more important today, even if he is not with us.


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