There was little precedent for government whistleblowers when Daniel Ellsberg began leaking a top-secret report about the ongoing Vietnam War.
Five decades later, he shared with students, and anyone else interested, that non-violent activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were the moral guides behind his disclosure, because it’s how he could make an impact to stop an “unjust war.”
Ellsberg, whose leak of the 7,000-page top-secret account lead to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on press freedom, spoke virtually with fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden at a weekend conference hosted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Their conversation Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers — documents that showed the U.S. government downplayed its failures in a war that killed more than 1 million civilians and troops over two decades.
While charges against Ellsberg were dismissed two years later, Snowden still lives in Russia to avoid prosecution for his role releasing documents that revealed U.S. surveillance practices, including monitoring emails and cell phone information, in 2013.
Ellsberg, who is 90, and Snowden, 37, talked about duty and love of the U.S. Constitution as reason for releasing government secrets.
As former public servants with high-ranking clearances — Ellsberg at the Pentagon and RAND Corp. and Snowden with the National Security Agency — both said they released documents to journalists to inform the people about their government’s activities.
“Averting nuclear war was my highest priority,” said Ellsberg, who said he also wanted to stop the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg said he’d always taken pride in being able to keep the government’s secrets. However, he called it an “open secret” that the U.S. was not doing as well abroad as it claimed.
Ellsberg photocopied the massive report and delivered it to the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers. A government attempt to thwart its publication led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that allowed the newspapers to proceed.
Ellsberg said releasing documents to spark public debate would be the best check of the government’s power.
“I suddenly realized, for the first time, that I’ve been going on the wrong principle here, that leaking wasn’t necessarily against our interests, against the president’s interests, or the wrong thing to do,” he said. “This was very good; it got a debate for the first time in Congress.”
Ellsberg faced retaliation. He was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, which did not, and still does not, allow for the accused to explain their reasoning.
Snowden and other whistleblowers have faced similar charges.
“The government is not very creative in their response to being exposed: The response is retaliation,” Snowden said. “I don’t believe the U.S. government will ever pardon me because I don’t believe they have the political courage to … admit they have made a mistake.”
Ellsberg said Snowden “would be crazy to come back for a trial. Without amending the Espionage Act or rescinding it, you cannot get a fair trial for a whistleblower in this case.”
Ellsberg said others who’ve released documents — including Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner and Snowden Snowden himself — “are paying a very high price.”
Ellsberg and Snowden both warn that the government will continue to overreach, and it’s up to Americans to resist.
However, they said, people need facts.
Looking at the 20-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other international crises, “these catastrophes can be changed by individuals putting the truth out,” Ellsberg said.
The discussion between Ellsberg and Snowden was organized as part of the Ellsberg Archive Project conference at UMass. The university’ acquired Ellsberg’s personal archives, which include his thoughts about the Vietnam War as well as papers kept during his trail, for $2.2 million two years ago.