Daniel Ellsberg On Whistleblowing

Daniel Ellsberg speaks on his experience blowing the whistle.

“What would you do if you were a young professional working at your dream job, and you discover that your employer was lying to the public, promoting a disastrous foreign war, and steadily expanding a weapons program that threatened to destroy human life on earth?”

Daniel Ellsberg faced this question himself multiple times in his life. He posed the same question to the audience during his April 10th talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and in his new book, The Doomsday Machine. Ellsberg continued that he believes there are currently thousands of government employees looking at the prospect of nuclear war, whether or not they recognized this sentence as applicable to them.

In 1964, on Ellsberg’s first day of duty at the Pentagon, and seven years before he released the Pentagon Papers, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara began carrying out sorties in Vietnam. They told the public that the sorties were a limited retaliation to an unprovoked attack—statements which Ellsberg, due to his work, knew to be false. An ensuing series of lies paved the way for the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, providing legal authorization for the Vietnam War.

At the time, it did not occur to Ellsberg to expose the deception. President Johnson was running against Senator Goldwater, who was campaigning on a platform of expanding war. But by staying silent, Ellsberg said that he was breaking the single oath he had taken as part of his job. As an employee with higher than top-secret clearance, he had signed many non-disclosure agreements. And yet, he had taken only one oath, one that was neither an oath of secrecy nor of loyalty to a particular individual: to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Ellsberg had fought in the war as a marine, and initially believed the war was justified. However, his thoughts began to change during his time as a RAND Corporation employee when he was charged with compiling a report that is now known as the Pentagon Papers. After reading through thousands of documents, he realized that the Vietnam War was “wrongful and unjustified from the start.” With the rising death toll and the prospect of nuclear deployment, Ellsberg felt compelled to intervene. When his attempts within the Department of Defense led nowhere, he eventually took his copies of the report to the New York Times, which were subsequently published on June 13, 1971.

After the Papers were published, things went badly for Ellsberg. He faced a sentence of 115 years in prison. Nixon was re-elected with a landslide in 1972, and the bombings on Vietnam intensified. Then, the Watergate scandal happened. Nixon ordered members of the intelligence community to find psychiatric information to discredit Ellsberg, and the office burglaries eventually snowballed into one of the greatest political scandals in U.S. history. Nixon resigned and the Vietnam War came to an end.

Ellsberg offers no golden formula for whistleblowers. But he does recommend staying in one’s job long enough to collect sufficient evidence of fraud, waste, or abuse. In addition, Ellsberg believes the press has a vital role to play in uncovering and reporting on malfeasance. While whistleblower laws have improved since Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, it is deeply troubling that the sacrifices they must make to release the truth remain so steep. Ellsberg’s courage to come forward is an incredible testament to his character. That he needed to risk life imprisonment shows we must do more to protect brave whistleblowers.

When asked by a member of the audience when he thought a whistleblower should act, Ellsberg said that individuals should consider leaking, he said, “don’t do what I did. Don’t wait till the bombs are falling, or when nuclear war has already occurred in North Korea before you reveal or consider revealing estimates in the Pentagon.” He added that there are secrets which should be leaked and others which can only do harm, and that it is up to the good judgment of each whistleblower to tell the difference.

Ellsberg’s words are strangely prescient given the recent bombings on Syria, supposedly to target chemical weapons facilities. While he admits that the chance of whistleblowing affecting actual policy is slim, Ellsberg stated calmly that the chance remains greater than zero—and that it is worth risking one’s personal life just to increase that chance, if the stakes are high enough.

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