"I'm really saying, 'Don't do what I did,' " Daniel Ellsberg said in an interview from his Northern California home. "Don't wait until a new war has started before you tell the truth."
Ellsberg will be the keynote speaker at the ACLU of Utah's annual Bill of Rights celebration Thursday.
The former Marine officer and military analyst was on duty in the Pentagon when North Vietnamese naval vessels allegedly fired on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, resulting in congressional authorization for then-President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg says he was among those who had knowledge of a dispatch from one of the ships' captains, suggesting that "freak weather effects . . . and an overeager sonarman" may have erroneously accounted for reports of North Vietnamese torpedoes in the fall of 1964. Johnson nonetheless stuck by the initial account of the incident and by the end of 1965 the U.S. was fully ensconced in a ground war in Vietnam.
Ellsberg said he has long regretted not informing Congress of the incomplete picture it was receiving from the Johnson administration about Tonkin. "Now, I would like to spare a lot of other officials that same kind of regret," he said. "And with respect to Iraq, I wish I could have done more to spare others that same regret."
Ellsberg said that watching the Iraq war unfold was like reliving his experiences during Vietnam. But once a war has begun, even significant leaks of information like that of The Pentagon Papers - which revealed that U.S. military leaders had long considered Vietnam an unwinnable war - cannot quickly turn the tide of aggression. Ellsberg said that's why he now strongly advocates whistle-blowers coming forward before a war has begun. He fears that U.S. officials are planning an attack on Iran - and believes that those with access to intelligence assessments have the power to avert an ill-advised war by releasing those documents publicly.
Ellsberg assumed he would be sent to prison for releasing the papers. But in one of the nation's most famous ironies, several of the men charged with investigating him - members of President Nixon's "plumbers" unit - went to jail instead.
Today Ellsberg believes would-be leakers have little reason to fear imprisonment. "I'm not asking anyone to break the law but rather to observe the law," he said, saying a higher legal obligation is owed to the United States Constitution than to any oath of confidentiality. "I'm saying, observe the law and break the rules of secrecy."
Ellsberg, who balances his time these days between activism and writing, contends that while those who hold access to classified documents may lose their jobs and be held up to immense criticism, they're unlikely to be prosecuted, reasoning the Espionage Act applies only to those who leak such information while acting as agents of a foreign power.
But James Goodale, who represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, said the law is "less clear" today than it was when Ellsberg made his famous leak more than 30 years ago.
"The potential ramifications are that the Bush Administration would try to prosecute you," Goodale said, noting that justice officials under the current president have invoked the act in several prosecutions. None of the prosecutions have been completed, however, and Goodale said he suspects there will be no more attempts to utilize the rarely-used 1917 law.
"I would suspect that this is the last administration that would try to do it," Goodale said. "And I don't think the Bush administration would dare do it now, as it did three or four years ago under the cover of the Iraq war."
For those who find themselves caught between desires to expose governmental wrongdoing and to maintain their oath of secrecy, Ellsberg proposes a balancing test.
"When you realize that keeping promises of secrecy involves breaking your promise to protect and uphold the Constitution," it is time to leak, he said. "It is a very valuable form of patriotism to tell the truth."