Daniel Ellsberg's treatment by the US government and press created a compelling blueprint for throwing courageous revealers of hidden truths to the wolves, which was subsequently followed to the letter over and over again.

  • Media whitewashes dirty tricks war against Daniel Ellsberg

On June 16, famed US government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg passed away at the age of 92. While employed by the highly influential RAND Corporation think tank, he became the subject of international political controversy of historic proportions in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers.

These documents were an extensive internal history of Washington’s covert and overt political, military, and intelligence activities in Vietnam from 1945–1967. They offered extraordinary insider insight into how US government officials consistently deceived the public, journalists, and lawmakers about the reality of the conflict, and kept the blood-spattered, unwinnable quagmire grinding on.

The Pentagon Papers were published by a variety of major newspapers. Within two weeks, Ellsberg was indicted under the notorious 1917 Espionage Act. At his trial two years later, facing up to 115 years in prison if convicted, he was prohibited from defending his leak of classified information as in the public interest and/or that the material was illegally classified to keep their contents hidden not from the country’s enemies overseas but US citizens.

As it was, in May 1973, all charges against Ellsberg were dismissed, and for the remainder of his life, he was widely venerated as a hero in the mainstream. More sinisterly though, as forensically documented by independent journalist Kevin Gzostola, Ellsberg’s case has been brazenly weaponized and distorted by the US political and media establishment to discredit WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In the process, the invincible myth of Ellsberg as a “good leaker” has been dishonestly perpetuated. It holds that he released the Pentagon Papers in the “right” way - using formal complaint channels, withholding information he considered “particularly sensitive” to protect national security, then voluntarily turning himself in to face justice for his actions. 

As such, anyone releasing classified government secrets who fails to follow Ellsberg’s purported “example” is to be condemned. But this is a wholly false dichotomy he himself, an ardent supporter and defender of Assange, Snowden, and Chelsea Manning to the last, repeatedly and robustly repudiated over the years. By his own admission, he went about leaking the Pentagon Papers “the wrong way”:

“I wasted years trying to do it through [official] channels, first within the executive branch and then with Congress. During that time, more than 10,000 Americans died and probably more than a million Vietnamese. So that’s not a point of pride with me that I did what I should have done… That was a fruitless effort, as it would have been for Manning and Snowden.”

Furthermore, as Ellsberg wrote in 2013, the modern US is a “different” country from when he released the Pentagon Papers. While awaiting trial, he remained at liberty to the extent of attending anti-war rallies and frequently speaking to the media. In post-9/11 America, there was no chance he wouldn’t be imprisoned in advance and wholly cut off from the outside world for potentially years. He, therefore, endorsed Snowden having sought asylum overseas that year.

‘Flee to Communist asylum’

The 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers was something of a media circus, in which The New York Times, Washington Post, et al raucously applauded themselves for their individual and collective bravery in publishing the material and hailed Ellsberg’s subsequent acquittal as an unalloyed victory for free speech. 

In reality, Ellsberg almost inevitably would’ve been convicted and spent the rest of his life in jail, were he not the victim of rank governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering.

Immediately after revealing himself as the source of the Pentagon Papers, President Richard Nixon established the White House “Plumbers” unit. Charged with “fixing leaks” within the government, destroying Ellsberg’s reputation, if not “neutralizing” him outright, was at the top of their agenda. This was to be achieved through a wide-ranging campaign of clandestine “dirty tricks”.

Proposed strategies, included hiring 12 ex-CIA assets to “totally incapacitate” Ellsberg when he appeared at a public rally - whether through hospitalization, outright murder, or surreptitiously drugging him through excessive doses of psychedelic drug LSD isn’t clear. The Plumbers also broke into the offices of his psychiatrist to steal his confidential medical files, hoping they would contain embarrassing disclosures about the whistleblower’s mental state and sexual proclivities.

Their search turned up nothing, but the Plumbers had already seized upon a far more productive strategy - falsely framing Ellsberg publicly as a Russian agent. It was a devastatingly effective ruse, in which the US media, including the very same outlets that so eagerly published the Pentagon Papers, was crassly complicit.

An August 1971 memo authored by Plumber and former CIA operative Howard Hunt, subsequently circulated to major newspapers, declared that “the leaders of North Vietnam, Red China, and the Soviet Union were the undoubted beneficiaries” of Ellsberg’s “professional disloyalty”. He went on to compare the whistleblower to physicist Klaus Fuchs, who passed classified information on British and US nuclear weapon research to the Soviet Union during World War II, among other Cold War era spies.

“Although there is as yet no conclusive evidence that Daniel Ellsberg acted on specific instructions of the Soviet Union… the distinct possibility remains that Ellsberg's ‘higher order’ will one day be revealed as the Soviet Fatherland,” Hunt fulminated. “Turning again to history, one wonders whether, as the date of his trial approaches, Ellsberg will lose his nerve and flee to Communist asylum as did his fellow Cambridge alumni, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and Kim Philby.” 

Thereafter, Nixon administration officials deluged journalists with incendiary quotes from nameless sources, asserting that secret evidence incontrovertibly proved Ellsberg was a spy. This culminated with White House aide John D. Ehrlichman repeatedly telling the Senate’s Watergate committee in July 1973 that Ellsberg secretly provided copies of the Pentagon Papers to the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC.

Ellsberg strenuously denied the “totally false and slanderous” charges, and the Watergate scandal - which erupted when the Plumbers were caught carrying out another, unrelated burglary - raised obvious questions about whether Nixon and his aides could be trusted on any issue. Yet, articles reinforcing the calumny that he was one way or another illicitly tied to Moscow continued to be published, even after his acquittal. 

In December 1973, The New York Times quoted an anonymous intelligence official as saying a high-ranking KGB “double agent” had confirmed Ellsberg was a Soviet mole. This individual, they reported, was “one of the important informers in the national security establishment and had been operating with success for years.”

‘They did it on purpose’

On top of a natural desire to conveniently conceal their role in abetting US government efforts to disingenuously disgrace the now-lionized Ellsberg, US news outlets no doubt have an even more macabre motivation for forgetting this deliberate deception strategy.

Namely, the exact same false narrative has been employed to destroy public sympathy for whistleblowers and leakers on numerous occasions since - and on each and every occasion, journalists have yet again been dependable dupes.

In the wake of Snowden’s seismic disclosures, he was widely accused of collaborating with the Kremlin by Western politicians, security and intelligence officials, and journalists. It was baselessly theorized that his asylum in Russia was predicated upon sharing sensitive information with Kremlin spying agencies. The basic fact he’d simply been transiting through Moscow en route to Ecuador from Hong Kong when the US canceled his passport, thereby stranding him there, was buried or outright ignored. Snowden suggests this was deliberate:

“I couldn’t travel anymore. They did it on purpose so they could say, ‘He’s a Russian spy’.”

Such slurs against his character are by and large forgotten today. They still endure in the case of Assange, thanks to a long-running propaganda blitz by intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic, during the WikiLeaks founder’s years of arbitrary detention in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy. Concurrently, the CIA had explored plans to surveil, kidnap, and even kill the WikiLeaks founder. 

Yahoo News’ revelation of these murderous machinations in September 2021 was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media. However, one fundamental aspect of the exposé even its promoters largely overlooked is the disclosure that the CIA had torn its proverbial hair out over several years attempting to unearth evidence Julian and WikiLeaks acted “at the direct behest of the Kremlin,” and failed. 

This “difficulty” was a “major factor” when, in April 2017, Mike Pompeo, then-Agency director, designated WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” That unfounded assertion opened the floodgates for the CIA’s untrammeled surveillance, harassment, and persecution of Julian and his collaborators.

Evidently, then, Ellsberg wasn’t a “good” leaker. In fact, his treatment by the US government and press created a compelling blueprint for throwing courageous revealers of hidden truths to the wolves, which was subsequently followed to the letter over and over again.

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