Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Press Freedom

Q&A: Secrecy, Lies, Power and the Pentagon Papers

Bill Berkowitz interviews filmmaker RICK GOLDSMITH

OAKLAND, California, Sep 29 2009 (IPS) - A little over 38 years ago, when Daniel Ellsberg released the “Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times and other newspapers, it set off one of the 20th century’s most important battles over government secrecy and freedom of the press.

Rick Goldsmith Credit: Courtesy of Rick Goldsmith

Rick Goldsmith Credit: Courtesy of Rick Goldsmith

The nation was stunned by the revelations, and he became one of the most reviled and admired figures in the United States. The Richard Nixon administration was apoplectic; it targeted him through warrantless eavesdropping and ransacked his psychoanalyst’s office to gain access to his medical records.

An exhausted anti-war movement was buoyed by his courage and audacity. And yet, despite the uproar, the Vietnam War lasted several more years.

Ellsberg was arrested and tried for espionage and conspiracy, and faced life imprisonment. The charges were later dropped due to the Nixon administration’s misconduct.

The saga began in 1969 when Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps officer, was given access to classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War, in his capacity as a U.S. military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation, a government-sanctioned corporate think tank.

As reported by Stanford Unger in his 1972 book “The Papers & The Papers, An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers”, Ellsberg and his former RAND Corporation colleague Anthony Russo secretly photocopied 7,000 pages of what was to become known as the “Pentagon Papers,” officially titled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.”

The Papers were a top-secret history of the U.S.’s political and military involvement in Vietnam during that period, commissioned in 1967 by then Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

After failing to convince several anti-war senators to release the papers on the Senate floor, Ellsberg leaked the documents to New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan.

In mid-June of 1971, after initially publishing the first of nine excerpts and commentaries, the Times ceased publication after the Nixon administration got a court order. Ellsberg then leaked the documents to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.

By the end of the month, a landmark Supreme Court decision – New York Times Co. v. United States – permitted the paper to resume publication. Realising that the FBI might assume that he was responsible for the leak, Ellsberg went underground for 16 days. He then turned himself in on Jun. 28, 1971.

This month, a new documentary film which tells the story of those extraordinary times, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”, co-produced and co-directed by Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews.

The film will be shown in New York City at the Film Forum, in Los Angeles, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival and Mill Valley (California) Film Festival in October.

Before the film’s Toronto debut, IPS correspondent Bill Berkowitz interviewed Goldsmith, who also produced and directed the Academy-Award nominated documentary feature “Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press”. Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Why did you and Ehrlich decide to do a film about Daniel Ellsberg now? RICK GOLDSMITH: We came to it independently. I had interviewed Ellsberg for my film on George Seldes. In 2002, I wrote Ellsberg about the possibility of doing a film about him and the “Pentagon Papers.” I sent him a short outline which even then was titled “The Most Dangerous Man in America”. He didn’t reply and I didn’t follow up. A few years later, Ehrlich approached me and suggested doing a film on Dan Ellsberg. We took it from there.

We both had done films about people of conscience who stood up for their beliefs and dared challenge the status quo. By 2004, we were in the middle of an immoral and disastrous war in Iraq started by a president who lied us into the war, and we had a Congress and a public who seemed either uninterested or powerless to stop it.

Ellsberg’s story had parallels that were all too apparent; we both felt it might have something to say to audiences today, especially anyone under 50, who wouldn’t have personally remembered or even known about the “Pentagon Papers”.

IPS: Where does the title “The Most Dangerous Man in America” come from? RG: Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security advisor, was widely quoted as saying – shortly after Ellsberg was identified as having leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, and was thought to have copies of Nixon’s Vietnam war plans – “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America and he has to be stopped at all costs.”

IPS: The release of the “Pentagon Papers” was an example of great personal courage, a test of the media’s right to publish, and a battle over the public’s right to know. How does this relate to today’s political climate; secret CIA hit squads, Blackwater (now named Xe – pronounced zee); assassination teams? RG: After Ellsberg’s released the “Pentagon Papers”, he was tried under the Espionage Act and faced 115 years in prison. The publication of the Papers by The New York Times and other newspapers could have subjected them and their reporters and editors to criminal prosecution as well.

So you might say that June of 1971 was a high point in “civil courage” – a phrase Ellsberg likes to use. All the key players believed that as a democracy, this country functions best if the Congress, the courts, the press, and the public are outspoken and involved in the decisions of our government.

While presidents will try to shut those voices down in times of crisis, they have to struggle to get the truth out. But since 1971, there has been a slow and steady erosion, not only in Congressional, press, and citizen involvement, but in the notion that we have a right, a responsibility, to challenge the president and his administration.

During the first Gulf War, in 1991, CNN foreign correspondent Peter Arnett (who has a cameo in our film) was branded “unpatriotic” and even a “traitor” because he tried to put a human face on Iraqis. The notion that because we’re at war, it is treason to report on the effects of war or to criticise the president is absurd.

Congress and the news media have become more timid, so stories about torture, assassination, and using mercenary enterprises like Blackwater to fight our wars with no accountability are rarely reported and when they are, horrendous abuses are pushed under the rug.

The [George W.] Bush administration said “no pictures of body bags” and the news media complied. Reporters were embedded with the troops made it near impossible to report independently and without censorship.

When the “Pentagon Papers” were published, the central issue was “national security vs. the public’s right to know.” Today, the present administration – and this is no less true with [President Barack] Obama and Afghanistan than it was with Bush and Iraq – the public has an extremely difficult task even getting the facts, the true story.

IPS: The story of the Pentagon Papers has been told a number of times. What new things will viewers learn? RG: If you’re young, you’ll be entertained by a gripping story about American government, secrecy, lies and power that you couldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams. If you’re older, you’ll discover that what you thought you remembered about the “Pentagon Papers” and Watergate is not the whole story.

You’ll get the inside dope from most of the principals of the time – Ellsberg and his “co-conspirator” Tony Russo, Ellsberg’s family, journalists, anti-war activists, government insiders, Nixon White House officials, and, through the Nixon White House secret tapes, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger as you’ve never heard them before.

IPS: Over the course of your filmmaking career, you’ve interviewed some very impressive individuals, including the iconic journalist George Seldes. What have you learned about the struggle for truth, peace and social justice? RG: George Seldes and Dan Ellsberg were men of conscience, who took risks to address the biggest social injustices of their day. In both of the films – Seldes in one and Ellsberg in this film – reflects on a personal revelation, a turning point, where he comes to the conclusion that war, which he has participated in and championed up until this moment, is in actuality murder and a crime that has to be stopped.

Their lives are changed forever – they never again “go along to get along”. What unfolds in each film is a story in which the viewer comes to see that stopping war, stopping injustice, may take an incredible about-face to your belief system, an enormous personal commitment to doing something, and the realization that it is a lifelong struggle.

IPS: What do you hope the film accomplishes? RG: I hope that audiences might begin to examine the world around them in a different way; to question authority, to consider that their president, their boss, their parents, whoever, doesn’t have all the answers. That taking risks for important issues can be liberating, uplifting, and can make a difference in the world around them.

I think we all face periods of discouragement, maybe even live “lives of quiet desperation” and that it is a common experience to ask the question “why bother?” Maybe this film can help answer that question.

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