Those unaware of Dan Ellsberg’s 2002 Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers may think the leak of the Pentagon Papers was Dan’s first unauthorized disclosure. Not so. Arguably, his first such leak, in March 1968, was even more consequential.
After the Viet Cong shocked most observers by mounting a countrywide offensive in South Vietnam at Tet (late Jan./early Feb. 1968), Dan leaked to the NY Times chapter and verse on how Gen. William Westmoreland had “cooked” intelligence, lowballing data on insurgent strength to create the impression the U.S. was making “remarkable progress” in the war.
The Only Thing Needed: More Troops
Unembarrassed by the Tet offensive, Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 additional troops. Dan knew that and expected President Lyndon Johnson to grant that request. In Secrets Dan writes:
“I wanted to deter him from it. I feared that once he had sent even more troops and called up the reserves, the public and Congress would demand an all-out attack against the North, up to and perhaps beyond the Chinese border. …
“This was what the JCS expected. … Whether or not some of the joint chiefs actually wanted war with China and use of nuclear weapons – I’m not sure on that question to this day – that is what we would be actually risking.
“The striking impact of [an earlier] unauthorized disclosure [in the NY Times on March 10] of the request for 206,000 additional troops – at the time one of the most closely held secrets in the administration – suddenly opened my eyes to my responsibilities as a citizen. I had never considered up till that point leaking classified information” …
“As I observed the effect of this leak, it was as if clouds suddenly opened. I realized something crucial: that the president’s ability to escalate … had depended on secrecy and lying and thus on his ability to deter unauthorized disclosures – truth telling – by officials.”
Dan did not find out who the first leaker was; that is, who leaked the Westmoreland request, until after the leaker, Leslie Gelb, died in 2019. Gelb was a senior Pentagon official in 1968. Now, ready for this? It was Gelb who was put in charge of compiling the Pentagon Papers – which were leaked three years later – but this time not by Gelb! He remained in good odor as President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations until he died. Even so, we are indebted to Les Gelb and for the good example (incognito) he gave Daniel Ellsberg.
Ellsberg Wins the Sam Adams Award
At a small gathering today (April 11, 2023) in the Bay area of California, Dan Ellsberg, patron saint of whistleblowers) was presented with the traditional Corner-Brightener Candlestick Holder – the “Oscar” accompanying the Sam Adams annual award. Below is the award Citation:
Sam Adams Associates for Integrity
Presented this 11th day of April 2023 in the Berkeley Hills of California by admirers of the integrity of former CIA analyst, Sam Adams.
Know all ye by these presents that Daniel Ellsberg is hereby awarded the Corner-Brightener Candlestick Holder by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity.
Mentor, Mensch, “Most Dangerous Man,” Friend: We honor Dan for setting the standard in exposing government lies and – although he himself never worked for an intelligence agency – for giving unflinching support to intelligence officials who blow the whistle.
Earlier Awardees: From Katharine Gun (2003) to Daniel Hale (2023); from Julian Assange (2010) and Chelsea Manning (2014) to Sy Hersh (2017) – all took courage from Dan and from one another. Ed Snowden (2013), having watched the “Justice” system abuse Tom Drake (2011), decided he had to go abroad in order to expose “turnkey tyranny.” And, citing the patriotic example of Bill Binney (2015), Ed declared: “Without Bill Binney there would be no Ed Snowden.”
Poetic Justice: CIA analyst Sam Adams, for whom this award is named, proved in 1967 that the US Army in Saigon was falsifying the number of armed insurgents in the South. Adams’s count was almost double the 299,000 Gen. William Westmoreland insisted on for political purposes.
Felicitous Leaks: The countrywide insurgent offensive during Tet (Jan/Feb 1968) proved Adams right. Still, President Johnson planned to escalate until leaks to the NY Times thwarted this risky plan. A story by Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith, “WESTMORELAND REQUESTS 206,000 MORE MEN, STIRRING DEBATE,” led the Times’s front page on March 10, 1968, revealing plans to widen the war into Cambodia and Laos and noting the increasing opposition to escalation.
The Coup de Grâce: Enter Dan Ellsberg with his very first leak. Dan gave Neil Sheehan the damning data on Westmoreland’s lowball estimates designed to demonstrate “remarkable progress.” On March 19, the Times front-paged Sheehan’s story headlined: “US UNDERVALUED ENEMY’S STRENGTH BEFORE OFFENSIVE: CIA REPORTS FORCES WERE SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER.”
Escalation Thwarted: On March 25 the President complained privately: “The leaks to the NY Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.” On March 31, Johnson paused the bombing and announced he would not run again for president. Westmoreland was pulled out of Saigon and ‘promoted’ to army chief of staff.
Dan Ellsberg has never rested on his laurels. Those who take seriously the danger of nuclear war are also deeply indebted to him for his The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017). That unique book is even more important today than when first published.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
It is not possible to work in intelligence and not imagine disclosing the many secrets you bear.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the idea first crossed my mind. Maybe it was in 2008, when I was learning to be an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army and was exposed to sensitive information for the first time. Or maybe the germ of the idea was planted when I was stationed at Fort Drum, in upstate New York. I was tasked with transporting a cache of classified hard drives in a large box in the summer heat, and I began to imagine what might happen if I screwed it up and left the box unattended. If someone managed to get ahold of a stray hard drive, what ripple effects might it cause?
I knew the official version of why these secrets had to be kept secret. We were protecting sources. We were protecting troop movements. We were protecting national security. Those things made sense. But it also seemed, to me, that we were protecting ourselves.
While I felt that my job was important, and I took my obligations seriously, a part of me always wondered: If we were acting ethically, why were we keeping so many secrets?
The monthsI spent in Iraq in 2009 changed the way I understood the world. Every night, I woke up in the desert at 9 p.m. and walked from my tiny trailer to the Saddam Hussein-era basketball court that the military had converted into an intelligence operations center.
I sat at a computer screen for hours at a stretch, going through reports from our troops in the field. Monitoring reporting was like drinking from a fire hose: The military used at least a dozen different intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Each gave us a different view of the conflict and of the people and places we were watching. My job was to analyze, with emotional detachment, what impact military decisions were having on this giant, bloody “war on terror.”
The daily reality of my job was like life in a trauma ward. I’d spent hours learning every aspect of the lives of the Iraqis who were dying all around us: what time they got up in the morning, their relationship status, their appetites for food and alcohol and sex, whether they were engaged in political activities, and all the people they interacted with electronically. In some cases, I probably knew more about them than they knew about themselves.
I couldn’t talk about my work with anyone outside my unit, nor about this conflict that looked nothing like the one I’d read about back home or watched on the TV news before I enlisted.
We were seven years into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and people in the United States had begun to pretend that all of the conflict — all the lost American lives and the still-uncounted lost lives of Iraqis and Afghans — had been worth it. Attention turned away. The establishment moved on. There was the recession to deal with. People at home were losing everything. The health care debate was on the news every night. Yet we were still there. Still dying.
I was constantly confronted with these two conflicting realities — the one I was looking at, and the one Americans at home believed. It was clear that so much of the information people received was distorted or incomplete. This dissonance became an all-consuming frustration for me.
The idea that the information I had access to held real power began to flash into my brain more often. I’d try to ignore it, and it would come back.
In the intelligence field, you are vigorously inculcated with the notion that you can’t tell anyone anything about what you do, ever. This secrecy comes to control how you think and how you operate in the world. But the power of prohibition is fragile, especially once the justifications start to seem arbitrary.
During my time in intelligence, I had noticed that there was inconsistent internal logic to classification decisions. And I came to see that the classification system exists wholly in the interest of the U.S. government — in other words, it seems to exist not to to keep secrets safe but to control the narrative.
In December 2009, I began the process of downloading reports of all our activities from Iraq and Afghanistan.
These were descriptions of enemy engagements with hostile forces or explosives that detonated. They contained body counts, coordinates and businesslike summaries of confusing, violent encounters. They contained, in their aggregate force, something much closer to the truth of what those two wars really looked like than what Americans were learning at home. They were a pointillist picture of wars that wouldn’t end.
I burned the files onto DVDs, labeled with titles like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Manning’s Mix. I later transferred the files to a memory card, then shattered the discs with my boots on the gravel outside the trailers. On my next leave, I brought the documents back to America in my camera, as files on an SD memory card. This was every single incident report the U.S. Army had ever filed about Iraq or Afghanistan, every instance where a soldier thought there was something important enough to log and report. Navy customs personnel didn’t blink an eye. No one cared enough to notice.
Uploading the files directly to the internet wasn’t my first choice. I tried to reach traditional publications, but it was a frustrating ordeal. I didn’t trust the telephone, nor did I want to email anything; I could be surveilled. Even pay phones weren’t safe.
I went into chain stores — Starbucks, mostly — and asked to borrow their landline because supposedly my cellphone was lost or my car had broken down. I called The Washington Post and The New York Times, but I didn’t get anywhere.
I recalled that in 2008, during intelligence training, our instructor — a Marine Corps veteran turned contractor — told us about WikiLeaks, a website devoted to radical transparency, while instructing us not to visit it. But while I shared WikiLeaks’ stated commitment to transparency, I thought that for my purposes, it was too limited a platform. Most people back then had never heard of it. I worried that information on the site wouldn’t be taken seriously.
The website was the publication of last resort, but as the weeks went by and I got no response from traditional newspapers, I grew increasingly desperate. So, on the very last day of my leave, I went to a Barnes … Noble with my laptop.
Sitting at a chair in the bookstore cafe, I drank a triple grande mocha and zoned out, listening to electronic music — Massive Attack, Prodigy — to wait out the uploads. There were seven chunks of data to get out, and each one took 30 minutes to an hour. The internet was slow, and the connection was bad. I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to complete my work before the store closed. But the Wi-Fi finally did its job.
The falloutwas instant and intense. The documents proved, unambiguously and unimpeachably, just how disastrous the war still was. Once revealed, the truth could not be denied or unseen: This horror, this constellation of petty vendettas with an undertow of corruption — this was the truth of the war.
The disclosures became a flash point for a larger argument about how the United States should engage internationally, and how much the public deserved to know about how their government was acting in their name. I had changed the terms of the debate and pulled back the curtain. But while all that was happening, I knew nothing about it. I was in a cage.
Everyone now knows — because of what happened to me — that the government will attempt to destroy you fully, charge you with everything under the sun, for bringing to light the ugly truth about its own actions. What I was trying to do had never been done before, and therefore the consequences were, at the time, unknowable.
Daniel Ellsberg, who had disclosed the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, avoided prison because of illegal evidence-gathering by the Nixon White House (which had ordered a break-in of his psychiatrist’s office, in search of information that might discredit Mr. Ellsberg).
Nobody had gone to prison for this sort of thing; I hadn’t heard of Mr. Ellsberg at the time, but I was very aware of Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency whistle-blower who had been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He’d faced charges that carried a 35-year prison sentence, but shortly before trial he’d cut a deal that left him with only probation and community service.
I certainly weighed the potential consequences. If I was caught, I would be detained, but I figured at most I was going to be discharged or lose my security clearance. I cared about my work, and it was frightening to imagine losing my job — I had been homeless before enlisting — but I thought that if I was court-martialed, it would damage only the government’s own credibility. I never really reckoned with the notion of a life spent in prison, or worse.
The details of what happened to me are, by now, well known. I was held for several months in a cage in Kuwait. I was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum-security prison, where I spent seven years, much of it in solitary confinement. During that time, I came out as transgender and transitioned. Denied gender-affirming health care, I went on a hunger strike. I attempted suicide twice.
But even in prison I remained active. I began writing a column for The Guardian. I drafted a bill, “Bill to Re-establish the National Integrity and to Protect Freedom of Speech, and the Freedom of the Press,” which I proposed on Twitter and sent to members of Congress. It was meant to outlaw some of the most egregious ways that the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act had been used against me, so that others wouldn’t be put in such a bind for wanting to do the right thing. It also included fixes to the Freedom of Information Act and would give stronger federal protections to journalists. It was a pipe dream and was treated as such.
On Jan. 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted my sentence, and I was released. Everyone expected me to be in shock at being out, to kiss the ground or something. It did feel surreal to be free, but it also felt as if what I’d been dealing with for the previous seven years would never be over. It certainly isn’t over now. I can never leave it behind.
This was my first time as a free woman. I had spent several years transitioning, so I felt comfortable in the way my body moved and felt. Even in prison, with restrictions on hair length and clothing, people had begun to accept me as a woman. They treated me as a human being. But now I needed to navigate a larger world with this new identity.
I emerged from prison a celebrity. I had been made, without consultation, into a symbol and figurehead for all kinds of ideas. Some of that was fun — Annie Leibovitz photographed me for Vogue’s September issue. Some of it — the C.I.A. director pressuring Harvard to uninvite me from a visiting fellowship, Fox News seizing upon my very existence as a cheap way to rile up its viewers — was much less so.
The main upside to my notoriety has been that I can do important work. Activism quickly became almost a full-time job. I went to the Pride parade in New York City; I ran for Senate in Maryland; I protested the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and refugees, and President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the ban on transgender personnel in the military. The political moment into which I emerged is one in which we are figuring out what got us here as a country.
What I did during my enlistment was part of a deep American tradition of rebellion, resistance and civil disobedience — a tradition we have long drawn upon to force progress and oppose tyranny. The documents I made public expose how little we knew about what was being done in our name for so many years.
Despite becoming notorious for my acts of divulgence, I am still, in many ways, bound to secrecy. There are things the media has made public about this story that I can’t comment on, confirm or deny. Certain details remain classified. I am limited to some degree in what I can put on the record.
Some people have characterized me as a traitor, which I continue to reject. I have faced serious consequences for sharing information that I believe to be in the public interest. But I believe that what I did was my democratic and ethical obligation.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is asking President Biden to pardon a former Air Force intelligence analyst who exposed secrets about drone warfare in Afghanistan.
In court, Hale said he felt compelled to speak out about the immorality of the drone program after realizing he had helped kill Afghan civilians, including a small child.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions,” he wrote to the judge. “I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself.”
One document he leaked showed that during a five-month operation in Afghanistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were not the intended targets.
“I take extremely seriously the prohibition on leaking classified information, but I believe there are several aspects of Mr. Hale’s case that merit a full pardon,” Omar wrote in the letter sent to Biden on Thursday morning. “The information, while politically embarrassing to some, has shone a vital light on the legal and moral problems of the drone program and informed the public debate on an issue that has for too many years remained in the shadows.”
Omar has also demanded more information from the Biden administration about a recent airstrike in Somalia, where she was born.
She called Hale’s letter to the court “profoundly moral” and urged Biden to consider either a full pardon or commutation of his sentence.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning. The U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which handled Hale’s prosecution, declined to comment.
Prosecutors said Hale could have endangered Americans with his leaks, noting that some of the details were reproduced in Islamic State publications. Hale, they said, recklessly shared reams of sensitive information when he could have simply spoken out in opposition to drone warfare. But no U.S. agency reported any harm caused by the revelations.
This week, Hale was awarded the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, given by a group of whistleblowers from the national security community. Edward Snowden received the same award in 2013.
Biden has pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, calling the war “a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States.” But his administration has planned to continue drone operations from nearby countries.
Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence is a movement of former CIA colleagues of former intelligence analyst Sam Adams, together with others who hold up his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. SAAII confers an award each year to a member of the intelligence community or related professions who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence, and devotion to truth – no matter the consequences. Read more about the history here.
The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI; Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance, former US Army Sgt; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence; Larry Wilkerson, Col., US Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks: Thomas Drake, of NSA; Jesselyn Radack, formerly of Dept. of Justice and now National Security Director of Government Accountability Project; Thomas Fingar, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence and Director, National Intelligence Council, and Edward Snowden, former contractor for the National Security Agency; Chelsea Manning, US Army Private who exposed (via WikiLeaks) key information on Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as State Department activities; and to retired National Security Agency official William Binney, who challenged decisions to ignore the Fourth Amendment in the government’s massive — and wasteful — collection of electronic data.