Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers 35 years ago, said Friday that whistleblowers shouldn’t be afraid to reveal government secrets in an effort to save people’s lives, even if it means going to jail.
“Don’t do what I did,” Ellsberg said. “Don’t wait until the bombs are falling in Iran. Don’t wait until people are dying. Go to the press and reveal.”
Ellsberg told the American Bar Association’s Forum on Communications Law that he waited nearly two years before handing over the top secret study of the Vietnam War to The New York Times in 1971.
“I wasted 22 months,” he said, advising others planning to leak materials to “take your risks and go to prison if it means saving lives.”
He compared the Pentagon Papers revelations to the recent New York Times disclosures that President Bush had authorized wiretapping the phone conversations of U.S. citizens without court authorization. He also noted that the Times has acknowledged holding that story for a year at the White House’s request.
Ellsberg shared the stage at the gathering of some 250 First Amendment lawyers with other players in the Pentagon Papers drama, including former New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel and former Times attorney James C. Goodale. They gave vivid recollections of key decisions that shaped the historical case.
Asked about his newspaper’s concerns about exposing a secret government report, Frankel, then the Times Washington bureau chief, said he was more concerned about the consequences of not publishing.
“The frame of mind of people at my level was, ‘It’s a hot story and how do we get it out and damn the consequences,'” he said. “The first instinct and the last instinct is to get it out.”
David Rudinstine, dean of the Cardozo School of Law in New York and author of a book on the Pentagon Papers case, also noted that the existence of the Internet has made it harder to keep information from being publicized once it is leaked.
“Once it’s out there, you can’t restrain it,” he said.