At a Washington awards banquet last week, Vietnam-era whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg met two people for whom he already felt a sense of empathy: Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame.
Plame is the CIA operative whose identity was allegedly made public by a White House informant after Wilson, a State Department official, told the world that Iraq had not gone to Africa looking for radioactive material, contradicting a statement by President George W. Bush.
More than 30 years after he angered the Nixon administration and nearly went to jail for releasing the "Pentagon Papers" -- full of secret and unflattering details about the Vietnam War -- Ellsberg, now 71, believes Wilson's case is uncannily like his own.
Daniel Ellsberg, who was indicted by the Nixon administration for leaking the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers to the media in 1971, speaks Saturday at a Sundance Tree Room Series luncheon. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)
And in the Bush administration, he sees a White House much like Nixon's. "Someone in the White House chose to punish Wilson for telling the truth," Ellsberg told The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday, before he spoke at a Sundance Tree Room Series luncheon. "We had a lot in common."
Ellsberg was indicted by the Nixon administration for leaking the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers to the media in 1971 and could have spent the rest of his life in prison. For the past year, he has traveled the country to publicize his memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon, about the Vietnam War and the fall of Nixon, in which he was a player often remembered for having his psychiatrist's office broken into by Nixon operatives seeking to discredit him. Eventually, similar tactics at the Watergate Hotel led to Nixon's resignation.
"We talk a lot about independent voices here at Sundance. Rarely does that independent voice combine so fully with courage," said Ray Grant, Sundance executive director.
Ellsberg, who was a Cold War analyst with top clearance in the Department of Defense before leaking the Pentagon Papers, is also a vocal opponent of recent American foreign policy.
"Starting in October, which by coincidence was when my book came out, it was clear we were being lied into a war again . . . being lied into what amounted to another Tonkin Gulf Resolution, with the Congress signing a blank check. To see Congress sleepwalking into another war was disheartening," Ellsberg said.
"This war could go on forever, no matter how unpopular it gets. That's very like Vietnam: a stale, hopeless occupation."
Ellsberg peppered his Sundance speech with Nixon impressions, honed over long days listening to tapes of the former president (including one in which Nixon wonders about the best way to kill 200,000 Vietnamese; for the record, Nixon wanted a nuclear bomb but Henry Kissinger talked him out of it).
Ellsberg doesn't shy away from unflattering portrayals of the Bush administration, either, saying that Saddam Hussein was not a threat to U.S. national security; that oil interests drive American foreign policy; that the administration may be planning new offensives to achieve imperialistic goals; that Bush himself likely was a party in the Wilson scandal; and that even now White House staffers are likely busy covering up evidence of lies.
People have "a tremendous tendency to want to believe the President, because otherwise we're in deep danger. Well, we are in deep danger," Ellsberg said. "Could George W. Bush possibly think of allowing an attack to a place that could kill Americans? I worked for a president, Lyndon Johnson, who consciously put destroyers in harm's way to get us into war. . . . I can't say that Bush is not capable of doing what Lyndon Johnson was capable of doing."
Ellsberg has criticized the foreign policy of several administrations, both Democrat and Republican. This one, he says, is the worst.
"I don't think it's actually lying more than the others; they all do it." But Bush is "more monarchical than anyone since Nixon" and his administration "seems to be far more ambitious in their expansionist, in their military goals than any others," Ellsberg said.
He agrees that Saddam Hussein is a monster, but says other nations the United States does not dare attack -- North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia -- are much more likely to help organizations like al-Qaida. "There are lots of threats to the U.S.; Saddam isn't one of them," he said.
As a result of attacking Iraq, Bush only gave radicals more reason to hate the U.S. -- and terrorists would love to see him stay in office, Ellsberg said. "Osama bin Laden couldn't dream of a better recruiting drive than we are for him."
Ellsberg believes there are many people in the Bush government who stay at their posts because they want to help from the inside, as he hoped to do during Vietnam. The alternative is to go public and become an outsider forever, as he has -- a decision he never regretted.
"What I'm trying to do is encourage other officials in there now to speak out against the administration," Ellsberg said.
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