Daniel Ellsberg – a name which rang bells long before Assange, Manning and Snowdon, a name associated with helping bring the Vietnam war perhaps a little closer to an end, but a name which further divided an already sharply divided country was on everyones mind in 1971.
Daniel Ellsberg was described as a whistle-blower, releasing classified documents from the Pentagon related to a top-secret study on U.S. government decision making over the Vietnam War to The New York Times.
Ellsberg’s release of the documents brought about charges by the U.S. government with the Espionage Act of 1917, which carried a maximum sentence of 115 years in prison.
However, due to government mishandling of the case and illegal evidence gathering, Ellsberg had the charges dismissed in 1973. Prior to his arrest and charge, Ellsberg released copies of the papers, in addition to the New York Times, the Washington Post and several other publications. The New York Times printed the first excerpts of the 7,000 page document on June 13, 1971.
The release of these papers was politically embarrassing not only to those involved in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but also to the incumbent Nixon administration. Nixon’s Oval Office tape from June 14, 1971, shows H. R. Haldeman describing the situation to Nixon.
John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General, almost immediately issued a telegram to the Times ordering that it halt publication. The Times refused, and the government brought suit against it.
Although the Times eventually won the trial before the Supreme Court, prior to that, an appellate court ordered that the Times temporarily halt further publication. This was the first time the federal government was able to restrain the publication of a major newspaper since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to seventeen other newspapers in rapid succession. The right of the press to publish the papers was upheld in New York Times Co. v. United States. The Supreme Court ruling has been called one of the “modern pillars” of First Amendment rights with respect to freedom of the press.
As a response to the leaks, the Nixon white house staffers began a campaign against further leaks and against Ellsberg personally. Aides Egil Krogh and David Young, under the supervision of John Ehrlichman, created the “White House Plumbers“, which would later lead to the Watergate burglaries.
Just days before this interview, Ellsberg surrendered to the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts in Boston, admitting to giving the documents to the press.
This interview, conducted by NBC for the Today Show, is from July 2, 1971, some four days after Ellsberg initially surrendered to the U.S. Attorney. At the time it was a developing story, with all the twists and turns such a event brings. But it’s also important to note this was just one of the situations eventually coinciding with the Watergate scandal – the wiretapping discoveries and the breakin of Ellsberg’s Psychiatrists office fell into one large series of illegal activities by the Nixon White House.
Here’s that interview, as it was broadcast on July 2, 1971.