Ellsberg, co-conspirators share untold stories behind Pentagon Papers leak


Staff Writer

Published: 10-28-2019 11:54 PM

AMHERST — Though the Pentagon Papers were first published in 1971, nearly 50 years later, details of the story are still coming to light.

On Monday night, Vietnam War whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and historian and economist Gar Alperovitz, delivered copies of the Pentagon Papers to newspapers, appeared for the first time together publicly to talk about the papers, classified documents that revealed unknown details of the U.S. government’s involvment in Vietnam.

Janaki Natarajan, a teacher and activist, revealed for the first time publicly that she helped Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia Marx Ellsberg, stay in hiding from the FBI for weeks.

This fall, the University of Massachusetts announced it would be acquiring Ellsberg’s personal papers, a collection that consists of 500 boxes of material, and that he would be a distinguished research fellow at UMass’ Political Economy Research Institute.

After a showing at UMass’ Gordon Hall of the 2009 documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” Ellsberg, Alperovitz and Natarajan reflected Monday on their roles in leaking the documents.

“Whistleblowing is, of course, a form of civil disobedience,” Ellsberg said.

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In 1969, Ellsberg, working as an analyst for the RAND Corp., along with his former colleague Anthony Russo, photocopied classified documents revealing the true role and intentions of the U.S. in the Vietnam War, as well as deception by successive presidential administrations. In 1971, Ellsberg leaked these documents to The New York Times and Washington Post. He faced up to 115 years in prison, but charges were dismissed when it was discovered that the Nixon administration, seeking to discredit Ellsberg, had agents break into his psychiatrist’s office.

Though Ellsberg took major risks, he highlighted the vital roles that other people played.

Natarajan, then a graduate student at Harvard University, coordinated housing for Ellsberg and Patricia Marx Ellsberg — a fact she had not previously revealed publicly. “Now is an important time to be telling the truth,” she told the Gazette. She stayed quiet for decades “because the level of punishment and surveillance is such that it’s hard to know what ... justice there would be, certainly for a person of color,” she said.

Still, she said, the same issues she saw at work during the Vietnam War era persist today. “This was 50 years ago,” she said referring to the Pentagon Papers leak. “The tendrils and the filaments (that) were at that time still exist now. The lies exist now. In my 78 years, there hasn’t been a single year that I know of where there has not been a war.”

After Ellsberg leaked the approximately 7,000 pages to The New York Times, the paper had to stop publishing the material because of a government injunction. But, because portions were leaked to various newspapers around the country, publication continued. “It was Gar that said let’s do it one by one, piece by piece,” Ellsberg said. “I had not imagined an injunction.”

Reflecting on the Pentagon Papers, Alperovitz said the leak highlights how people now can act for justice. “I don’t want to preach about it, but it really is a bad time in American politics and history that each of us can address in some way. That’s the story of the Pentagon Papers. That’s the story of Dan …. there is a choice in almost every day, if you look in the mirror, you can do something.”

Ellsberg spoke in support of freeing Chelsea Manning, who is in jail for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and served years in prison for leaking military and diplomatic documents.

“I invented mass leaking,” Ellsberg said. “But unfortunately, I waited 39 years for the next mass leak and that was Chelsea Manning.”

In addition to documents from Ellsberg’s trial, the collection will include his assessments of the Vietnam War; his analyses of decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and a variety of other documents relating to Ellsberg’s anti-war and anti-nuclear activism, according to UMass.

After the panel discussion, audience members asked questions. One came from Randy Kehler, who had inspired Ellsberg to take action after Kehler spoke about how he faced jail time for refusing to comply with the Vietnam war draft.

Kehler told the room that he often hears a question about standing up for justice. “What good will it do? You won’t influence anyone, it’s futile. Why take the time?” he said. “I say, I gave a speech once. Who knew that you were in the audience,” he said, referring to Ellsberg, “and what you would do just hearing that.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.