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Daniel Ellsberg, the original whistle-blower, looks back — and forward

The leaker of the Pentagon Papers had expected to spend his life in prison.

Daniel Ellsberg (left) gives a news conference regarding the Pentagon Papers, Jan. 17, 1973, outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, as codefendant Anthony Russo looks on.AP

Daniel Ellsberg holds a storied place in modern American history as the man who leaked to multiple newspapers the Pentagon Papers, a candid Defense Department history of the United States’s involvement in Vietnam. He was prosecuted on charges of conspiracy, espionage, and theft, but those charges were eventually dismissed because of government misconduct. Ellsberg is now regarded as an iconic American figure, a courageous whistle-blower determined to cut through the fog of official lies and artifice and bring the truth to the American people. In light of the impeachment proceeding set in motion by a modern whistle-blower, Globe columnist Scot Lehigh interviewed Ellsberg, 88, about those days and these. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)

When you leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, did you expect to go to prison?


I was certain I would go for life.

So you made your decision thinking you would be there until you died?

[President] Richard Nixon had in mind 115 years. If I had had good behavior, which my friends didn’t count on, I would have gotten out after 35 years.

How did you elude the FBI for two weeks before you turned yourself in?

Staying off the phone, which was adequate in those days. Now, that would be much less reliable if I had, for example, an iPhone giving my whereabouts, or used a credit card. We used pay phones in those days, and couriers.

It doesn’t speak all that well of the FBI that they couldn’t track you down.

Well . . . [laughs] . . . I don’t want to make an enemy of the FBI any more than I am. They did conclude, contrary to Nixon, that I had acted essentially alone in copying the papers, and that Nixon’s beliefs about a conspiracy were false. After 13 days, I asked my lawyer, “What is the FBI actually good at?” He said: “Taking surrenders.” Which is what I did.


Once your name became public, did you fear for your life?

I didn’t, but my wife did. . . . They [criminally inclined Nixon operatives Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt] did bring up 12 CIA assets, Bay of Pigs alumni . . . with orders to “incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally.” So she was right. I was wrong.

Do you think this whistle-blower should fear for his life if his name becomes public?

Or her.

Yes, or her. Should this whistle-blower fear for their life?

Absolutely. The lawyer has said they have had death threats delivered to the lawyers, and it is their belief that there would be great danger. . . . I believe that is absolutely right.

Are you surprised to see the president and his son Donald Trump Jr. and supposed libertarian Rand Paul pushing to out this person?

Of course I am not surprised to see the president’s son. His father has put a blank-check bullseye on that person’s back. . . . He’s calling on his vigilante supporters to free him of this troublesome priest. . . . I am saddened to see Rand Paul do that. Both Rand and his father, Ron Paul, have publicly supported what I did and I believe what [National Security Agency leaker Edward] Snowden did and what [Army intelligence leaker] Chelsea Manning did.


Should the anonymous author of the recently released book “Warning” and purported senior Trump administration official identify himself, or is he doing the nation a service by trying to restrain Trump from within?

This person could not be inside if they were not keeping their mouth shut about other things they knew, and if they were not perhaps making very explicit lies to the public. . . . They wouldn’t keep their job otherwise. During Vietnam, it was true of [Under Secretary of State] George Ball, it was true of [Defense Secretary] Robert McNamara. They both lied to the public steadily and misled them in order to keep a job in which they thought of themselves as having a chance to restrain the president. Someone who is knowledgeable enough to know that the president is actually dangerous to the world and the country. I have absolutely no doubt from experience that they could do better to protect the country by coming out with documents and demonstrating that to the Congress and the public.

Do you think conservative America has forgotten the importance of dissent?

The Republican Party has changed very radically. We have a president right now who does not believe in the Constitution at all. He doesn’t recognize right from wrong. . . . So far, there isn’t one Republican who is willing to uphold his or her oath of office, which is to defend and support the Constitution. . . . If Barack Obama had been caught on tape saying the [same] exact words . . . every Republican would be voting to convict in the Senate, and a significant number of Democrats would be, too.


What does it tell you that the Republican Party seems willing to excuse this conduct?

They have absolutely forfeited their constitutional duties and obligations as a separate branch of government.

When you look at your own experience and what has happened now, have we moved forward in terms of public respect for people who are willing to make a declaration of conscience by whistle-blowing?

Until this month, I would say we have moved back in every respect. There were three cases prior to Obama of prosecution for leaks. Mine was the first in the history of the country. There were two others, one of which was dropped. Obama prosecuted nine people in eight years. He clearly set the precedent for his successor. Trump has brought eight cases in almost three years. He has obviously sped it up.

[But in the last few weeks], there has been an epidemic of truth-telling. In general, testifying under oath doesn’t get you credit for being a whistle-blower, but testifying under oath when the president, your boss, has ordered you not to, that is whistle-blowing, and of a new and different kind. I don’t think we have ever seen it in my lifetime. . . . And frankly, they are risking their lives.


You think so?

Oh, I think [Lt.] Colonel Vindman is in danger. He is being denounced. And it is not safe to be denounced under Donald Trump, because he keeps saying, remember what we used to do to spies.

If you had one message to America about whistle-blowing and its value, what would it be?

We need more whistle-blowing, not less, and that has never been more evident than right now. . . . Don’t go through channels. Go to the press and Congress directly. . . . The risks are very real, but the risks can be worth taking.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.