The Leakers

Anthony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg

June 17, 1971—Post Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bagdikian has just returned to Ben Bradlee’s Georgetown home carrying boxes full of documents representing the Post’s desperately needed leak.

BRADLEE: What’s all this “source” crap? Every news report in the country this morning is saying it’s this guy Ellsberg.
BAGDIKIAN: They’re saying who they think the Times‘ source is. I’m not saying who mine is.
BRADLEE: Okay, okay. Go ahead.
BAGDIKIAN: That’s when I called you and got your assurances. Then I headed for Boston.
BRADLEE: Boston! I thought you went to Los Angeles.
BAGDIKIAN: No.  My guy was in a motel in Boston. Talk about spy movies! I was directed from one phone booth to another and from checkpoint to checkpoint until the drop was finally made. By now it’s 2:30 a.m. I get the Papers into a carton and grab a cab to a hotel. By this time I’m paranoid, convinced I’m being tailed.
BRADLEE: That’s not paranoia. The way the government’s been reacting, that’s common sense…

Government leaks of confidential information have been a part of the Washington system since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, when government bureaucrats fed the budding national press information that was designed to achieve their objectives. Leaks can be self-interested, done in the interest of one’s superior, made as attacks against other figures or departments. They can be offered as trial balloons of ideas, can be intended to expose and thus end consideration of other ideas, or part of an effort to ward off unfriendly treatment by a particular reporter by becoming a ‘source’ rather than a ‘target.’

Pentagon Papers authors Morton Halperin and Les Gelb themselves recognized this reality in a Harper’s magazine piece one year after the Pentagon Papers in which they described, “The Ten Commandments of the Foreign-Affairs Bureaucracy”, listing as Number 7:

7. Leak what you don’t like.

We had a glimpse of this phenomenon last January with the publication of the Anderson Papers, in which we read about Henry Kissinger warning his State, Defense, and CIA colleagues: “The President does not believe we are carrying out his wishes. He wants to tilt in favor of Pakistan. He feels everything we do comes out otherwise.” And, “The President is under the ‘illusion’ that he is giving instructions; not that he is merely being kept apprised of affairs as they progress.” The President’s subordinates disagreed with the President’s policy toward the India-Pakistan crisis. They were undermining him by resisting his orders and then by leaking his policy. He knew it and did not like it; but apparently could not do much about it.

Although leaking the texts of many documents, a la Pentagon and Anderson papers, is relatively rare, much classified information regularly makes its way into the press. Presidents are surprised not when something leaks but rather when any hot item remains out of the press for even a few days. Providing information to the press-whether in press conferences, backgrounders, or leaks-is the main route by which officials within the executive branch bring their supporters in the Congress and the interested public into action. Only bureaucrats with potential outside support are tempted to leak. In some cases, it is sufficient to leak the fact that an issue is up for decision: in others, what is leaked is information on the positions of key participants. In many instances sufficient factual material must be leaked to convince Congressmen and others to join the fray.

Presidents don’t like leaks by others and complain about them whenever they occur, often asking the FBI to run down the culprit. Such efforts almost always fail.

The leakers in the Pentagon Papers case, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, gave up their positions in defense consulting corporation RAND, their access to officials, and were willing to face criminal sanction or jail time because they believed that the information that they were providing was of vital national interest and could eventually stop the war and save lives.

As noted in a recent letter from the Newspaper Association of America and National Newspaper Association to members of Congress, these leaks have led to vital information coming to public attention in a way that brings benefit to the nation, but real risks exist each time a government staffer breaks their confidentiality agreement and takes decisions into their own hands.

Ellsberg has remained a controversial figure, held up by some as a hero for the anti-war movement and government, and reviled by others as either an attention-seeker, a late-comer, or a thief. But the choices he made in inviting his friend and colleague Anthony Russo (pictured right) to take actions that would change his future, and that of the nation, were not taken lightly.

Like many leakers, Ellsberg tried to exert his influence from the inside numerous times before taking his concerns public.  As an author of the Pentagon Papers, he possessed easy access to the top echelons of the defense establishments. His top academic credentials as a member of the prestigious Society of Junior Fellows at Harvard, as Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Cambridge, his military credentials as a lieutenant in the fields during the Suez Canal engagement, his work in Vietnam on the staff of Gen. Edward Lansdale, all aided his credibility. Ellsberg had been a member of the pro-war establishment at the start of the fighting, and had worked in the State Department, took assignments from the Defense Department, and had been in Vietnam himself; it was in Vietnam where he first met Anthony Russo, a RAND engineer and political scientist who was studying Viet Cong motivations by interviewing prisoners and defectors. Ellsberg initially wrote favorably about the effort. But as the war advanced, and his analysis began to show that the war was not being won, that the objections were not being achieved, and the death tolls seemed to mount regardless of the rationality of any particular military move, Ellsberg eventually became a dissenter. Initially this dissent was registered from within the establishment. In 1968, he had even prepared an ‘A-to-Z’ list of options and had spent four days reviewing them with Henry Kissinger at Nixon campaign headquarters in New York, but Kissinger dismissed one of the key Ellsberg recommendations: withdrawal.

Ellsberg’s frustration mounted, and in September of 1969, Ellsberg, working at night, and with the help of RAND colleague Anthony Russo and the Xerox machine of Russo’s partner Lynda Sinay, photocopied the documents, working at night and separating and hiding them for fear of discovery.

By October 12, 1969 he and several RAND colleagues wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Postexpressing their conclusion that full withdrawal within the year was the only available military option. And by the end of the year, he had leaked part of the papers to Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas (pictured left), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Fulbright refused to use them until he received them through official channels, and engaged in a long battle with the Department of Defense to have them released. Ellsberg himself also gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970, but without disclosing the contents of the Papers.

In September 1970, Ellsberg penned a 70-page analytical essay “Escalating in a Quagmire,” a draft widely circulated among the defense establishment, but as he saw none of this work was having the kind of impact that was needed to change course on the war, he slowly came to realize that leaking was the best option. He first leaked the study to the Institute for Defense Policy Studies, a far-left think tank in California, but they had intended to use the information to write a book-length report, a process that could take a full year. In the end, the March leak to the New York Times was seen as the only viable option, as other sources would not have had the kind of impact desired.

Ellsberg and Russo both faced prosecution in Los Angeles for making these disclosures, and while their cases were thrown out because of government misconduct in the trial, the crimes for which they were charged had combined sentences of more than 100 years in prison, and Russo served six weeks in jail because of his refusal to testify to the grand jury in the case.

“Leakers” refers to public officials who have access to information and divulge it through the news media, often anonymously, whereas “whistle-blowers” refers to officials who come forward publicly or semi-publicly with their information. While there are legal protections on federal and state levels to which they are entitled, and whistleblowers are instructed to report their information to the inspector general of their particular agency, to the department of justice, or their Congressional oversight committee, there are often serious financial and professional tolls that are taken on individuals who report waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption. This is especially true of intelligence and defense agencies, where security clearances are often stripped in administrative actions that are not subject to judicial appeal, effectively ending the career of the whistleblower. In 2002, FBI agent Coleen Rowley, along with two private-sector whistleblowers, was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine for her efforts to bring accountability to the FBI for its intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Among notable recent leaks are the information disclosed the New York Times about the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program or the Washington Post’s stories on the CIA’s secret prisons or ‘black sites,’ but these leaks reveal programs that have already been in place. Daniel Ellsberg has called for a new kind of leak, the preventative leak, which seeks to reveal government covert plans before they can be carried out, advocating the revealing of information before lives are lost, especially in military situations. He describes his concerns here:

The Next War, by Daniel Ellsberg, Harper’s, October, 2006

A hidden crisis is under way. Many government insiders are aware of serious plans for war with Iran, but Congress and the public remain largely in the dark. The current situation is very like that of 1964, the year preceding our overt, open-ended escalation of the Vietnam War, and 2002, the year leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In both cases, if one or more conscientious insiders had closed the information gap with unauthorized disclosures to the public, a disastrous war might have been averted entirely.

My own failure to act, in time, to that effect in 1964 was pointed out to me by Wayne Morse thirty-five years ago. Morse had been one of only two U.S. senators to vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution on August 7, 1964. He had believed, correctly, that President Lyndon Johnson would treat the resolution as a congressional declaration of war. His colleagues, however, accepted White House assurances that the president sought “no wider war” and had no intention of expanding hostilities without further consulting them. They believed that they were simply expressing bipartisan support for U.S. air attacks on North Vietnam three days earlier, which the president and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had told them were in “retaliation” for the “unequivocal,” “unprovoked” attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on U.S. destroyers “on routine patrol” in “international waters.”

Each of the assurances above had been false, a conscious lie. That they were lies, though, had only been revealed to the public seven years later with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, several thousand pages of top-secret documents on U.S. decision-making in Vietnam that I had released to the press. The very first installment, published by the New York Times on June 13, 1971, had proven the official account of the Tonkin Gulf episode to be a deliberate deception.

When we met in September, Morse had just heard me mention to an audience that all of that evidence of fraud had been in my own Pentagon safe at the time of the Tonkin Gulf vote. (By coincidence, I had started work as a special assistant to an assistant secretary of defense the day of the alleged attack—which had not, in fact, occurred at all.) After my talk, Morse, who had been a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1964, said to me, “If you had given those documents to me at the time, the Tonkin Gulf resolution would never have gotten out of committee. And if it had somehow been brought up on the floor of the Senate for a vote, it would never have passed.”

He was telling me, it seemed, that it had been in my power, seven years earlier, to avert the deaths so far of 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, with many more to come. It was not something I was eager to hear. After all, I had just been indicted on what eventually were twelve federal felony counts, with a possible sentence of 115 years in prison, for releasing the Pentagon Papers to the public. I had consciously accepted that prospect in some small hope of shortening the war. Morse was saying that I had missed a real opportunity to prevent the war altogether


The run-up to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution was almost exactly parallel to the run-up to the 2002 Iraq war resolution.

In both cases, the president and his top Cabinet officers consciously deceived Congress and the public about a supposed short-run threat in order to justify and win support for carrying out preexisting offensive plans against a country that was not a near-term danger to the United States. In both cases, the deception was essential to the political feasibility of the program precisely because expert opinion inside the government foresaw costs, dangers, and low prospects of success that would have doomed the project politically if there had been truly informed public discussion beforehand. And in both cases, that necessary deception could not have succeeded without the obedient silence of hundreds of insiders who knew full well both the deception and the folly of acting upon it.


It took me that long to recognize that the secrecy agreements we had signed frequently conflicted with our oath to uphold the Constitution. That conflict arose almost daily, unnoticed by me or other officials, whenever we were secretly aware that the president or other executive officers were lying to or misleading Congress. In giving priority, in effect, to my promise of secrecy—ignoring my constitutional obligation—I was no worse or better than any of my Vietnam-era colleagues, or those who later saw the Iraq war approaching and failed to warn anyone outside the executive branch.


We face today a crisis similar to those of 1964 and 2002, a crisis hidden once again from the public and most of Congress. Articles by Seymour Hersh and others have revealed that, as in both those earlier cases, the president has secretly directed the completion, though not yet execution, of military operational plans—not merely hypothetical “contingency plans” but constantly updated plans, with movement of forces and high states of readiness, for prompt implementation on command—for attacking a country that, unless attacked itself, poses no threat to the United States: in this case, Iran.

According to these reports, many high-level officers and government officials are convinced that our president will attempt to bring about regime change in Iran by air attack; that he and his vice president have long been no less committed, secretly, to doing so than they were to attacking Iraq; and that his secretary of defense is as madly optimistic about the prospects for fast, cheap military success there as he was in Iraq.


Many of these sources regard the planned massive air attack—with or without nuclear weapons—as almost sure to be catastrophic for the Middle East, the position of the United States in the world, our troops in Iraq, the world economy, and U.S. domestic security. Thus they are as deeply concerned about these prospects as many other insiders were in the year before the Iraq invasion. That is why, unlike in the lead-up to Vietnam or Iraq, some insiders are leaking to reporters. But since these disclosures—so far without documents and without attribution—have not evidently had enough credibility to raise public alarm, the question is whether such officials have yet reached the limit of their responsibilities to our country.

Assuming Hersh’s so-far anonymous sources mean what they say—that this is, as one puts it, “a juggernaut that has to be stopped”—I believe it is time for one or more of them to go beyond fragmentary leaks unaccompanied by documents. That means doing what no other active official or consultant has ever done in a timely way: what neither Richard Clarke nor I nor anyone else thought of doing until we were no longer officials, no longer had access to current documents, after bombs had fallen and thousands had died, years into a war. It means going outside executive channels, as officials with contemporary access, to expose the president’s lies and oppose his war policy publicly before the war, with unequivocal evidence from inside.

Simply resigning in silence does not meet moral or political responsibilities of officials rightly “appalled” by the thrust of secret policy. I hope that one or more such persons will make the sober decision—accepting sacrifice of clearance and career, and risk of prison—to disclose comprehensive files that convey, irrefutably, official, secret estimates of costs and prospects and dangers of the military plans being considered. What needs disclosure is the full internal controversy, the secret critiques as well as the arguments and claims of advocates of war and nuclear “options”—the Pentagon Papers of the Middle East. But unlike in 1971, the ongoing secret debate should be made available before our war in the region expands to include Iran, before the sixty-one-year moratorium on nuclear war is ended violently, to give our democracy a chance to foreclose either of those catastrophes.

The personal risks of doing this are very great. Yet they are not as great as the risks of bodies and lives we are asking daily of over 130,000 young Americans—with many yet to join them—in an unjust war. Our country has urgent need for comparable courage, moral and civil courage, from its public servants. They owe us the truth before the next war begins.


Interview with Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg Interview with Harry Kreisler: Conversations with History Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley conducted July 29, 1998.

Daniel Ellsberg was the high-level researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The act, which shortened U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and contributed to President Richard Nixon’s resignation also slapped Ellsberg with a twelve-count indictment for espionage, theft and conspiracy. The charges were eventually dropped and Ellsberg went on to become a leading figure in the U.S. peace movement. Today he continues to speak about the role of the Pentagon Papers, governmental secrecy and conspiracy, and abolishing nuclear threats and weapons.

Q: You remained for many years part of the government, part of the team, willing to live with the elements of this decision making process. After much frustration with Vietnam, after reading the Pentagon Papers, you reached a different conclusion about what is acceptable and what is moral. Explain how that change in your thinking came about.

A: I learned in Vietnam nothing very new about the lack of good prospects for success. I went to Vietnam pretty much with that perspective, or certainly I had it in 1964, and I had it in 1961. I did learn the faces of the Vietnamese. I learned to be concerned for what happened to Vietnamese people in a way that my colleagues back in Washington probably didn’t feel. They had a reality for me. They weren’t just numbers and they weren’t just abstract ciphers of some kind, as they were for other people. And as I would have to say probably for myself, people in other parts of the world that didn’t have that same friendly awareness in my mind. And I wasn’t aware of them as friends and associates and so forth. That was a consideration.

What I particularly learned, though, in 1969, and from the Pentagon Papers, was that Nixon, the fifth president in a row now, was choosing to prolong the war in vain hopes that he might get a better outcome than he could achieve if he’d just negotiated his way out and took what he could get and accepted, essentially, a defeat. He hoped to do much better than that. In fact, he hoped to hold on to control of Saigon and the major populated areas indefinitely for the United States, that these would be subject to our will and our policy and not be run by communists. And he hoped to do that, actually, in ways similar to the way Johnson had hoped—by threatening escalation of the war, threatening bombing of North Vietnam. He was making such threats and then he was prepared to carry them out. I did not believe the threats would succeed, so I foresaw a larger war. He was fooling the public about what he was doing at this time for the same reason Johnson had in 1964. The public would not, at that time, have supported a continuation of the war, let alone an expansion of the war. But he was successfully fooling the public, who didn’t want to believe that any president could be so foolish and so narrow minded in his own interests as to keep that war going after the Tet offensive of 1968. So I saw a replay of 1964 and 1965 coming again. I saw once again a president making secret threats, almost sure to carry them out, and deceiving the public as to what he was doing.

By reading the Pentagon Papers, which I finished doing in the fall of 1969, in September 1969, I now had a historical sweep sufficient to reach a conclusion that I would have been very unlikely to reach without reading them, and that was that there was very little hope of changing his [the President’s] mind from inside the executive branch, for example, by giving him good advice or by giving him realistic estimates of what was happening in Vietnam. Because what I saw by reading the earliest days of the Pentagon Papers, going back to 1945 and 1946, was that every president had had such advice, as early as Truman. Truman had seen predictions of an indefinitely prolonged guerrilla war facing him and yet had gone ahead in supporting the French in this effort. And this had happened year after year. It happened year after year for Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson. The fact now that Nixon was embarked on a new course held out very little hope that he would be more responsive just to good advice about getting out than any of his predecessors had been. That meant that if his decision was going to be changed—and because I cared about Vietnam and this country, I felt quite urgently that I wanted the United States to stop bombing them and stop killing Vietnamese—the pressure would have to come from outside the executive branch. It would involve a variety of things, but it probably required better information outside the executive branch, in Congress and in the public, about the past and about the present, than they had. If I had had documents on what Nixon was planning, on what I’d been told he was planning by colleagues who were working for Nixon, I would have put those out at that time to Congress to warn them of what was coming. I probably would not have bothered with the thousands of pages of history that involved the earlier presidents; I would have shown what Nixon was doing. But I didn’t have those documents. And at that time, it was very hard to get the public to believe or to act on the possibility that a president was lying to them or deceiving them. That was not in the American consciousness, and it was a very unpopular notion even to put forward.

I once said in a courtroom, in defense of people who were on trial for resisting the draft, that the President had lied. This was in early 1971, before the Pentagon Papers had come out. The judge stopped the proceedings, called the lawyers up to the bench. I could hear what he was saying because I was in the witness box next to him. “If you elicit testimony like that again,” he said to the defense lawyer, “I will hold you in contempt. I will not have statements about the President lying in my courtroom.” This was in a trial of people who were resisting the war nonviolently. And they weren’t allowed, in effect, to have witnesses who said anything like that, that the President was lying. The Pentagon Papers changed that. Seven thousand pages of documents of presidential lying did establish forever, and they were confirmed of course by Watergate a couple of years later, that presidents all lie.