‘Top Line’ at the Movies: ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers’

Feb 12, 2010 3:45pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak the top secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 was a watershed moment in American history — changing the course of the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency, and redefining the relationship between official Washington and its press corps. The story is told in a new documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” that’s been nominated for an Academy Award. On ABC’s “Top Line” today, we chatted with Rick Goldsmith, the film’s co-director. And separately (because he was delayed by the weather in Washington), we chatted with Ellsberg himself.

Ellsberg said he thinks it’s time for someone to follow his example, with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he saw a hopeful sign in the publication of secret cables sent by Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, warning against the consequences of a troop build-up there. “People see the same events being reenacted on the evening news,” said Ellsberg, 78. “It’s impossible to watch this film and not see Afghanistan, and Iraq, for that matter. So I think a lot of people feel we need some more disclosures like the Eikenberry cables that someone leaked just a week or two ago from the ambassador in Afghanistan. Those were very similar to the Pentagon Papers.” “I think the motive was similar to mine and I … very much thank the person, whoever it was that did that. I’m sure there’s a ‘plumbers’ unit’ in the White House right now and the Pentagon trying to figure out who that was and neutralize them, as they set out to neutralize me. Because whoever it was had access to high-level cables which were telling that the war that the president has just escalated is essentially hopeless.” “I haven’t seen facsimile copies of similar cables before since the Pentagon Papers, so that was nostalgic,” Ellsberg added. “But it’s the same theme that we’re heading into a war that’s going to be a bloody, hopeless stalemate. I think people see that and the more we get officials speaking out like that, I think the more Congress may get the spine to oppose even a president of their own party.” His advice to future would-be leaders: “I’ve been saying for years now to people in the government, to the extent I can hope to get through to them, ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait till the war has started, don’t wait ’til it’s escalated as now, don’t wait till thousands more have died under our bombs before you take a personal risk, and consider taking it and go to the press as well as to Congress. I went to the Congress and wasted really 22 months on that; I should have gone to the press immediately with this and TV and gotten it out, because you can save a war’s worth of lives.” Ellsberg also joked that it would be far easier to get something like the Pentagon Papers — a 7,000-page Defense Department study detailing US involvement in Vietnam going back to 1945 — into circulation these days. Ellsberg (plus and associate and his children) had to photocopy each page of the report, one by one, as documented in the film. “It was three months really where I wasn’t sure [The New York Times was] going to [publish] it, after I’d given them [the papers]. Today I wouldn’t wait that long. I’d get a scanner and I’d put it on the Internet, for good or bad. But I wouldn’t wait for somebody else,” he said. Watch the interview with Daniel Ellsberg HERE. Goldsmith, the film’s co-director, told us about how Ellsberg went from being a defense analyst crafting war plans to an anti-war voice who tried to end the conflict in Vietnam with a high-profile leak. “Through a series of events, when he went over to Vietnam and he saw that not only was the war unwinnable but it was really immoral,” Goldsmith said. “And, as he has been quoted and as in the film, it wasn’t that we were on the wrong side, we were the wrong side. And he made that 180 degree turn.” Watch the “Top Line” segment with Rick Goldsmith HERE.
The film opens today in Washington, at the E Street Cinema.

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