Bill Berkowitz / The Smirking Chimp – 2019-02-01 22:42:42
Pentagon Papers’ Whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg,
Celebrated For ‘Exceptional Moral Courage’
Bill Berkowitz / The Smirking Chimp
STOCKHOLM, Sweden (February 1, 2019) — On January 30, in Stockholm, Sweden, Daniel Ellsberg received the 2018 Olof Palme human rights prize “for his profound humanism and exceptional moral courage,” the jury said in a statement.
In 1969, Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps officer, was given access to classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War, in his capacity as a US military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation.
Two years later, Ellsberg, and his former RAND Corporation colleague Anthony Russo, secretly photocopied 7,000 pages of what was to become known as the “Pentagon Papers,” and released them to The New York Times.
After the Pentagon Papers became public, Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, called Ellsberg, now 87, “the most dangerous man in America,” and suggested that “he has to be stopped at all costs.”
“He was well aware of risking a long time in prison and a spoiled career,” the jury said. “Regardless of such consequences, his decision led to the removal of a mendacious government, a shortening of an illegal war, and an untold number of saved lives.”
The Prize, which is awarded by the Olof Palme Foundation, commemorates the memory of the Swedish prime minister who was assassinated in 1986. It is given to “a single recipient or to several for an outstanding achievement in any of the areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security.” Ellsberg will receive a diploma, and a $100,000 award at the ceremony in Stockholm.
In September 2009, I interviewed Rick Goldsmith, the co-producer and co-director — along with Judith Erlich — of the academy award-nominated documentary film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers.
Now, ten years after the making of The Most Dangerous Man, I asked Goldsmith, who also produced and directed the Academy-Award nominated documentary feature Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, to comment on the significance of Ellsberg’s whistleblowing, and the state of the media in the Age of Trump,
Government secrecy is as big a problem now as it was fifty years ago. We don’t even know what our president and Vladimir Putin discussed in their several meetings; the NSA spies on US citizens and doesn’t ‘fess up to how extensive their information-gathering is. But more and more people are challenging that secrecy than ever before.
Dan Ellsberg made ‘whistleblowing’ a household word, and has influenced dozens (hundreds? thousands?) to courageously speak out against government and corporate misconduct. As Edward Snowden has said: ‘I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that without a Daniel Ellsberg there could not have been an Edward Snowden . . . . ‘
The press’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and then, shortly after, of Watergate, was its finest hour in our lifetime. That said, investigative reporting is coming back in a big way, and from more and more news organizations, exposing abuse of power — at an all-time high, between the current administration, the Republican Party (voter suppression #1 on the list) and the wealthy/corporate elite (dark money in politics and much more skullduggery).
That said, the news industry is facing challenges like never before: The amount of journalists employed by the various news media has decreased by 50%– that’s right, by half — since 2004. Local journalism is in danger of disappearing as we suffer news deserts and ghost papers (the subject of my current film-in-progress).
Ellsberg was effective in large part because he was part of a movement. Political action does not exist in a vacuum. The anti-war movement was massive at the time of the Pentagon Papers. Today, political organizing and progressive activism is mushrooming, and gaining steam. They say it is darkest before the dawn. Yes, the country is dark. But dawn is right around the corner. Keep the faith and keep the foot on the pedal and we will overcome.
Here is the complete 2009 interview with Goldsmith:
BILL BERKOWITZ Why did you and Judith Ehrlich decide to do a film about Daniel Ellsberg? Why now?
RICK GOLDSMITH: We each came to it independently. I had interviewed Ellsberg for my film on George Seldes (When he was a Harvard student in 1950, Ellsberg had subscribed to Seldes’ four-page newsletter.)
In 2002, I wrote Ellsberg about the possibility of doing a film on him and the “Pentagon Papers”; sending him a 2-page outline, which even then was titled “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” He didn’t reply and I didn’t follow up. A few years later, Judy Ehrlich approached me and suggested doing a film on Dan Ellsberg. We took it from there.
We both had done films about people of conscience who stood up for their beliefs and dared challenge the status quo. Her film The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It told a riveting story about conscientious objectors in World War II. By 2004, we were in the middle of an immoral and disastrous war in Iraq started by a President who lied us into the war, and we had a Congress and a public who seemed either uninterested or powerless to stop it.
The story of Ellsberg and the ‘Pentagon Papers’ had parallels that were all too apparent. It was a compelling story and we both felt that it might have something to say to audiences today, especially anyone under 50, who wouldn’t have personally remembered or even known about the ‘Pentagon Papers’ events at all.
BILL BERKOWITZ Where does the title The Most Dangerous Man in America come from?
RICK GOLDSMITH: Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, was widely quoted as having said about Ellsberg — shortly after he was identified as having leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, and thought to have copies of Nixon’s own Vietnam war plans — ‘Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America and he has to be stopped at all costs.’
BILL BERKOWITZ The release of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ was, amongst other things, an example of great personal courage; a test of the media’s right to publish; and a battle over the public’s right to know. How does this relate to today’s political climate; secret CIA hit squads, Blackwater assassination teams?
RICK GOLDSMITH: After Ellsberg’s release of the ‘Pentagon Papers,’ he was tried under the Espionage Act and faced 115 years in prison. The publication of the Papers by The New York Times and other newspapers could have subjected both the papers and their reporters and editors to criminal prosecution as well.
So you might say that June of 1971 was a high point in “civil courage” (a phrase Ellsberg likes to use). Ellsberg and these newspapermen ascribed to the notion that the United States is a democracy and can best function if the Congress, the courts, the press, and the public are outspoken and involved in the decisions of our government. And that while Presidents will try to shut them down in times of crisis, they have to fight against the government in order to make their voices heard, to get the truth out, and to make democracy work.
But since 1971, there has been a slow and steady decline, not only in Congressional, press, and citizen involvement, but in the notion that we have a right, a responsibility, to challenge the President and his Administration.
During the first Gulf War, in 1991, CNN foreign correspondent Peter Arnett (who has a cameo in our film) was branded “unpatriotic” and even a ‘traitor’ because he had the gall to do a story that put a human face on Iraqis. The notion that because we’re at war, it is treason to report on the effects of war or to criticize the President is an insane notion, but it persists more now than ever.
Congress and the news media have become more timid, so stories about torture, assassination, and using mercenary enterprises like Blackwater to fight our wars with no accountability are rarely reported and when they are, horrendous abuses are pushed under the rug.
The Bush Administration said ‘no pictures of body bags’ and the news media complied. Reporters were embedded with the troops making it near impossible to report independently and without censorship.
When the ‘Pentagon Papers’ were published, the central issue was ‘national security vs. the public’s right to know.’ Today, the present Administration and this is no less true with Obama and Afghanistan than it was with Bush and Iraq holds all the cards, they make all the rules, and the public has an extremely difficult task even getting the facts, the true story.
BILL BERKOWITZ The story of the Pentagon Papers has been told a number of times. What new things will viewers learn from your film?
RICK GOLDSMITH: If you’re young, you’ll be entertained by a gripping story about American government, secrecy, lies and power that you couldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams. If you’re older, you’ll discover that what you thought you remembered about the ‘Pentagon Papers’ and Watergate is not the whole story.
You’ll get the inside dope from most of the principals of the time — Ellsberg and his ‘co-conspirator’ Tony Russo, Ellsberg’s family, journalists, anti-war activists, government insiders, Nixon White House officials, and, through the Nixon White House secret tapes, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger as you’ve never heard them before. It’s a wild and exciting ride.
BILL BERKOWITZ Over the course of your filmmaking career, you’ve interviewed some very impressive individuals including the iconic journalist George Seldes, Judge Thelton Henderson, and now Ellsberg. What links these three historic figures? What have you learned about the struggle for truth, peace and social justice?
RICK GOLDSMITH: George Seldes and Dan Ellsberg were men of conscience, who took risks to address the biggest social injustices of their day. In both of the films there is a first-person narrative passage where the main character — Seldes in one film, Ellsberg in the other — reflects on a personal revelation, a turning point, where he comes to the conclusion that war, which he has participated in and championed up until this moment, is in actuality murder, a crime, and a crime that has to be stopped.
Their lives are changed forever — they never again ‘go along to get along.’ And what unfolds in each film, is a story in which the viewer (at least this is the intention) comes to see that stopping war, stopping injustice, may take both an incredible about-face to your belief system and a enormous personal commitment to do something — not once, but over a lifetime — to battle the massive forces that keep those wars and those injustices happening, time and again, in every generation.
BILL BERKOWITZ What do you hope the film accomplishes?
RICK GOLDSMITH: I hope that audiences, especially young people who likely aren’t familiar with Ellsberg might see the film and begin to look at the world around them in a different way; to question authority, to consider that their President, their boss, their parents, whoever, doesn’t have all the answers.
That taking risks for important issues can be liberating, uplifting, and can make a difference in the world around them. I think we all face periods of discouragement, maybe even live “lives of quiet desperation” and that it is a common experience to ask the question ‘why bother?’ Maybe this film can help answer that question.
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