By Michael Bodey
To some Daniel Ellsberg is a hero, to others a traitor. A new documentary makes no secret of its position
THIS month, at least, Daniel Ellsberg's tale doesn't seem so extraordinary. Private (formerly specialist) Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old US Army intelligence analyst, is under arrest for leaking confidential video of a 2007 US helicopter strike in Iraq that killed insurgents, civilians and two Reuters journalists, and of the 2009 Granai airstrike that killed up to 140 civilians. Julian Assange, Australian-born founder of the video's broadcaster, WikiLeaks, is in hiding and believed to be being hunted by the US government.
Meanwhile, Australian news organisations are regularly battling government agencies about sources of embarrassing or damaging leaks, including at present this newspaper.
Ellsberg is perhaps the most famous whistleblower. The case of the former war planner who leaked damaging confidential information about the genesis and planning for the Vietnam war, a secret history that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, is instructive even if few have learned from it.
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's Academy Award-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, is clear about its verdict on Ellsberg's actions, which led indirectly to the Watergate scandal and resignation of Richard Nixon. Others have been just as clear in their judgment, seeing his actions as traitorous or noble.
Ehrlich, who was recently in Australia as a guest of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, says she has been accused of hero worship. "I'm very clear that I support what Ellsberg did, I'm not of mixed mind," she says. "I sort of have a hard time with the concept of objectivity when it comes to filmmaking, anyway. I don't think anyone's objective. Everyone comes with their own arguments, with their own background, experience and way of thinking about the world. I am a supporter of non-violence and there are not enough models of that and there are plenty of models for violence.
"Daniel made that transition from being a war planner to being a war resister and I think we should have more descriptions of that kind of transition."
Ehrlich and Goldsmith's case for regarding Ellsberg as a hero is helped greatly by Ellsberg himself, who narrates the documentary in an authoritative, intelligent voice and is appealing and emotive in his interviews. Against the archival recordings of Nixon's rants, it's no contest for the viewer's hearts and minds.
"It's kind of surprising because he's so articulate and, when he does appear, he grabs people's attention," says Ehrlich of her subject, who is "remarkably talented in voiceover".
Even more remarkably, Ellsberg was also "revealing and willing to open up in a way we didn't realise would happen".
The film is a coming-out for the 69-year-old who hasn't been employed since the vigorous campaign against him by the Nixon administration and his later trial, which was thrown out in 1973. (His second wife, Patricia Marx, had a substantial inheritance on which they lived, although her primary inheritance as daughter of the founder of toy manufacturer Marx Toys was taken from her after Ellsberg's revelations.)
Ellsberg has remained outside the mainstream for some time and his opinion on political matters has not been as sought after as one might think. Until now.
Of course there was no shortage of people asking him to appear in a documentary, but he refrained until he'd told the story himself. After he published Secrets: a Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers in 2002, at least three documentary filmmakers were circling. These included one of the most intimidating, Errol Morris, who had interviewed him for The Fog of War, a Vietnam war mea culpa from one of Ellsberg's bosses, former US defence secretary Robert McNamara. Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, planned to make a narrative feature about Ellsberg. That hasn't eventuated, but he cleared the way for Ehrlich and Goldsmith.
Ehrlich had made the documentary about World War II conscientious objectors, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight it, and Goldsmith two documentaries, Everyday Heroes and the Academy Award-nominated Tell The Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, a portrait of an iconoclastic journalist who was a central observer at some of the biggest news events of the 20th century.
Ehrlich believes Ellsberg expected the duo, given their handling of previous subject matter, would "give him a fair shake".
"Not that we'd bend over backwards . . . but that we would not be too critical of him as others had been," she says. "He had been burned before [most particularly by Tom Wells's harsh book, Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg] and was a little cautious. He understood that in principle we were in agreement with him."
Ellsberg split so many people because of who he was and what he became. Very rarely does anyone effect such a personal transformation, let alone convince others to follow.
The intellectually gifted Ellsberg had a brilliant career through Harvard University to the US Marine Corps, the Rand Corporation think tank and the Pentagon. He became known as one of the Pentagon's more effervescent thinkers and obsessed practitioners. He even spent time on the front lines of Vietnam to give a more informed perspective on US progress, which was taken on board by his superiors, including McNamara, but ignored by president Lyndon Johnson.
The disappointment of having his work and advice rebuffed was made worse by confidential accounts he obtained of the US's imperial and imperious involvement in Indochina. Ellsberg became a non-believer. "There's something about the transformation of the marine Dan Ellsberg to the anti-war Dan Ellsberg that somehow attracts people to him," says Ehrlich. "I've had quite a lot of experience with the subject of people who refuse to fight and people in the military are not the ones who are looking to go to war. They know what war is, they know it's not such a great idea; it's easy to go to war when it doesn't involve you."
Indeed, Ehrlich's documentary shows in some detail how the only people who appeared not to appreciate the horror of the Vietnam war were the three presidents presiding over it: John F. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Even the hawkish Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to Nixon, appears as a voice of reason.
"We certainly didn't mean to make Kissinger look good," Ehrlich says, laughing. "That was not our intention, it's just he looks good next to the irrational Nixon. At least he looks rational even if he's not doing it necessarily for the right reasons, but he knows dropping a nuclear bomb is not going to be good for Nixon's popularity."
The film shows Ellsberg's internal battle, largely sparked by a girlfriend's chiding, while delivering some drama in the way he surreptitiously photocopies the 7000-page report with the help of his children, and in the way The New York Times formulates, and then nearly doesn't deliver, one of the scoops of the century.
Most significantly, it displays Ellsberg's courage, when for many years his act was seen to be motivated by vainglory. "He's a hero to most Americans, I think, at least a hero to the progressives and people on the Left and the anti-war movement," Ehrlich says. "He's very respected and adored by people who respected the act of courage he did and feel that he really made a difference and changed the landscape and political agenda of the US at that time."
For Ellsberg himself, the documentary has been a cleansing experience. Ehrlich believes he feels gratified after being out in the cold for so long. "And it's given him a platform he deserves, he's got a perspective on the current wars that's unique," she says.
That said, consecutive US debacles in South America and the Middle East are largely left untouched in The Most Dangerous Man in America. Sadly, little seems to have been learned from the events of 30 years ago. You can almost hear the mea culpas and tales of courage that will form the documentaries of the future.
Ehrlich expects "someone will stand up and be a Dan Ellsberg because we're certainly in the same situation".
But it hasn't become any easier to speak out. She recently attended with Ellsberg a panel discussion in New York about whistleblowers, attended by New York cop Frank Serpico and former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who after September 11 shone a light on US intelligence mismanagement.
"It's moving to see the strength they got from one another and how outside the mainstream the whistleblower is and how much you give up to do that and the pariah you become," Ehrlich says.
"It was wonderful to see the sustenance they get from one another. But it's a tough road."