The National·Interview

Lies, nuclear notes, catastrophe: Famous whistleblower's 5-decade treasure trove

Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower who helped end the Vietnam War, is even more famous now that the movie about him is up for an Oscar. He talks about what keeps him awake, what he'd like to see leaked, and what's in his personal archive — including the stuff stashed in his basement.

Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg on what worries him now — and the secrets stored in his basement

Daniel Ellsberg, centre, the man who leaked the famous Pentagon Papers and helped bring an end to the Vietnam War, is still making his feelings known about U.S. government military activity. Seen here during this anti-war protest in December 2010 in front of the White House, he and several others were arrested for civil disobedience. (AFP/Getty Images)
Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. defence analyst who in 1971 went public with proof of how the U.S. government was deceiving the public about the Vietnam War, is one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time.

His fame has increased recently thanks to Steven Spielberg's film The Post, which is up for an Oscar for Best Picture this weekend.

But what is Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers, really like in person?

Daniel Ellsberg speaks at a press conference on July 1, 1971, about the release of the Pentagon Papers and the course of the Vietnam War. (Getty Images) (Bettmann Archive)

Adrienne Arsenault, co-host of CBC's The National, spoke with Ellsberg at his home in Berkeley, Calif. The wide-ranging interview began with the legendary story of the Pentagon Papers, but then got into uncharted territory.

Ellsberg spoke about the "untold story." It involves a second lesser-known set of documents he copied while working as an analyst at Rand Corporation — ones about secret U.S. plans for nuclear war and the projected death toll that worried him even more than Vietnam.

Then he took Arsenault on a tour of his home office, even down to the crawlspace crammed with his personal collection of books and papers. It's tucked away into filing cabinets, boxes and shelves, all arranged — with a curious sense of doom — according to categories with names like Lies, Secrecy, Nuclear Notes and Catastrophe.

Watch the highlights from their conversation in the videos below, and see the tour of Ellsberg's sprawling archive.

Ellsberg, right, gives CBC's Adrienne Arsenault a tour of his home archive, an enormous collection of documents and books gathered over decades of keeping an eye on the U.S. government. (Dave Rae/CBC)

The Nixon tapes

Back in 1971, a disgusted Daniel Ellsberg decided he could no longer stand that Americans were being lied to by their government about the Vietnam War. He made a decision to show them the truth.

Ellsberg, a strategic analyst at Rand Corporation, spent months photocopying thousands of pages of classified reports about what the U.S. government really knew of the war, and leaked them to the New York Times and other media. 

The U.S. government was rocked by Ellsberg's disclosure of these Pentagon Papers, and it made every effort to discredit him.

Daniel Ellsberg and Adrienne Arsenault listen to part of the Nixon tape that refer to the Pentagon Papers leak, which Ellsberg says was the beginning of the end for Nixon's government 0:50

Ellsberg and Arsenault listened to 1971 Oval Office recordings of President Richard Nixon. "We've gotta get this son of a bitch," Nixon says on the tape.

Nixon adds that his administration can't allow "a fella to get away with this sort of wholesale thievery," because "otherwise it's going to happen all over the government."

As it gets personal, the anger in Nixon's voice is plain. Ellsberg describes how Nixon's statements on the tape ultimately spelled the end for his presidency.

"He's signing his death warrant as a president," Ellsberg says.


The doomsday machine

Ellsberg read a dramatic passage from his recent book The Doomsday Machine, which involves leaked information about a U.S. government plan for nuclear war. The plan is something he calls "multi-genocide."

"Estimates by the joint chiefs of how many they would kill if we initiated nuclear war: 600 million dead," Ellsberg says.

"This piece of paper should not exist, it should never have existed. Not in America, not anywhere," he adds.

"It depicted evil beyond any human project, ever."

Daniel Ellsberg, the famous whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers, reads a dramatic passage from his recent book The Doomsday Machine, which involves leaked information about a U.S. government plan for nuclear war 0:42

The basement archive

Ellsberg still has copies of the government papers he leaked to the press decades ago, along with other documents collected over a lifetime. Many, many other documents. 

He takes Arsenault on a tour of the fascinating material he has stored in his home. It is an excursion through decades of books, papers, boxes and filing cabinets bursting with information, starting in his home office and ultimately ending in the cramped basement under his home.

Largely tucked under the house and carved into a hillside is a room crammed with piles of books and file folders, Ellsberg's treasure trove.

Daniel Ellsberg, the famous leaker behind the Pentagon Papers, takes Adrienne Arsenault on a tour of his office, and the crawlspace in his home where he stores stacks of documents collected over the years 2:02

Back behind the boiler, past the wooden frame bent from the last earthquake, there's another room. At this point the ceiling is so low, it's more of a crawlspace. More boxes, more documents.

"I get the feeling you could get lost for days in here," Arsenault says.

"Days?," Ellsberg replies. "Years ..."


Modern leak

Arsenault asks the 20th century's most famous whistleblower what documents he most wants to see leaked to the public today.

Ellsberg doesn't hesitate.

At the top of his wish list, he says, is a set of documents that "I am certain exist in the Pentagon, in the CIA, and even probably in the White House," about how many people would die on all sides of the conflict as a result of a war with North Korea.

He suggests U.S. President Donald Trump may be under a delusion about the reality of attacking North Korea, and it's urgent that such a report be made public, even though it could mean grave risk for the leaker.

Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers, talks about what he'd like someone to leak to the public today 1:33


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Video by Dave Rae