Heresy in Los Angeles

Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg; drawing by David Levine

Since it began, the Pentagon Papers trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo, Jr., has seemed to those of us who have been watching it partly a trial for heresy, partly an obscenity trial—an inquisition into the meaning, use, and control of a sacred, unspeakable text, represented in this instance by a plain brown carton that often sits on a table in front of the government prosecutor, David R. Nissen: twenty Xeroxed volumes of the forty-seven-volume history of the Vietnam war. Both the government and the defendants are obsessed with that carton, which has become a kind of a totem of the age of information.

Ellsberg’s work in the Pentagon and at the Rand Corporation in the days before his famous conversion was characterized by nothing so much as a search for some final understanding of how power works, how decisions are made, where the deepest secrets lie. During his days in the government, he has often said, he was shown military plans for general war whose very existence was hidden by the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the President and the Secretary of Defense. It was as if he were speaking of being in the holy place of an obscene cult.

Inevitably, the testimony during the first weeks in Los Angeles was about the mystery of the Papers, the magical powers they gave to those who read them. The larger issues—restrictions on the First Amendment, the use of the classification system, and government control of information—were hardly mentioned. The government’s witnesses summoned up for the jury a hypothetical “foreign analyst” who they claimed would have enjoyed an “intelligence windfall” if the Papers had fallen into his hands. They described a hypothetical foreign government which would have been able to sabotage secret negotiations between Washington and Hanoi after reading what Ellsberg had given the Times. Then there was a hypothetical North Vietnamese general who, they argued, could have assessed hypothetical plans for the phased withdrawal of 500,000 troops in 1969—the year the Papers were copied and when Ellsberg’s alleged crime began—by studying a discarded proposal for the removal of 16,000 troops in 1964.

The government’s first witnesses, a pair of military officers testifying as experts on the damage that disclosure of the Papers might have caused the United States, deluged the jury with acronyms, code names, and portentous suggestions of clandestine intelligence operations—two weeks of cloak and dagger stuff—yet they undoubtedly scored a point: if a foreign government knew what we knew (or if they knew what we knew about what they knew) it might be in a better position to direct its counterintelligence activities, understand our intelligence system, and plan more carefully in the future. But it was not the actual information in the Papers that was of particular military importance; even if a great deal of that had already been published, as the defense showed, the range of…

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