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The Original Whistleblower: Daniel Ellsberg on Campus

(Posted January 28, 2014)

Jim Skelly, professor of peace and conflict studies at Juniata

On Jan. 30, Daniel Ellsberg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, will speak in Rosenberger Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. With access to top-secret documents, the former Pentagon employee possessed written proof that the United States government lied to the American public about the circumstances surrounding the Vietnam War. Jim Skelly, professor of peace and conflict studies, explains the importance of Ellsberg's actions and what we can learn from him in an era with debate surrounding another whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

Q: Why was Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers so significant?

A: He did something very courageous when others did not. He had come into contact with the secret history of the Vietnam War. He knew why the U.S. was there, why U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese had been killed, and he felt morally compelled to release the information to the New York Times. What he discovered is that the government regularly lied about the character of the Vietnam War. He himself was in a very classified situation room during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a supposed attack on a U.S. ship. Ellsberg knew that the attack did not occur, but the next day Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert McNamara lied to the American public about what had happened. Johnson used that in a very significant way to ramp up the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg was vilified and Nixon tried to demonize him by finding any compromising information -- not dissimilar to what happened to Edward Snowden, of whom Ellsberg is a great defender. The amount of information that is classified and restricted is extensive because the government doesn't want to deal with the embarrassment and the truth of various matters.

Q: Why is it important to acknowledge whistleblowers?

A: The degree of U.S. government and other government surveillance programs is extensive. They lied about the reasons for going to Iraq, and the torture of people they captured and detained. Without a check on the authorities of those in political and military power, democracy is finished.

Q: How is Edward Snowden similar to Ellsberg?

A: Snowden has done the same thing in certain ways. What he said is that he didn't want to live in a country that did these kinds of things. Much of what we see of other agencies of government surveillance is unconstitutional and it would have been kept secret if he had not revealed it. He did a great service to this country and other countries around the world.

Q: How are the public's reactions to Snowden today different from the reactions to Ellsberg in 1971?

A: Normally, people in these circumstances claim that whistleblowers are criminals and traitors, without any sort of reflection that they are the ones who are corrupting democracy themselves. What it means is the absolute necessity to be vigilant, engaged, and challenge those who would try to exercise more power than they are constitutionally allocated. The basis for tyranny is institutionalized when you keep massive secrets from citizens. Government has the capacity then to essentially demonize anyone.


Hannah Jeffery '16, Juniata Online Journalist

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