What Would Daniel Ellsberg Do?

Illustration by Sam Poling

Daniel Ellsberg — the Pentagon Papers whistleblower who has been an inspiring activist for peace since the early 1970s — recently wrote a public letter disclosing that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with a prognosis that he has only three to six months to live.

Join us for “Daniel Ellsberg Week” to celebrate the life’s work of Daniel Ellsberg, to take action in support of whistleblowers and peacemakers, and to call on state and local governments around the country to honor the spirit of difficult truth-telling with a commemorative week, April 24-30.

The Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy & The RootsAction Education Fund

I first “met” Dan Ellsberg through the pages of history, an 11-year-old boy caught up in the political scandal that was known as Watergate. He emerged as a footnote to the larger drama surrounding President Richard Nixon’s involvement with the so-called “White House plumbers,” a secret investigative unit working directly for Nixon. The “plumbers” had broken into the Watergate Hotel to steal information from the Democratic National Committee that could be of use in support of Richard Nixon’s reelection bid, only to get caught.

In the investigation that followed, it became known that the “plumbers” had carried out numerous other “jobs” for the President, including their first—the September 3, 1971 burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, to discover information that could undermine Ellsberg’s credibility during his espionage trial. Ellsberg had earlier leaked tens of thousands of pages of what became known as “the Pentagon Papers” to The Washington Post and The New York Times. For this “crime” Ellsberg was arrested, charged and put on trial.

When the information about the break-in became public, US District Judge W. Matthew Byrne halted the trial and dismissed charges against Ellsberg and his codefendant, accusing the government of misconduct.

Many years would pass before I once again had Dan Ellsberg enter my life. I had resigned from my position as a United Nations Chief Inspector in Iraq in August 1998, and in the years that followed had become a vocal critic of US policy in the Middle East. In 2002, as the US began to prepare for a war with Iraq, both Daniel and I began speaking out against this prospect, and soon fate conspired to put us on the same stage in Oakland, California, where we had a conversation before a packed house of fellow activists about the dangers of war.

Scott Ritter discusses this article and answers audience questions in Episode 65 of Ask the Inspector, his last podcast before traveling to for Russia for a month-long book tour.

Dan invited me and my fellow traveler, Jeff Norman, back to his home, where we spent a remarkable evening with him and his lovely wife, Pat. Even though we had just met, the Ellsbergs made us feel as if we had known them for a lifetime, regaling us with stories from their considerable life experiences that were insightful, emotional, and in some cases, downright hysterical. This began a friendship that lasted for more than two decades, built on a foundation of mutual respect and a shared passion for eliminating the scourge of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.

As I reflect back on the time I was blessed to spend with Dan, I find myself in awe of the intelligence and courage of a Harvard-educated Marine who served his country as one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids,” as an aide to the legendary CIA covert operator, Edward Lansdale, and later as a senior analyst with the RAND corporation, a defense think tank. As someone who had helped conceive US nuclear doctrine, Dan felt it was his life’s mission to try and put the nuclear genie back into its bottle. I was proud to say that, in his later years in life, I was able to actively collaborate with him on this mission.

I often think about Daniel Ellsberg as he strode up the steps to the US District Court in San Francisco, on trial for espionage charges that could have put him away for life. Aren’t you afraid to go to prison, a reporter asked him. His response sticks with me to this day: “Wouldn’t you go to prison to end this war?” he said, without hesitation.

The courage and conviction of that response still brings tears to my eyes.

“What would Daniel Ellsberg do” has become a mantra in my life, as I confront the various challenges life puts in front of me.

It helped me make the decision to go to Baghdad in September 2002 to petition the Iraqi government to allow weapons inspectors to return in an effort to prevent a war, even though I knew the price I would pay at the hands of a vengeful US government would be high.

And it guides me today as I prepare to embark on a new mission, one built around the desire to make arms control and nuclear disarmament between the US and Russia a priority for the US government, again in hopes of forestalling the possibility of a nuclear war. This mission is derived from my book about the implementation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, and my role as a weapons inspector tasked with carrying out compliance verification inspections in support of this task. This book, Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, was recently published in Russia, and I have been invited to Russia to help promote the Russian language edition.

But this journey is far more than a simple book tour. It is an act of citizen diplomacy which, once again, will put me in opposition to the policies of my government and the Russophobia of many of my fellow Americans.

“My book,” I explain in a statement I made to the Russian media on the eve of my departure for Russia, “is about a time when our two nations took seriously the important task of nuclear disarmament. Today this mission has been halted in large part by the irrational fear of Russia on the part of the American people. My goal in bringing this book to Russia is to rekindle the spirit of friendship and cooperation that existed three decades ago and, in doing so, help break down the wall of misunderstanding and ignorance my fellow citizens have constructed that keeps our two nations apart.”

This book tour starts in Novosibirsk and will span several thousand kilometers and eleven Russian cities. This is a journey in the tradition of Van Cliburn, seeking to restore friendship between the US and Russia one handshake at a time.

Our goal is to capture this experience so that it can be brought back to my country as a documentary film which will be shown to the American people so that they, too, will have a chance to share the message that I am certain this tour will produce—of a shared humanity among our two nations that transcends prejudice and fear, and which can return us to the path of peaceful coexistence we once walked together, side by side, as friends.

“What would Daniel Ellsberg do?,” I ask myself when thinking about the journey ahead of me, and I’m comforted by the certainty that, if he were able, Dan would be right beside me, as an ally and a friend, as we ventured forth together to once again confront the evil of ignorance-based fear and the policies of death and destruction that it produces.

Daniel Ellsberg is with me, now and forever—in my heart, in my body, and in my spirit. I am not alone on this journey, nor will I ever be, thanks to the example Dan set by his actions, his words—his life.

Thank you, Dan. You will live on in the deeds of those whom you graced with your presence. You live on inside me. Courage such as yours is immortal.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union, implementing arms control agreements, and on the staff of General Norman Schwartzkopf during the Gulf War, where he played a critical role in the hunt for Iraqi SCUD missiles. From 1991 until 1998, Mr. Ritter served as a Chief Inspector for the United Nations in Iraq, leading the search for Iraq’s proscribed weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Ritter was a vocal critic of the American decision to go to war with Iraq. His new book, Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika: Arms Control and the End of the Soviet Union, is his ninth. Read other articles by Scott, or visit Scott's website.