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The singular, outsized impact of Daniel Ellsberg
This fall, POGO will co-present the Ridenhour Prizes, a celebration uplifting largely unsung heroes: whistleblowers.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the prizes. To commemorate it, this year’s gala will look back on the trailblazers who were awarded Ridenhour Prizes over the years. Given the theme, I thought it would be fitting to recount the story of the first-ever recipient of the Ridenhour Prizes’ Courage Prize: the late Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower known for leaking the infamous Pentagon Papers. In blowing the whistle, he exposed harrowing secrets about the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War that the government was trying desperately to hide from the American people.
Daniel’s actions changed the course of history, saving countless lives in the process. He passed away earlier this year, and his still-palpable impact on the world shows just how powerful the act of truth-telling can be.
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“Daniel, despite being a global celebrity, just shed that mantle completely. He had no ego,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian told me. “I can’t think of anyone else I’ve had the honor of getting to know through our work who was so kind, so warm, and so genuinely interested in how everyone was doing.”
A look back
In 1971, while working as a military analyst on a Pentagon project, Daniel leaked a mammoth, highly-classified study documenting the U.S.’s extensive political and military involvement in Vietnam from the 1940s to the 1960s — known as the Pentagon Papers.
The Pentagon Papers brought to light many damning secrets at a time when public disapproval of the war had already been growing for several years. Daniel’s decision to release the study stirred controversy all over the world.
“The truth he made public was unquestionably responsible for helping end the war,” Danielle told me. “There are so few people who have had a singular impact of such importance, especially as someone who was not in a position of power.”
But Daniel releasing the Pentagon Papers didn’t just help end the Vietnam War. It also brought about a landmark Supreme Court decision safeguarding the freedom of the press.
A lucky (and rare) escape
More often than not, speaking truth to power incurs great personal sacrifice, and Daniel’s case was no different. After the leak, the government prosecuted him under the Espionage Act of 1917. Conviction could have landed him in jail for the rest of his life.
Then-President Richard Nixon tried to discredit Daniel out of anger and fear that the Pentagon Papers would further devastate support for the war and respect for the government. He tasked a covert squad known as “the plumbers” to break into Daniel’s psychiatrist’s office to find his file, but they were unsuccessful. Shortly after, the plumbers were caught attempting to break into the Watergate Hotel to steal files from the Democratic National Committee. The Watergate scandal ultimately led Nixon to resign the presidency, and the controversy led a federal judge to drop the espionage charges against Daniel.
Daniel managed to escape prosecution. But that’s unfortunately a rare occurrence for those who blow the whistle, especially regarding national security matters.
“The world of whistleblowers that Daniel represents are those that have the fewest protections, because national security whistleblowers remain the least protected class of employees,” Danielle explained. She said that it‘s been an ongoing battle for POGO to fight the executive branch on using the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers who go public about wrongdoing. Agencies have also been known to retaliate against intelligence community whistleblowers by rescinding their security clearances, which can effectively end a whistleblower’s career.
Truth-telling is only straightforward in name. It is an act of extreme bravery, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.
We have a long way to go in providing better protections for those who come forward with the truth. Daniel was well aware of that, and he spent the 50-plus years after his initial disclosure advocating for reforms to help protect and uplift truth-tellers.
Honoring a legacy
“There are so many fields that are celebrated. But whistleblowers are rarely rewarded with public acknowledgment,” Danielle told me. “In fact, far often than not, they suffer unjust retaliation for their actions.”
She went on to explain, “But that is why honoring the truth-tellers has been one of the great joys of my career. The Ridenhour Prizes have helped create a community of support that didn’t exist before. And that’s something POGO is so proud to be a part of.”
Learn more about the Ridenhour Prizes and register to attend the fall gala today.