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In 1971 DOD analyst and RAND Corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg leaked The Pentagon Papers – the DOD’s Top Secret history of the Vietnam War. This is one of the biggest and most famous leaks in history, but there remain huge questions about why this happened. Was Ellsberg a genuine whistleblower? Or were the Pentagon Papers leaked as part of a distraction and disinformation campaign?

In this episode I present an alternative history of the Pentagon Papers, arguing that if this was an officially-sanctioned leak then the purpose was to distract people not only from the CIA’s crimes in Vietnam but also from the idea that there was anything wrong with the Gulf of Tonkins incidents, the very basis for the full scale war. Using a recently declassified NSA history as a guiding post, I consider whether there was more to these events than one ex-CIA, DOD and RAND guy suddenly growing a conscience.


That was a short clip from the youtube channel of the Newseum, which describes itself as ‘an interactive museum of news and journalism’ located in Washington DC. I bring this up because I have actually been to the Newseum and while it is an interactive museum of news and journalism it is, just like the museums in this country, a monument to the national myths of freedom. You can’t go anywhere in the Newseum without seeing the words ‘freedom’ plastered all over the place, and while there is a somewhat more free press in the US and UK than in a lot of countries it is still a bit of myth.

So it’s no surprise that the Newseum’s youtube channel presents the Pentagon Papers as a story of the triumph of the freedom of the press, a re-affirmation that when it really matters, the system works. Ellsberg was a whistleblower and he got their secrets out there because there’s a free press who had the guts and the freedom to publish the documents.

Ellsberg = Snowden

Sound familiar? It’s basically the story that will be told in years to come about Edward Snowden. And indeed, up until Snowden you could argue that in terms of sheer volume Daniel Ellsberg was the biggest leaker of all time. These days Snowden and Ellsberg are on the board of directors for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, who crowd source funding for the likes of Wikileaks. Also on the board of this foundation are Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, John Cusack and John Perry Barlow, who people may remember from the days of The Grateful Dead. And their technical advisors are all well known figures from the TOR project, Appelbaum, Sandvik and that crowd. It’s a very incestuous little circle.

But I’m putting the cart before the horse somewhat, because whatever dubious uses of donated resources Ellsberg might be involved with these days, he started out as a proper whistleblower, didn’t he? He’s just been misled along the way, hasn’t he? After all, he’s good friends with Peter Dale Scott, who I think has a pretty unimpeachable track record, right?

I would say not. And I’m by no means the first to say it. I’m sure at least some of you will be familiar with Doug Valentine’s article Will the Real Daniel Ellsberg please stand up? and an interview he did with James Corbett all about what Ellsberg was up to in Vietnam with Lou Conein and Ed Lansdale. Inspired by that and based on that and other sources I thought I’d offer you a somewhat alternative look at what Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers are all about. While I do stand by all the factual information I’m about to present obviously it’s up to you whether you accept the implications i’m drawing from that.

The Pentagon Papers

On June 13th 1971 the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam war. At the time it was considered the biggest leak of classified material in history, thousands of pages of a Top Secret DoD report. It outlined in detail how the US government had been involved in the politics of Vietnam since the 1940s, and that several successive presidents and other top officials had lied to congress, the press and the public about the ever-escalating war. The fallout from this leak was enormous, helping to bring about a chain of events that led to the Church and Pike Committees, and to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

The day after the initial reporting the Nixon White House tried to persuade the Times to stop publishing stories based on the leak. This failed, so they filed suit and obtained a court injunction to prevent further publication. While the case was being argued, the leaker – military analyst and RAND corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg – provided copies of the report to seventeen other newspapers. The Washington Post began publishing stories on June 18th, so the White House took out a similar injunction against them. The two newspapers were allowed to have their cases heard together and within two weeks the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the media, and publication resumed.

Meanwhile, Ellsberg was being pursued by the FBI and even after surrendering and admitting he had leaked the documents the White House embarked on a campaign of revenge. In July the Plumbers – the White House’s own team of black ops agents – were set up to stop the leaks that were plaguing the administration. They were led by ex Army officer and FBI agent Gordon Liddy and ‘former’ CIA agent Howard Hunt.

A tip came from the FBI, who were tapping Ellsberg’s phone calls, specifically a phone call between Ellsberg and his psychiatrist Lewis Fielding where Ellsberg said he was ‘immensely relieved that he had completed his task’. Other reports said that Ellsberg and his wife indulged in hallucinogenic drugs and orgies, suggesting they were part of the hippy scene, and that Ellsberg had a girlfriend from Sweden, a major entry point for Soviet agents to get into Western Europe. When news came in that the Pentagon Papers had been supplied to the Soviets before the New York Times began publishing them alarm bells started to ring. People noted that Ellsberg had attended Cambridge University, where the members of notorious Soviet spy ring were recruited.

From this the White House and the Plumbers deduced that Ellsberg might be a Soviet agent or that he was working for a ‘counterculture shadow government trying to unilaterally assert its right to declassify and publish top-secret government documents at its own choosing’. That’s from Howard Hunt’s autobiography American Spy. As Hunt notes, this perceived conspiracy was ‘a mirror image of events, sans military, that the CIA had perpetuated in other countries such as Guatemala to effect regime change. Perhaps that’s what seemed so frightening to the administration.’ Hunt knows what he’s talking about – he participated in the CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954 as a psychological warfare agent.

In August the Plumbers hatched a plan to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist Lewis Fielding, in the hope of finding material they could use against the leaker. On a reconnaissance mission to Beverly Hills they donned disguises and bluffed their way into the offices to take photos with a camera hidden, James Bond style, in a tobacco pouch. During a stakeout, while Liddy was sat in disguise on a park bench, he was approached by a gay ‘seven foot Navajo’ who seemed to fall in love with Liddy in his long wig. According to Hunt’s autobiography, Liddy ‘almost had to fight off the large, amorous suitor’.

In early September Hunt and Liddy carried out the plan, along with Bernard Barker, Felipe De Diego and Eugenio Martinez, three Cuban veterans of the CIA’s anti-Castro operations. The Cubans burgled the office and photographed the files there, though they couldn’t find any file on Ellsberg, leaving the operation a dud.

Worse still, the FBI taps and the burglary of Fielding’s office came to light during Ellsberg’s trial in 1973. It also emerged at the trial that the FBI had been illegally tapping the phone of Morton Halperin – a DoD advisor who befriended Ellsberg. This led to the court dismissing the charges of theft and conspiracy under the Espionage Act, and so the biggest leaker in US history was free to go. Ellsberg has since been canonised as an anti-establishment icon.

Ellsberg was a CIA Hawk

Despite this, huge questions hang over Ellsberg’s authenticity and credibility for a variety of reasons. The first is that Ellsberg didn’t start out as a peacenik or a radical, but was a ‘nuke the Russians’ kind of guy who served in the US Marines before joining the RAND corporation and then the DoD as an assistant to Robert McNamara. A year later he was sent to Vietnam as an ‘observer’ for two years, where he served under CIA and DoD black ops veteran Edward Lansdale.

According to the article by Doug Valentine, Ellsberg’s activities extended beyond merely observing the CIA’s Revolutionary Development Program, and that Lansdale had him and others ‘dressed in black pajamas and reportedly slipped into enemy areas at midnight to “snatch and snuff” the local Viet Cong cadre, sometimes making it appear as if the VC themselves had done the dirty deed.’

This false flag kidnap and assassination squad or pseudo-gang was a Lansdale speciality that he developed while working to counter the Huk rebellion in the Philippines in the early 1950s. The same basic idea – disguising your own units as those of your enemy so as to infiltrate and then ambush or assassinate specific targets – was also developed by the British General Sir Frank Kitson during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the mid 1950s. By the time Ellsberg got involved in 1965 it was a well-established tactic.

Also during his stay in Vietnam Ellsberg served as an intelligence asset to the local CIA station, and got involved with CIA officers Lou Conein and Frank Scotton. According to research cited by Valentine the three CIA men were all involved in the drugs trade, and that Ellsberg as an intelligence asset with a photographic memory must have either known or realised this. On his return from East Asia Ellsberg started working for RAND once more, and was soon commissioned to be one of the authors who wrote the report that became the Pentagon Papers.

False Flag Leak

By the time he leaked the papers four years later stories of the CIA’s involvement in the drugs trade and their use of assassination squads had hit the headlines. Investigations had begun, and then as Valentine notes, ‘in June 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, shifting blame for the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War from the CIA to the military, while distracting public attention from the investigations of the CIA’s Phoenix Program and the CIA’s involvement in drug smuggling.’ Needless to say, the CIA’s dirty war in Vietnam was not referred to in the documents that Ellsberg leaked.

There are further reasons to wonder if Ellsberg was working for the CIA in some kind of distraction or disinformation operation. As with the Snowden material, the media coverage of the Pentagon Papers only published a small fraction of the total documents. Other versions were published later, usually to quite a small audience, and the US government finally published the whole report on the 40th anniversary of the original leak. Ellsberg never objected to this drip-feeding, piecemeal publication strategy, showing that his objective (or mission?) was not simply to make all the information available to the public.

The Gulf of Tonkin

What the Pentagon Papers don’t say is perhaps more significant than what they do say. While the US involvement in Vietnam began over 15 years earlier, the major events that led to an official, overt escalation of the war were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of 1964. These were two confrontations between US and North Vietnamese navy forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, the first on August 2nd and the second on August 4th. These scuffles were used to present Congress and the US public with the image of a hostile North Vietnam and the need to engage them directly and aggressively. This in turn led to the unanimous acceptance of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and full-scale war between the two countries.

The problem is that the second attack never happened. This was eventually confirmed in a report written by an NSA internal historian, declassified and published by the agency over 40 years after the incidents. The report Spartans in Darkness by Robert J Hanyok tells a story of mid-level officers mistranslating intercepts from the North Vietnamese, and earnestly believing there was a second attack. Upon discovering their mistake they set about skewing all subsequent intelligence forwarded to the Johnson administration, omitting 90% of the information gleaned from SIGINT to cover up their initial error. Hanyok denies that political pressure played a role in a cover up that lasted forty years, writing that, ‘If the participants are to be believed, and they were adamant in asserting this, they did not bend to the desires of administration officials.’

The report documents in detail how ‘SIGINT information was presented in such a manner as to preclude responsible decision-makers in the Johnson administration from having the complete and objective narrative of events of 4 August 1964. Instead, only SIGINT that supported the claim that the communists had attacked the two destroyers was given to administration officials.’ Despite this the author partly exonerates those responsible, saying, ‘This mishandling of the SIGINT was not done in a manner that can be construed as conspiratorial.’ It seems that this declassification is a limited hang out, admitting that the second attack never took place but denying that the lies were the result of any kind of conspiracy or political pressure.

However, the Pentagon Papers version is even more ridiculous. Though the documents frequently acknowledge the scepticism and criticism of the Gulf of Tonkin story that existed even in the 1960s, they insist that the second attack did actually happen. They deny any political pressure or conspiracy or premeditation of any kind, though they do acknowledge:

In many ways the attacks on US ships in the Tonkin Gulf provided the Administration with an opportunity to do a number of things that had been urged on it. Certainly it offered a politically acceptable way of exerting direct punitive pressure on North Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the US response served to satisfy for a time the growing desire for some action to carry the war to the North. Relative to the election campaign, it provided a means of eliminating any doubts about President Johnson’s decisiveness that may have been encouraged by his preferred candidate’s image as the restrained man of peace. The obvious convenience and the ways in which it was exploited have been at the root of much of the suspicion with which critics of Administration policy have viewed the incident.

Ellsberg’s leak was profoundly misleading about the events that the Johnson administration used to kick-start the Vietnam war. This is probably the reason why none of the newspapers that received copies of the Pentagon Papers did any reporting on the Gulf of Tonkin. This in turn meant that when the NSA published their half-baked limited hang out version in 2005-6 it was received and repeated largely without criticism. Because of this, the crime that was the lie about the Gulf of Tonkin and the deaths of millions of people that resulted from this deception has gone unanswered.

So we have to ask ourselves: If the official admission about the Gulf of Tonkin is a limited hangout then what was the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Was it intended to exonerate the deep state and help dampen down the fires of scepticism and criticism over the very basis for the Vietnam war? By comparison, a few criticisms over some officials lying about how badly the war was going were quite trivial. The Pentagon Papers deceived the public about why the war started, as well as omitting completely the CIA false flag death squads and large-scale drug running that characterised the war. While the Pentagon Papers to a certain extent showed up the White House and the DoD, the CIA and NSA got away scot free for their very ugly roles in this, just like Ellsberg did.

It may be important that the day of the second Gulf of Tonkin attack that never happened – August 4th 1964 – was Ellsberg’s first full day in his new job as special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He was part of the chain of communication that passed the news of the second attack to McNamara, thus implicating and involving him in this deception. And so, thinking along these lines, was this Ellsberg’s introduction into the shadowy underworld of black operations?