Watch CBS News

Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers leaker, dies at age 92 of pancreatic cancer, family says

Pentagon Papers leaker dies at 92
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, dies at 92 01:34

Daniel Ellsberg, the anti-war activist who copied and leaked documents that revealed secret details of U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers, has died, his family confirmed in a statement to CBS News on Friday. He was 92.

Ellsberg died early Friday morning at his home in Kensington, California, of pancreatic cancer, his family said. He was diagnosed in February and revealed the diagnosis on social media in March.

His family said he wasn't in pain and was surrounded by loved ones when he died.

"Daniel was a seeker of truth and a patriotic truth-teller, an antiwar activist, a beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, a dear friend to many, and an inspiration to countless more," his family said. "He will be dearly missed by all of us."

In a tribute on Twitter, his son Robert Ellsberg recalled how his father once said he would want his gravestone to say, "He became a part of the anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear movement."

Until the early 1970s, when he revealed that he was the source for the stunning media reports on the 47-volume, 7,000-page Defense Department study of the U.S. role in Indochina, Ellsberg was a well-placed member of the government-military elite.

He was a Harvard graduate and self-defined "cold warrior" who served as a private and government consultant on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, risked his life on the battlefield, received the highest security clearances and came to be trusted by officials in Democratic and Republican administrations.

He was especially valued, he would later note, for his "talent for discretion."

But like millions of other Americans, in and out of government, he had turned against the yearslong war in Vietnam, the government's claims that the battle was winnable and that a victory for the North Vietnamese over the U.S.-backed South would lead to the spread of communism throughout the region. Unlike so many other war opponents, he was in a special position to make a difference.

"An entire generation of Vietnam-era insiders had become just as disillusioned as I with a war they saw as hopeless and interminable," he wrote in his 2002 memoir, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers." "By 1968, if not earlier, they all wanted, as I did, to see us out of this war."

Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg Owen Franken/Getty Images

As much as anyone, Ellsberg embodied the individual of conscience — who answered only to his sense of right and wrong, even if the price was his own freedom. David Halberstam, the late author and Vietnam War correspondent who had known Ellsberg since both were posted overseas, would describe him as no ordinary convert. He was highly intelligent, obsessively curious and profoundly sensitive, a born proselytizer who "saw political events in terms of moral absolutes" and demanded consequences for abuses of power.

As much as anyone, Ellsberg also embodied the fall of American idealism in foreign policy in the 1960s and '70s and the upending of the post-World War II consensus that communism, real or suspected, should be opposed worldwide.

The Pentagon Papers had been commissioned in 1967 by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a leading public advocate of the war who wanted to leave behind a comprehensive history of the U.S. and Vietnam and to help his successors avoid the kinds of mistakes he would only admit to long after.

The papers covered more than 20 years, from France's failed efforts at colonization in the 1940s and '50s to the growing involvement of the U.S., including the bombing raids and deployment of hundreds of thousands of ground troops during Lyndon Johnson's administration. Ellsberg was among those asked to work on the study, focusing on 1961, when the newly elected President John F. Kennedy began adding advisers and support units.

First published in The New York Times in June 1971, with The Washington Post, The Associated Press and more than a dozen others following, the classified papers documented that the U.S. had defied a 1954 settlement barring a foreign military presence in Vietnam, questioned whether South Vietnam had a viable government, secretly expanded the war to neighboring countries and had plotted to send American soldiers even as Johnson vowed he wouldn't.

The Johnson administration had dramatically and covertly escalated the war despite the "judgment of the Government's intelligence community that the measures would not" weaken the North Vietnamese, wrote the Times' Neil Sheehan, a former Vietnam correspondent who later wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the war, "A Bright Shining Lie."

Daniel Ellsberg appears before microphones, surrounded by reporters at the federal building in Boston, June 28, 1971, after surrendering to federal authorities.
Daniel Ellsberg appears before microphones, surrounded by reporters at the federal building in Boston, June 28, 1971, after surrendering to federal authorities. Bettmann

The leaker's identity became a national guessing game and Ellsberg proved an obvious suspect, because of his access to the papers and his public condemnation of the war over the previous two years. With the FBI in pursuit, Ellsberg turned himself in to authorities in Boston, became a hero to the anti-war movement and a traitor to the war's supporters, labeled the "most dangerous man in America" by national security adviser Henry Kissinger, with whom Ellsberg had once been friendly.

The papers themselves were seen by many as an indictment not just of a given president or party, but of a generation of political leadership. The historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt would note that growing mistrust of the government during the Vietnam era, "the credibility gap," had "opened into an abyss."

"The quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions, is apt to engulf any reader who wishes to probe this material, which, unhappily, he must recognize as the infrastructure of nearly a decade of United States foreign and domestic policy," she wrote.

The Nixon administration quickly tried to block further publication on the grounds that the papers would compromise national security, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the newspapers on June 30, 1971, a major First Amendment ruling rejecting prior restraint.

Nixon himself, initially unconcerned because the papers predated his time in office, was determined to punish Ellsberg and formed a renegade team of White House "plumbers," endowed with a stash of White House "hush money" and the mission of preventing future leaks.

"You can't drop it," Nixon fumed privately to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. "You can't let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?"

Daniel Ellsberg called for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in an impromptu speech before an estimated 5,000 demonstrators at a peace rally on Boston Common, Nov. 6, 1971.
Daniel Ellsberg called for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in an impromptu speech before an estimated 5,000 demonstrators at a peace rally on Boston Common, Nov. 6, 1971. Frank Wing/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Ellsberg faced trials in Boston and Los Angeles on federal charges for espionage and theft, with a possible sentence of more than 100 years. He had expected to go to jail, but was spared, in part, by Nixon's rage and the excesses of those around him.

The Boston case ended in a mistrial because the government wiretapped conversations between a defense witness and his attorney. Charges in the Los Angeles trial were dismissed after Judge Matthew Byrne learned that White House "plumbers" G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt had burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, California.

Byrne ruled that "the bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case."

Meanwhile, the "plumbers" continued their crime wave, notably the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic Party's national headquarters, at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. The Watergate scandal didn't prevent Nixon from winning reelection in a landslide in 1972, but would expand rapidly during his second term and culminate in his resignation in August 1974. U.S. combat troops had already left Vietnam and the North Vietnamese captured the Southern capital, Saigon, in April 1975.

"Without Nixon's obsession with me, he would have stayed in office," Ellsberg told The Associated Press in 1999. "And had he not been removed from office, he would have continued the bombing (in Vietnam)."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.