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Secrets by Daniel Ellsberg (Viking, 498 pages, $29.95) When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he assumed he would be prosecuted by the federal government for disclosing top-secret information. He assumed correctly. But he and his defense team, headed by Leonard Boudin, came to a surprising realization — maybe Ellsberg would not be convicted. “Congress had never passed any law that provided criminal sanctions against what I had done — copying and giving official ‘classified’ information without authorization to newspapers, to Congress, and to what our Constitutional principles regard as our ‘sovereign public,’” Ellsberg writes in his just-published memoir, Secrets, subtitled “A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” Adds Ellsberg: “The simple fact was that there had never before in this country been a prosecution for a leak. I had been warned of the prospect of prosecution for any unauthorized disclosure many times while working in the government — every time I got a secrecy briefing or signed a secrecy agreement for a clearance.” But, research by the Ellsberg legal team suggested, the legislative history of the Espionage Act disclaimed intent to use it against unauthorized disclosures to the press, given the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When Boudin shared that information with nonlawyer Ellsberg, the defendant recalls responding, “That’s great! So I’m home free?” Boudin responded, “I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that. When the U.S. government goes into a courtroom and says to a jury, ‘The government of the United States versus Daniel Ellsberg’ and presents 12 felony counts, you can’t be sure you will walk out of that courtroom a free man.” Ellsberg inquired, “Well, what are my odds?” Fifty-fifty, Boudin replied. “Fifty-fifty, and I haven’t broken any law?” “Well, let’s face it, Dan. Copying 7,000 pages of top-secret documents and giving them to The New York Times has a bad ring to it.” Ellsberg did prevail in the courtroom, but for reasons that neither he nor Boudin could have imagined during their pretrial conversation. Yet that’s getting ahead of the story. Secrets, while filled with disquisitions on the law, is primarily a first-person account of how an obscure bureaucrat became the most highly publicized whistleblower in U.S. history. His pedigree: private schools in Detroit, Harvard University, the Marine Corps, the Rand Corp., Defense Department adviser assigned to the Pentagon, an expert on the Vietnam War. His deed: copying a top-secret 7,000-page document delineating the real story behind the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, then disseminating it to journalists at The New York Times and other publications. Ellsberg, who understood from firsthand observations in Southeast Asia that the U.S. military could never succeed in helping the South Vietnamese win the war against the North Vietnamese, wanted to halt the death toll. He wanted then-President Richard Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops and civilian advisers. He wanted those responsible for the U.S. buildup in Vietnam during the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon to tell the world about the lies disseminated to justify the deadly intervention. Knowing that if caught disseminating the Pentagon Papers he could serve a long prison term, Ellsberg informed his former wife that he might be unable to support their two adolescent children. He asked his current wife, who held anti-war views, whether she could still love him as an inmate. He separated himself from his Rand Corp. job so that the think tank would be scarred by association as little as possible. Then Ellsberg gathered the gigantic document he had been covertly copying for two years and shared it with those who might help make a difference. Assuming Ellsberg has accurate recall and has omitted little of importance — dicey assumptions in the normally self-aggrandizing memoir genre — his book is a classic. As he explains at length, the factors driving him to become a whistleblower, he shares his doubts and his missteps. No previous psychological portrait of a whistleblower has topped Ellsberg’s for suspense, subtlety, and clarity. The admirable qualities of the book extend beyond its insights into one person’s evolution from organization man to dissident. Ellsberg surmises why so many of his colleagues and superiors refused to publicly denounce a war they privately called immoral and unnecessarily destructive. Ellsberg explains why the general populace accepts government secrecy even when it runs counter to their well-being. Ellsberg shows with example after example how those conducting the war succeeded in lying to journalists, who then broadcast those lies to millions. Secrets, a book about past administrations out of power, holds many lessons for understanding the administration in power — as President George W. Bush flirts with ordering military strikes. Ellsberg’s trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers sheds light on the dark side of the judicial system, explaining how those in power can be tempted to commit prosecutorial misconduct. After months of personal suspense about the trial’s outcome, Ellsberg sees justice prevail in his own case because the prosecutors and the executive branch officials directing those prosecutors broke the rules. But Ellsberg knows that most defendants in noble causes cannot afford a legal dream team such as his to combat the force of the federal government. Previous books have explained the Southeast Asian war as well as this one, perhaps most notably A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. (Not so incidentally, Sheehan and his subject, John Paul Vann, number among the heroes in Ellsberg’s memoir.) Earlier books have explained the legal battles spawned by Ellsberg clearly and compellingly, including The Day the Presses Stopped by David Rudenstine. But none of these books, however admirable, includes a full account of Ellsberg’s psychology. None brings together all the telling scenes witnessed by Ellsberg that leave no doubt about the mixture of mendacity, heartlessness, and buffoonery that characterized the actions of such players as Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Robert McNamara, among others. Last year, Tom Wells wrote Wild Man, a 650-page biography of Ellsberg that gives him his due as a whistleblower, but trashes him as a sex maniac with an outsized ego and a motor mouth. Ellsberg, who worked with Wells during the early research, eventually withdrew his cooperation. Perhaps Ellsberg is something like the despicable human being portrayed by Wells. Perhaps not. Judging by Secrets, whatever he is or is not, Ellsberg is a keen observer of public policy. The citizenry he tried to serve by leaking the Pentagon Papers 31 years ago is fortunate to have access to his wisdom. Steve Weinberg is a free-lance investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo., and a frequent contributor to “After Hours.”

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