WASHINGTON — Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst turned activist whose leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is the backstory to “The Post,” is a fan of the Steven Spielberg movie. He brought his family to a gala screening in Washington last month, and praises its star, Meryl Streep, as a leader in the #MeToo women’s movement.
One very personal scene did not make “The Post,” though. That was a story of how Ellsberg’s then 10-year-old daughter, Mary, had been helping him copy and prepare the papers to leak to the media. Spielberg, Ellsberg says, “had been particularly struck by the story of her cutting the ‘Top Secret’ off the tops and bottoms of the pages.”
The director ultimately chose not to include the scene because “it was just too incredible. You would have the explain it to the audience and they wouldn’t find it realistic that I would have my 10-year-old daughter doing that,” Ellsberg tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “So he had Tony Russo [one of Ellsberg’s former colleagues] cutting them off instead.”
“The Post” focuses on how publisher Katharine Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) risked the paper’s reputation, financial footing and even jail time in deciding to publish the secret documents, but Ellsberg’s decision to leak is what led to the landmark showdown between the White House and the news media. It culminated in a June 30, 1971 decision that the government did not meet the threshold required to obtain an injunction to prevent their release.
In those weeks, Ellsberg says that he was largely unaware of the First Amendment case that was unfolding, as he was “moving from apartment to apartment, getting it out to other newspapers at that time, and I wouldn’t have any basis for knowing anything.”
When the New York Times began publishing excerpts of the papers, and the Nixon administration sued to stop further publication, he did worry that a copy he had at his apartment would be seized.
“I was going to give it to Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska … for him to use in a filibuster against the draft,” Ellsberg says. “So I had already arranged that by the phone. Now when I heard there was a possible injunction …I had to call up my friend Howard Zinn — we were going to a movie that night, ‘Butch Cassidy’ — I said, ‘I have something I need to get out of my house.’ And I transferred my documents to Howard that night before we saw the movie.”
He and his children helped him copy the papers in an advertising office of a friend’s connection, and one evening the police even came in while his son was at the Xerox machine and “found this family industry going, and it was very harmless to them,” Ellsberg says. “It was in support of national security and not against it.” Apparently a security alarm had been triggered, but the cops left them alone.
That period was tough on his children, Ellsberg said.
“It was a difficult time for my daughter, as it turned out, because she spent the next several years living with her mother, my former wife, and my former wife was very disapproving of what I had done, and in fact thought it was treason,” he says. He did explain to his son, Robert, then 13, what he was doing, and wanted to offer him a “chance to be part of it.”
Ellsberg surrendered to authorities late in June, and faced charges under the Espionage Act of 1917. But when the case made it to trial in 1973, the charges were dismissed, in part because of governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering.
He says that the “spirit” of “The Post” is “very good.”
Matthew Rhys, who plays Ellsberg in the movie, spent an afternoon with him and his wife, “just to see what we looked like. Very nice guy.” Ellsberg also said that he spent an afternoon with Spielberg, Hanks and producer Amy Pascal to talk about the background of his story.
“It’s very nice to be played by a terrific actor who looked very much the way I did at that time, only better,” Ellsberg quips.
But he has his doubts that under the current makeup of the Supreme Court, the decision would have been so favorable to the Times and the Post.
“Times have changed and not for the better,” he says.
Ellsberg had a whole other cache of documents at the time that focused on America’s nuclear program in the 1960s. He decided to make the Pentagon Papers public first because of the ongoing Vietnam war, but still planned to release the other material. Yet, while he was under indictment, the stash of papers were lost when a tropical storm destroyed the place where Ellsberg’s brother, Harry, had hidden them in the ground.
His memory and newly declassified documents form the basis of his new book “The Doomsday Machine,” which shows that the nuclear arsenal is just as capable of wiping out the human race now as it was then, and that many of the security protocols have not changed.
Ellsberg talks about President Trump’s tweet that his nuclear button “is much bigger and more powerful” than that of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. “It’s like a parody,” Ellsberg says. “‘Saturday Night Live’ might as well go out of business.”
The complete interview is here.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.
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