I finally got around to watching The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) last weekend, and I think Ellsberg's story is full of bad news for Bradley Manning, the young soldier accused of stealing secret files from the Department of Defense and the State Department.
Since he copied the Pentagon Papers and distributed them to the press in 1971, Ellsberg has continued to be a prominent figure in the chronic anti-war movement that periodically obsesses American Progressives. No question he's sincere. But I can't help thinking he should wear a t-shirt that says something like: Don't try this at home, kids.
Unlike Private Manning, Ellsberg wasn't in the military when he stole the Pentagon Papers from the Rand Corporation. He was a prominent defense analyst, on a first name basis with people like Henry Kissinger and editors and reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Ellsberg was charged with and tried for espionage. He faced life in prison, but he beat the rap. What was his pre-trial confinement like? There wasn't any. After his arrest, Ellsberg was released on his own recognizance.
The very bad news for Private Manning and his supporters is that, while the Supreme Court upheld the right of the New York Times and other newspapers to publish The Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg's acquittal had nothing to do with either the facts of his case or with the Constitution, beyond his right to a fair trial.
Ellsberg was acquitted when his judge declared a mistrial after Nixon blatantly tried to interfere with the trial and the judge concluded Nixon had made it impossible for Ellsberg to get a fair trial anywhere in America. Nixon ticked the judge off, and the judge let Ellsberg go.
The Obama administration is not likely to make that mistake.
Private Manning's conviction by a military court is a foregone conclusion. The only question now is whether or not the military will be able to get Manning to flip on Julian Assange. My guess is that when his trial date approaches and he figures out he's not Ellsberg after all, Manning will cooperate.
The film itself is a strange mishmash of historical and contemporary interviews, news footage and excerpts from the Nixon tapes. My favorite moment is an audio clip of Richard Nixon, urging Kissinger to think outside the box and support a plan to nuke Hanoi.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) is available from Netflix.