“I think our theory is a very good one, worth fighting for, worth dying for to keep, which is that the president, even the president, is not above the law,” said Daniel Ellsberg in a speech at Barnes Hall Tuesday night.
The crowd that came to see him speak on “Abu Ghraib, Vietnam, and Empire” consisted of local activists, Vietnam veterans, and politically-minded Ithacans. Of about 150 audience members, about 30 were students.
Ellsberg had become famous in 1971 for photocopying and making public 7,000 pages of the “Pentagon Papers” that showed how the U.S. had misleadingly gone into Vietnam.
“For those of you who know what photocopiers were like in the ’60’s, then you know that this was quite a feat,” joked Prof. Keith Taylor, Asian studies, after he introduced Ellsberg and gave a brief biography.
“This is the first time in thirty years that someone had given me credit for slaving over that Xerox machine,” Ellsberg responded.
He then began the night by discussing his involvement with the Defense Department before he released the Pentagon Papers.
“I was doing jobs that I did not believe in, in 1964, 1965,” he said.
One of his jobs had been to compile a list of “atrocities” against Americans in Vietnam that could be used as a basis for a bombing campaign “which inevitably was going to kill a lot of civilians … and did.”
“The bombing that started that month, in the end, eight years later, dropped 7.8 million tons of bombs on Indo-China. That was almost four World War Twos. And I helped … I did what I was told to do,” Ellsberg said.
He then explained how he had finally decided to expose the Pentagon Papers. “Confronted with the examples of people who were doing all they could non-violently, and truthfully, to end a war they knew and I knew was wrong — that example I found contagious, and courage is contagious, and it did change my life.”
Ellsberg injected humor into his story. He spoke of a night he had brought his kids to the office where he was photocopying the secret files. His son was running the copy machine and Ellsberg was collating.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “my daughter, who was ten, was cutting ‘top secret” from the top and bottom of the pages.”
Ellsberg discussed the situation in Iraq seriously and passionately.
“Iraq has now been added as a locus of terrorism — which it wasn’t before.
We’re doing the recruiting, practically, for Osama bin Laden,” he said.
Ellsberg contended that the American public has been lied to.
“As Cheney says correctly, neither he or the president ever said directly that Saddam was a part of 9/11, never actually said that Saddam planned 9/11, but what each of them says in speech after speech after speech is ‘remember 9/11…that is why…we must invade Iraq.'”
He also spoke about Bush’s chances at re-election.
“People count on him to attack somebody if we’re attacked. Not necessarily the right country not necessarily who attacked us, but he’ll attack somebody. And actually, they look at Kerry and they’re not sure if he’ll do that. I believe it’s because there’s very wide-spread, and not just American, trust in the validity and necessity of revenge,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ellsberg is pushing for Kerry’s election, urging those who share his opinion not to jeopardize the results by voting for Nader.
“Why I think Nader’s campaign is inexcusable at this time is because we’re not looking at an ordinary Republican here,” he said.
He added, “If George H.W. Bush were running against his son, I’d be working for him like I’m working for Kerry.”
“My concern about this election would not be nearly as urgent if it were not for the existence of al Qaeda and the likelihood of more terrorist attacks. My concern is for the next terrorist attack and the next Patriot Act. I think the next patriot act has probably been written already and will make the first Patriot Act look like the Bill of Rights,” Ellsberg said.
He urged people to get involved in the election process.
“There is no more important political activity in the next month then working to get people to the polls, to get them registered, to make sure that they do vote, and to really remove Bush from office, in a way that can’t be in done in most countries of the world, still,” he said.
“What [people] do in the next month is much, much more important than what they do on election day,” Ellsberg said.
Audience members had mixed feelings about the lecture.
“It’s his ability to communicate that’s fascinating. His commitment to his moral center is what I find most appealing about the guy. He’s an American hero,” said Michael Simmons, an Ithaca resident.
Jessie Lind, another resident, disagreed.
“I didn’t get much out of it. It was discombobulated, a trip down memory lane, pushing a book. I guess he’s been on the road, a little tired. I didn’t find any forward movement, I got stuff I’ve heard before,” she said.
“Dr. Ellsberg’s analogies to Vietnam in his lectures were a bit overstated,” said Peter Miller, an Ithaca resident.
One grad student wished Ellsberg had focused more on the history.
“I came to hear more about his experience during the Vietnam war. I wasn’t expecting the Iraq part, but I think it was quite interesting,” said Ivan Small grad. “I would’ve liked to hear him talk a little bit more about what people can do.
Things are not going to turn on a dime on November 2nd, so what are people to do? What kind of organizing, what kind of info sharing? He didn’t talk about that at all,” said John Hochheimer, an Ithaca resident.
Another Ithaca resident, Barbara Apt, agreed.
“Voting and voter registration we can do, but what else?” she said. Jeffrey Juran praised Ellsberg’s speech.
“You can see how all these years later he’s so dedicated to honesty and democracy, to keeping it straighter than it is, that’s for sure,” he said.
Archived article by Irena Djuric
Sun Staff Writer