Bill Berkowitz: Interview with Co-Director Rick Goldsmith

Bill Berkowitz: Interview with Co-Director ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers’

by Bill Berkowitz

Force-feeding Democracy: ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,’ to premiere at Toronto Film Festival

A BuzzFlash exclusive online interview with Rick Goldsmith, the co-director of a ‘story about American government, secrecy, lies and power.’

” … this is a self-governing country. We are the government. And in terms of institutions, the Constitution provides for separation for powers, for Congress, for the courts, informally for the press, protected by the First Amendment. . . . I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . .” – Daniel Ellsberg interviewed by Walter Cronkite, while underground after releasing the “Pentagon Papers.”

A little over 38 years ago, when he released the “Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times and other newspapers, it set off one of the 20th century’s most important battles over government secrecy and freedom of the press. The nation was stunned by the revelations, and he became one of the most reviled and admired figures in America. The Nixon Administration was apoplectic; it targeted him through warrant-less eavesdropping and ransacked his psychoanalyst’s office to gain access to his medical records. An exhausted anti-war movement was buoyed by his courage and audacity. And yet, despite the uproar, the Vietnam War lasted several more years.

He was arrested and tried for espionage and conspiracy, and faced life imprisonment. The charges were later dropped due to the Nixon Administration’s misconduct.

In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps officer, was given access to classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War, in his capacity as a U.S. military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation.

As reported by Stanford Unger in his book “The Papers & The Papers, An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers” 1972, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), in 1969, Ellsberg and his former RAND Corporation colleague Anthony Russo, secretly photocopied 7,000 pages of what was to become known as the “Pentagon Papers.” The “Pentagon Papers,” officially titled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” were a top-secret United States Department of Defense history of the United States’ political/military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, commissioned in 1967 by then Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

After failing to convince several anti-war Senators to release the papers on the Senate floor, Ellsberg finally leaked the documents to The New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan.

In mid-June of 1971, after initially publishing the first of nine excerpts and commentaries on the 7,000 page collection, the Times ceased further publication after the Nixon Administration requested, and was granted, a court order. Ellsberg then leaked the documents to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. By the end of June, a Supreme Court decision — New York Times Co. v. United States — permitted the Times to resume publication. Understanding that the FBI might assume that he was responsible for the leak, Ellsberg went underground for 16 days. He then turned himself in on June 28. (See a partial transcript of Walter Cronkite’s clandestine interview with Ellsberg while he was in hiding.)

A new documentary film, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” co-produced and co-directed by Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich, tells the story of those extraordinary times. The film will be premiering at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday, September 11. It will subsequently be shown in New York City at the Film Forum, in Los Angeles, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival in October.

I recently conducted the first extensive interview with Goldsmith. He is the producer and director of the Academy-Award nominated documentary feature “Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press” and the writer and editor of “Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson’s American Journey” – a film about the pioneering and controversial African-American jurist.

Bill Berkowitz: Why did you and Judith Ehrlich decide to do a film about Daniel Ellsberg? Why now?

Rick Goldsmith: We each came to it independently. I had interviewed Ellsberg for my film on George Seldes (When he was a Harvard student in 1950, Ellsberg had subscribed to Seldes’ four-page newsletter.) In 2002, I wrote Ellsberg about the possibility of doing a film on him and the “Pentagon Papers”; sending him a 2-page outline which even then was titled “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” He didn’t reply and I didn’t follow up. A few years later, Judy Ehrlich approached me and suggested doing a film on Dan Ellsberg. We took it from there.

We both had done films about people of conscience who stood up for their beliefs and dared challenge the status quo. Her film “The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It” told a riveting story about conscientious objectors in World War II. By 2004, we were in the middle of an immoral and disastrous war in Iraq started by a President who lied us into the war, and we had a Congress and a public who seemed either uninterested or powerless to stop it. The story of Ellsberg and the “Pentagon Papers” had parallels that were all too apparent. It was a compelling story and we both felt that it might have something to say to audiences today, especially anyone under 50, who wouldn’t have personally remembered or even known about the “Pentagon Papers” events at all.

BB: Where does the title “The Most Dangerous Man in America” come from?

RG: Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, was widely quoted as having said about Ellsberg — shortly after he was identified as having leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, and thought to have copies of Nixon’s own Vietnam war plans — “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America and he has to be stopped at all costs.”

BB: The release of the “Pentagon Papers” was, amongst other things, an example of great personal courage; a test of the media’s right to publish; and a battle over the public’s right to know. How does this relate to today’s political climate; secret CIA hit squads, Blackwater assassination teams?

RG: After Ellsberg’s release of the “Pentagon Papers,” he was tried under the Espionage Act and faced 115 years in prison. The publication of the Papers by The New York Times and other newspapers could have subjected both the papers and their reporters and editors to criminal prosecution as well. So you might say that June of 1971 was a high point in “civil courage” (a phrase Ellsberg likes to use). Ellsberg and these newspapermen ascribed to the notion that the United States is a democracy and can best function if the Congress, the courts, the press, and the public are outspoken and involved in the decisions of our government. And that while Presidents will try to shut them down in times of crisis, they have to fight against the government in order to make their voices heard, to get the truth out, and to make democracy work. But since 1971, there has been a slow and steady decline, not only in Congressional, press, and citizen involvement, but in the notion that we have a right, a responsibility, to challenge the President and his Administration.

During the first Gulf War, in 1991, CNN foreign correspondent Peter Arnett (who has a cameo in our film) was branded “unpatriotic” and even a “traitor” because he had the gall to do a story that put a human face on Iraqis. The notion that because we’re at war, it is treason to report on the effects of war or to criticize the President is an insane notion, but it persists more now than ever. Congress and the news media have become more timid, so stories about torture, assassination, and using mercenary enterprises like Blackwater to fight our wars with no accountability are rarely reported and when they are, horrendous abuses are pushed under the rug.

The Bush Administration said “no pictures of body bags” and the news media complied. Reporters were embedded with the troops making it near impossible to report independently and without censorship. When the “Pentagon Papers” were published, the central issue was “national security vs. the public’s right to know.” Today, the present Administration — and this is no less true with Obama and Afghanistan than it was with Bush and Iraq — holds all the cards, they make all the rules, and the public has an extremely difficult task even getting the facts, the true story.

BB: The story of the Pentagon Papers has been told a number of times. What new things will viewers learn from your film?

RG: If you’re young, you’ll be entertained by a gripping story about American government, secrecy, lies and power that you couldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams. If you’re older, you’ll discover that what you thought you remembered about the “Pentagon Papers” and Watergate is not the whole story. You’ll get the inside dope from most of the principals of the time — Ellsberg and his “co-conspirator” Tony Russo, Ellsberg’s family, journalists, anti-war activists, government insiders, Nixon White House officials, and, through the Nixon White House secret tapes, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger as you’ve never heard them before. It’s a wild and exciting ride.

BB: Over the course of your filmmaking career, you’ve interviewed some very impressive individuals including the iconic journalist George Seldes, Judge Thelton Henderson, and now Ellsberg. What links these three historic figures? What have you learned about the struggle for truth, peace and social justice?

RG: George Seldes and Dan Ellsberg were men of conscience, who took risks to address the biggest social injustices of their day. In both of the films there is a first-person narrative passage where the main character — Seldes in one film, Ellsberg in the other — reflects on a personal revelation, a turning point, where he comes to the conclusion that war, which he has participated in and championed up until this moment, is in actuality murder, a crime, and a crime that has to be stopped. Their lives are changed forever — they never again “go along to get along.” And what unfolds in each film, is a story in which the viewer (at least this is the intention) comes to see that stopping war, stopping injustice, may take both an incredible about-face to your belief system and a enormous personal commitment to do something — not once, but over a lifetime — to battle the massive forces that keep those wars and those injustices happening, time and again, in every generation.

BB: What do you hope the film accomplishes?

RG: I hope that audiences, especially young people who likely aren’t familiar with Ellsberg might see the film and begin to look at the world around them in a different way; to question authority, to consider that their President, their boss, their parents, whoever, doesn’t have all the answers. That taking risks for important issues can be liberating, uplifting, and can make a difference in the world around them. I think we all face periods of discouragement, maybe even live “lives of quiet desperation” and that it is a common experience to ask the question “why bother?” Maybe this film can help answer that question.


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement and a frequent writer for Z Magazine, Religion Dispatches and other online publications. He documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories, and defeats of the American Right from a progressive perspective.