Ellsberg joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954. Over the next three years he served as a rifle platoon leader, operations officer, and rifle company commander.
In 1957 Ellsberg became a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. He earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard with his thesis, Risk, Ambiguity and Decision. In 1959, he became a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House, specializing in problems of the command and control of nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans, and crisis decision-making.
Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) John McNaughton, working on Vietnam. He transferred to the State Department in 1965 to serve two years at the US Embassy in Saigon, evaluating pacification on the front lines. He worked under Edward Lansdale. Ellsberg liked Lansdale because of his commitment to democracy.
Ellsberg also agreed with Lansdale that the pacification program should be run by the Vietnamese. He argued that unless it was a Vietnam project it would never work. Lansdale knew that there was a deep xenophobia among Vietnamese. However, as he pointed out, he believed "Lyndon Johnson would have been just as xenophobic if Canadians or British or the French moved in force into the United States and took charge of his dreams for a great Society, told him what to do, and spread out by thousands throughout the nation to see that it got done."
In 1967 Ellsberg became a member of the McNamara Study Group that in 1968 had produced the classified History of Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. Ellsberg, disillusioned with the progress of the war, believed this document should be made available to the public. He gave a copy of what later became known as the Pentagon Papers to William Fulbright. However, he refused to do anything with the document, so Ellsberg gave a copy to Phil Geyelin of the Washington Post. Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee decided against publishing the contents on the document.
Ellsberg now went to the New York Times and they began publishing extracts from the document on 13th June, 1971. This included information that Dwight Eisenhower had made a secret commitment to help the French defeat the rebellion in Vietnam. The document also showed that Lyndon B. Johnson had turned this commitment into a war by using a secret "provocation strategy" that led to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents and that Johnson had planned from the beginning of his presidency to expand the war.
Ben Bradlee was criticised by his journalists for failing to break this story. He now made attempts to catch up and on June 18, 1971, the Washington Post began publishing extracts from the History of Decision Making in Vietnam, 1945-1968. However, Bradlee concentrated on the period when Dwight Eisenhower was in power. The first story reported on how the Eisenhower administration had delayed democratic elections in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon now made attempts to prevent anymore extracts from the Pentagon Papers being published. The Supreme Court ruled against Nixon and Hugo Black commented that the two newspapers "should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly".
Ellsberg's trial, on twelve felony counts posing a possible sentence of 115 years, was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct against him, which led to the convictions of several White House aides and figured in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.
In 1969 Daniel Ellsberg was a man tormented. After months of working with Kissinger, having seen his real peace plan, which was to pressure Hanoi through the Soviet Union and Communist China (hence détente and the China initiative), and to destroy Cambodia with bombs, rather than to talk sincerely in Paris; having been invited to San Clemente three times to tell Kissinger about "options" and urging him to read the Pentagon Papers, which, incredibly, he had not looked at, Ellsberg felt he had to repudiate everything he had done for the previous ten years. He became obsessed with breaking the deadly silence (the Cambodia bombing would remain secret until April 1970), with ending the deception and the self-deception of the national security types who were still, in spite of the Pentagon study, keeping that ridiculous war going out of more self-deception, desperation, and pride. In September he and his daughter and son and Anthony Russo (a RAND fellow who had analyzed Viet Cong "motivation and morale" for the government by interviewing prisoners in Saigon jails) made copies of the Pentagon Papers in a small Los Angeles advertising agency. The papers had been in private circulation at RAND, and Ellsberg, one of their authors, had legitimate access to them.
In November he gave several of the documents to Senator J. William Fulbright, a war critic, who could not see their value in ending the war and did nothing with them. He gave a complete set to Marcus Raskin at the Institute for Policy Studies, a prestigious left-wing think tank in Washington, and Raskin, with two colleagues, immediately started work on a book based upon them, Washington Plans an Aggressive War.
And he began testing the waters at the Post, showing up to see editorial page editor Phil Geyelin, talking passionately about how important it was that the paper change its position. On one occasion Ellsberg asked Geyelin if it were true that he could not always write as he wanted because of Mrs. Graham's relationship with Kissinger, who had been cultivating her, taking her to movies, confiding his well-known "anguish of power." In fact Kissinger had warned her about Ellsberg being "unbalanced," which was all he had needed to say. "That's not true," Geyelin blurted; "we ran a critical editorial the other day and now Kissinger stopped seeing her and won't return her phone calls and things are very tense around here." Geyelin walked with Ellsberg into the lobby, where they saw Katharine and Bradlee. There were introductions all around. Katharine shook Ellsberg's hand coldly and walked away. Bradlee wordlessly followed her.
The New York Times broke the Pentagon Papers on Sunday, June 13, 1971, with six pages of news stories and documents that told a different version of the war: that Truman and Eisenhower had committed the United States to Indochina through France, that Kennedy had turned that commitment into a war by using a secret "provocation strategy" that led eventually to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, that Johnson had planned from the beginning of his presidency to expand the war, that the CIA had concluded that the bombing was utterly ineffective in winning it...
Katharine and Ben Bradlee were humiliated that the Times broke the story first and felt that the Post now had to catch up. On Monday morning, when the Times headline read "Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before '64 Election, Study Says," Bradlee met with Marcus Raskin and expressed interest in reading his manuscript. He received a copy of it by noon, but refused to publish excerpts because "they (the authors) were in the war criminal racket," having concentrated on the Kennedy years. That the papers told of war crimes became clear to him by Tuesday, when the Times headline read "Vietnam Archive: Study Tells How Johnson Secretly Opened Way to Ground Combat." Tuesday night the Nixon administration took the Times to court and won a temporary restraining order on the basis of the Espionage Act. By the time Ben Bagdikian had located Ellsberg in Boston on Wednesday and flown up to get a set of the papers, Bradlee was excited about defying Nixon for the cause of freedom of the press.
The disclosure that Hunt and Liddy had supervised the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office had inextricably linked Watergate and the Ellsberg trial in Los Angeles. In the newsroom, the two stories were often referred to as Watergate East and Watergate West. In early May, Bernstein and Woodward decided to go with a story saying that two New York Times reporters' telephones had been wiretapped as part of the investigation of the Pentagon Papers leak. Months before, Deep Throat had told Woodward their names - Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith - but, even now, the reporters could not find a second source, so the names weren't used. They did find, however, that there was a possibility that Ellsberg had been overheard on a tap. That figured, since Ellsberg had leaked the papers to Sheehan.
At Ellsberg's trial, the prosecution was insisting there were no taps involving Ellsberg. Now Judge Matthew Byrne asked the government to search its records again for evidence that Ellsberg might have been overheard on any wiretap.
The new acting FBI director, William D. Ruckelshaus, found one. The logs were missing, but Ruckelshaus had been told by his aides that Ellsberg had been overheard at least once - not on Sheehan's phone, as it turned out, but on the home telephone of Morton Halperin, a former member of the National Security Council staff of Dr. Henry Kissinger. Ruckelshaus' announcement that Halperin's phone had been tapped for 21 months was the first confirmation that the administration had used wiretaps to investigate news leaks. Moreover, it established that the government had illegally failed to disclose all its wiretap information to Ellsberg's defense attorneys.
Several days later, on May 11, Judge Byrne dismissed all the charges against Ellsberg. Government misconduct, he stated, had "incurably infected the prosecution".
Dan Ellsberg was a zealous Harvard intellectual, who had served voluntarily for two years in the Marine Corps before becoming a defense research expert for the Rand Corporation. He had volunteered in Vietnam, where he served as an "apprentice" to General Edward Lansdale. He had seen plenty of action in the Mekong Delta in 1965 and 1966, and actively supported the American pursuit of the war, until he returned in early 1969 to Rand, where he had been a colleague of Bagdikian.
Ellsberg was also the source of the New York Times's 7,000-page copy of the Pentagon Papers, because of his friendship with and respect for the Times's legendary Vietnam reporter, Neil Sheehan.
Late Wednesday, the 16th, Bagdikian flew to Boston, and first thing Thursday morning, he flew back with two first-class seats, one for himself and one for a large cardboard carton full of Pentagon Papers. The Post's package consisted of something over 4,000 pages of Pentagon documents, compared to the 7,000 received by the New York Times. At 10:30 a. m., Thursday, June 17, Bagdikian rushed past Marina Bradlee, age ten, tending her lemonade stand outside our house in Georgetown, and we were back in business.
For the next twelve hours, the Bradlee library on N Street served as a remote newsroom, where editors and reporters started sorting, reading, and annotating 4,400 pages, and the Bradlee living room served as a legal office, where lawyers and newspaper executives started the most basic discussions about the duty and right of a newspaper to publish, and the government's right to prevent that publication, on national security grounds, or on any grounds at all. For those twelve hours, I went from one room to the other, getting a sense of the story in one place, and a sense of the mood of the lawyers in the other.
With the Times silenced by the Federal Court in New York, we decided almost immediately that we would publish a story the next morning, Friday, the 18th, completing in twelve hours what it had taken the New York Times more than three months to do. For planning purposes, we had to take that decision so that we could re-thread the presses to include four extra, unplanned pages.
The Pentagon Papers leak came at a particularly sensitive time. We were just three and a half weeks away from Kissinger's secret trip to China, and the SALT talks were under way. Sir Robert Thompson had written in April saying that the major factor now influencing the course of the war was psychological: our military policy was working on the battlefield, but division in America was causing the North Vietnamese to stall in Paris. There had been violent demonstrations in Washington in May. On May 31, at the secret Paris talks, Kissinger offered our most far-reaching proposal yet. On June 13 the Pentagon Papers were published, and on June 22 the Senate voted its first resolution establishing a pull-out timetable for Vietnam. Before long, the North Vietnamese would slam the door on our new proposal and begin building up for a new military offense.
We had lost our court battle against the newspaper that published the documents, but I was determined that we would at least win our public case against the man I believed had stolen them, Daniel Ellsberg. A former Pentagon aide, Ellsberg had come under suspicion soon after the first installments from the study appeared. Whatever others may have thought, I considered what Ellsberg had done to be despicable and contemptible-he had revealed government foreign policy secrets during wartime. He was lionized in much of the media. CBS devoted a large segment of the network news to a respectful interview with him even while he was still a fugitive from the FBI.
On June 28, a Los Angeles grand jury indicted him on one count of theft of government property and one count of unauthorized possession of documents and writings related to national defense.
"I think I've done a good job as a citizen," Ellsberg told the throng of admirers outside the courthouse.
Kissinger, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and I had met on the afternoon of June 17 to assess the situation. Kissinger had known Ellsberg at Harvard and said he was bright but emotionally unstable.
In various interviews Ellsberg had said he was convinced that I intended to escalate the war rather than pull troops out of Vietnam. He said that increased public opposition would be necessary to force unilateral withdrawal. I felt that there was serious reason to be concerned about what he might do next. During his years at the Defense Department, he had had access to some of the most sensitive information in the entire government. And the Rand Corporation, where he had worked before he gave the Pentagon Papers to the Times, had 173,000 classified documents in its possession. I wondered how many of these Ellsberg might have and what else he might give to the newspapers.