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Remembering Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst and activist known for leaking the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers, died last week of pancreatic cancer. He was 92.

As a young man, Ellsberg earned degrees at Harvard and the University of Cambridge in England before serving in the Marine Corps in the 1950s. He then earned a doctorate from Harvard and went to work for the RAND Corporation as a military analyst. His time in Vietnam as an analyst eventually turned him against the war, and he laboriously copied the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers and leaked them to The New York Times and The Washington Post. Ellsberg was arrested and tried under the Espionage Act, but in 1973, a judge dismissed the charges when it emerged that officials in the Nixon administration had directed covert actions to discredit or silence Ellsberg, including tapping his phone and breaking into his psychiatrist's office looking for compromising information.

I spoke to Ellsberg in 2017, when he'd published a book called "The Doomsday Machine," about his days working on American nuclear war strategies in the late '50s and early '60s. Ellsberg was appalled by much of what he found and wishes he'd been able to leak those plans along with the Pentagon Papers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. You became famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. And you tell us at the beginning of this book that you copied not just the Vietnam study, but a lot of other material from your safe at the RAND Corporation about U.S. nuclear war plans. What were you going to do with that material?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I planned to release that as soon as the Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, had had whatever effect they could have on the Vietnam War. The nuclear information, I thought then and now, was actually more important. But the bombs were falling in Vietnam at that time, and I wanted to shorten that war as much as I could. So I planned to put out the nuclear documentation for my earlier work in the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation after my trial, actually. I expected a trial or perhaps several trials on the Pentagon Papers, as I did experience.

DAVIES: So you had all this material, hard copies - I mean, this wasn't a day when we had thumb drives. What did you do with that stuff?

ELLSBERG: I gave it to my brother to keep separately from the other because it might be a year or two or more before I put it out. And unfortunately, he put it in a big box in a trash bag inside a trash dump to keep it away from the FBI who had been poking at his compost heap where he had earlier put it. So he put it underneath a big iron stove on a bluff in the trash dump in order to mark where it was. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Doria came about that very summer in 1971 and scattered the trash dump over the road, down the hill and all over the place. The stove itself was scattered for about 100 yards.

For the next year or two, actually about two years, my brother, with some help, tried to retrieve that box so that I could put it out. Meanwhile, I was on trial for the Pentagon Papers. And after trying with even a backhoe on one occasion to get a lot of garbage bags, green garbage bags, but none with top secret documents in sight, he had to conclude that that was impossible. And that was a very great disappointment for me for the next 40 years.

DAVIES: Right. And some of that material has since been declassified, which is part of what enables you to tell this story now. You went to work for the RAND Corporation, where you worked on high-level military strategy. Explain what the RAND Corporation was and what kind of work you did.

ELLSBERG: RAND, which stands for R and D, research and development, was really essence on research for the Air Force, set up as a nonprofit corporation to do long range research for the Air Force in the national interest. And in particular, when I came there in 1958 for the summer and then later permanently in 1959, our obsession, really, was trying to plan our strategic forces in such a way that they couldn't be destroyed in a first strike by the Soviet Union. Those were the years that we all believed in RAND and in the Air Force that there was a missile gap in favor of the Russians and that a Russian surprise attack was a real possibility. And the idea was to assure retaliation for that so as to deter it so that no war would occur.

DAVIES: You know, this wasn't just a job for you, was it? I mean, it was kind of a special place to be in. And it wasn't just a 9 to 5 paycheck thing for you; was it?

ELLSBERG: Not at all. I was working in the summer, especially, when I arrived, to get up to speed, probably 70-hour weeks there reading top secret or secret material - most of it was secret, actually, at RAND - and working on trying to avoid a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. So nothing in the world seemed as important. In effect, we thought we were trying to save the world, although we weren't very confident we'd be able to do it.

DAVIES: So you focused in your research and in your work at RAND on decision-making in circumstances where information is incomplete or ambiguous. And you wanted to study how commanders in the military, at all levels, right down to pilots, would make decisions on whether to attack Soviet targets in certain circumstances. And the research is fascinating, as you describe it. What kind of access did you as this civilian have to military personnel?

ELLSBERG: Well, as a civilian consultant to the commander in chief Pacific, Admiral Harry D. Felt at that time, I was doing a study for Office of Naval Research. I was loaned by the RAND Corporation to them. And looking at the actual reaction that could be expected at various levels to various execute messages, messages to go or - there weren't messages to not go, actually. There was no stop message - just a little footnote here. But once a go message was received at any level, there was no provision whatever for stopping that or rescinding it or bringing it back if it was a mistake or if the president changed his mind or if there was an end to the war, potentially.

DAVIES: Yeah. Let me - if I can just cut in here, Daniel Ellsberg.

ELLSBERG: Yes. OK.

DAVIES: I mean, this is one of the jaw-dropping things as we read the book. If there was a launch, there was literally no way to recall a bomb or - you can't recall missiles. But but, you know, things that had pilots, jet fighters and bombers, there was no way to send them - to bring them back.

ELLSBERG: Once they'd gotten an authenticated message that they were to execute the war plans. But the startling thing that I discovered at every level was that the general image that people had then and to this day that a message with the right code could only come from the president himself was never true. That was always a myth. At least it was from the late '50s, when President Eisenhower had delegated authority, his authority to launch nuclear weapons, to theater commanders like CINCPAC, or CINCSAC, the Strategic Air Command, or Europe in case there was an outage of communications or Washington had been destroyed or even the president had been incapacitated, as President Eisenhower was a couple of times. That's almost essential that there be delegation like that in a nuclear era, otherwise a decapitating attack, as they call it, an attack on the command and control system, would paralyze us. A single bomb on Washington would paralyze our retaliation. Well, that could never be allowed, and it never has been allowed.

DAVIES: So not just the president, but theater commanders have the authority under some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack. And these are experienced, high-level commanders. But what you found, I know, that - when you looked in the Pacific is that these theater commanders had to be in communication with dozens and dozens of bases throughout the Pacific. And the question arises then, what about a base commander who has a number of fighter pilots or some aircraft? What - under what circumstances might they proceed on their own to launch an attack? What did you find?

ELLSBERG: Well, again, if they were out of communication with their superiors, a lot of them had authorization in the Pacific, I found, in the early '60s. And as far as I know, that continued. Again, I have to say, I don't know if it's true today, and we ought to find out. But actually, there were people even at a lower - as at a single base. You probably read an anecdote I had about Kunshan in Korea - in South Korea, the base possibly closer to communist territory of any of our bases in the world. And the commander there clearly believed that he had the authority simply as a base commander to send his planes off if he thought they were endangered. So at that point, had there been what he thought was an attack, for example, an accident on some other base that he heard about or a crisis that was going on, he felt - he told me that he would send his planes off.

DAVIES: Wow. And this was the...

ELLSBERG: That is...

DAVIES: ...Guy who questioned your authority to ask him these questions. And when, finally, he got it, he said, yeah. I - if it comes to it, that's my prerogative.

ELLSBERG: Well, I - he asked me, you know what they do if they - if I send them off to protect them. They weren't supposed to go to target at that point. They were supposed to rendezvous and to circle around for a while.

DAVIES: This pilot. Yeah.

ELLSBERG: If they got no positive message to go ahead, they were to come back. And I asked him, what do you think they would do if that occurred the first time they'd ever been sent to that rendezvous area in a serious false alarm and they didn't hear a message to come back? What would they do, knowing, by the way, that the base might have been hit, and that's why they weren't hearing any messages? And he said, well, I think they'd come back, most of them. And while I was reeling from that answer, he went on, of course, if one of them went ahead, they might as well all go, you know, because war would be on.

DAVIES: You know, what you discovered here, I guess, is something that happens often in military, you know, units, where they expect to have to take initiative from time to time. And, of course, the stakes are enormously high with nuclear weapons. What were some circumstances that might lead to unwarranted, if you will, attacks on the Soviet Union - false alarms or explosions or natural phenomena?

ELLSBERG: Well, an incident that only became revealed many years after the Cuban Missile Crisis - in which I participated in 1962, and I researched it, really, ever since - but it was decades before it became known that Khrushchev had, in fact, done something we thought no centralized communist commander would ever do - or head of state - he had delegated and the Presidium - Politburo - had delegated before President Kennedy's speech on October 22 announcing the blockade - they had delegated authority to local commanders to use their nuclear weapons. Moreover, their submarines had nuclear torpedoes aboard, which we didn't know. Now, one of those, actually, under what they thought was a depth-bomb attack on the most critical day of the crisis, October 27, they thought they were being attacked and we're going to go down. And two - the commander and his second in command both needed - their decision was both needed. Both decided to fire a nuclear torpedo at the destroyers and the carriers that were harassing them.

DAVIES: The American destroyers. Yeah. Yeah.

ELLSBERG: Yeah. There happened to be - there was a carrier there in the vicinity, and we didn't even know there was a nuclear torpedo on those submarines - or I would like to think we would not have been dropping mock depth charges on them to force them to the surface. But in any case, had a destroyer or a carrier blown up in the midst of the Caribbean, it would almost surely have been assumed at every level of our command that that had come from Cuba and that the time had come, as President Kennedy said in his speech on the 22nd, to - for an all-out attack on the Soviet Union. And that might not have waited for a presidential decision. It was one man who prevented that. There was a commodore on that particular sub who was of the same military rank as the captain who had decided to shoot the torpedo. But his commodore, he did outrank him, and his position was - his decision was needed, too, and he decided not to do that. I think if he had decided otherwise or if he'd been on a different submarine, not under attack at that moment, we wouldn't be here.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, recorded in 2017. Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. We'll hear more of our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY’S “GAVE PROOF”)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to my interview with Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. I spoke to him in 2017 when he'd written a book about his days before the Vietnam War when he was working as a nuclear-war planner advising the U.S. military.

There is a remarkable chapter in your book called "Questions For The Joint Chiefs" when you write that President Kennedy, coming into the White House, he did not have, nor did anyone on his team have a copy of essentially our plan for nuclear war, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan and that when they asked for it, they were, you know, that the military was sort of reluctant. And then they gave a briefing, but not the actual plan itself. You had a copy. You examined it, and you wrote some questions. You - what troubled you about the plan that you saw?

ELLSBERG: Well, many things. It was a very strange plan. I'm not the only one who has called it the worst plan in human history. This was the plan for general war. It was an all-out attack on every city in the Soviet Union and China and attacks, in effect, in most of the Eastern Bloc because of air defenses and command and control. That kept for - no reserves, created fallout that would kill perhaps a hundred million people in West Europe for our own weapons if the wind were in the right direction for that and many - and a hundred million in other contiguous areas of the Soviet Union, like neutrals like Austria and Finland and Afghanistan, actually. But also several hundred million in the USSR and China, several hundred million killed - that added up to an intention in a U.S. first strike if we preempted or if we escalated a war in Europe to 600 million dead that they were calculating - a hundred holocausts.

DAVIES: You know, when you were looking at nuclear policy in the 1960s, there were consequences of a widespread nuclear change that scientists weren't yet then aware of, what people call nuclear winter. You want to explain what that is and what stakes it presents?

ELLSBERG: Yes. What I discovered, to my horror, I have to say, is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff contemplated causing with our own first strike 600 million deaths, including a hundred million in our own allies. Now, that was an underestimate even then because they weren't including fire, which they felt was too incalculable in its effects. And, of course, fire is the greatest casualty-producing effect of thermonuclear weapons. So the real effect would have been over a billion, not 600 million - about a third of the Earth's population then at that time. What turned out to be the case 20 years later, in 1983, and confirmed in the last 10 years very thoroughly by climate scientists and environmental scientists is that that high ceiling of a billion or so was wrong.

Firing weapons over the cities, even if you called them military targets, would cause firestorms in those cities like the one in Tokyo in March of 1945, which would loft into the stratosphere many millions of tons of soot and black smoke from the burning cities. It wouldn't be rained out in the stratosphere. It would go around the globe very quickly and reduce sunlight by as much as 70%, causing temperatures like that of the little ice age, killing harvests worldwide and starving to death nearly everyone on Earth. It probably wouldn't cause extinction. We're so adaptable. Maybe 1% of our current population of 7.4 billion could survive, but 98 or 99% would not.

DAVIES: You did a lot of the strategic thinking about decision-making when you were in your 20s and 30s. And we haven't talked much about, you know, your personal life, but I know that when you were, I guess, 15, there was a terrible car accident where your family was driving. Your father fell asleep at the wheel, and your mom and sister were killed. And, I mean, I'm sure that had very profound effect on - effects on you. But in this context, I'm wondering if it affected the way you think about risk and judgment.

ELLSBERG: It certainly made me aware that one's life could be changed in a terrible way very suddenly - in other words, that not just a tragedy but a catastrophe was possible in a way that many people have not experienced in their own lives. As I think about that when you ask the question, it occurs to me to say something that I think I've never - I don't remember ever saying before, thinking before. When my father set out on the Fourth of July on a flat, straight road in Iowa to reach our relatives in Denver on the Fourth of July, a very hot day with very little sleep the night before, it was not certain that he would fall asleep and go off the road and kill the rest of my family at that point. It just was an intolerable risk that he was taking.

And that's what I see happening in the world today. It's not certain that there will be - certainly that there will be war in North Korea, I would hope. There's still time to avoid that. It's not certain - you could say it's not even highly likely in any given year that these doomsday machines will actually be triggered. And yet the image in my mind is we are on the Titanic, racing at full speed on a dark night through iceberg-filled waters.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, recorded in 2017. Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. After a break, we'll hear him talk about copying and leaking the Pentagon Papers. And New York Times correspondent Charlie Savage will tell us the story of Ellsberg's last document leak and battle against government secrecy when Ellsberg was 90. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLTON SINGLETON'S "CROSSROADS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2017 with Daniel Ellsberg, best remembered for leaking the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. At the time, Ellsberg had published a new book titled "The Doomsday Machine" about his days as a nuclear war planner advising the U.S. military.

You're best known, of course, for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of the Vietnam War. And you had spent many years for the government in Vietnam examining the war, concluding that it was futile, that there was no way to win it. And, you know, you had spent many years as a young man, as a real patriot. I mean, you truly believed in the country. You believed in the security clearances, right?

ELLSBERG: Pardon me. I think I'm going to make it clear, but I wouldn't even want the question - to raise that question, in a way. I am a patriot, and that has never changed.

DAVIES: I understand. And forgive me for putting it that way. I mean, you are devoted to doing the right thing for your country. But at that time, you were - you respected all of the high-level security clearances that you had. And it must have been hard for you to take the step of taking this top-secret document and making it public. What did it take to get you to make that step?

ELLSBERG: Without young men going to prison for nonviolent protest against the draft, men that I met on their way to prison, no Pentagon Papers. It wouldn't have occurred to me simply to do something that would put myself in prison for the rest of my life, as I assumed that would do. And if the Pentagon Papers somehow did not result in putting me in prison forever, the later trials I foresaw, that are now revealed in this book, for revealing nuclear secrets would - I was certain would put me in prison for life. So obviously, that was not an obvious decision to make, except once I'd seen the example of people like Randy Kehler and Bob Eaton and others - and David Harris - who did go to prison to say that this war was wrong, the Vietnam War was wrong, and that they refused to participate in it.

DAVIES: How hard was it to actually copy the material?

ELLSBERG: Well, in those days, it was one page at a time. We didn't have these zip, zip, multi-paged collators and whatnot machines that they have now, or, of course, the digital capability. So it took me a long time - months, actually - to copy them, especially because, as I reveal in the book, I wasn't copying only the 7,000 top secret pages of the Pentagon Papers, several copies of that. I was also copying more than that, probably, of my notes on nuclear war planning. And I, of course, regretted for 40 years that a hurricane prevented me from putting those out.

DAVIES: So you would stay at night in the office copying and then come back to work during the day.

ELLSBERG: Yes.

DAVIES: Did you - did night watchmen ever come upon you or anything?

ELLSBERG: Well, twice in that office, which was a small advertising office owned by a friend of a friend, really. Twice during that period, police came to the door because she had turned the key the wrong way and set off the burglar alarm. And on one of those occasions, my children were there. That was the one time. And my - police came in and found my son running the Xerox machine.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLSBERG: No, I think I was running the Xerox machine, and he was collating. Or it might have been the other way around. He was then 13. And my daughter, who was 10, was cutting off top secret from the tops and bottoms of the pages with the scissors. The reason they were there was that I expected to be in prison very shortly. I'd hoped to get the papers out quickly, and that didn't happen in the Senate. But I wanted them to know that their father was doing something in a business-like way - a calm, sober way - that I thought had to be done. And I did let my older son know in particular that it might - in fact, would probably result in my going to prison. And that was an example that I was - actually wanted to pass on to my children, that they might be in such a situation.

DAVIES: You know, your trial ended when the government actions taken against you were exposed. And there was a - the charges were dropped. You took action to disclose government secrets then that you felt the American public needed to know. And I'm wondering what your attitude is today towards classified information and how you regard the actions of, you know, Chelsea Manning, say, and Edward Snowden.

ELLSBERG: Well, I identify more with Chelsea Manning and with Edward Snowden than with any other people on Earth. They're - we all come from very different backgrounds, different ages, different personalities. But we all faced the same question, which is, who will put this information out if I don't? And each of us came to the conclusion that this information that the public had to know would have to be put out by us, by ourselves, because no one else was going to do it. I had been urging people to use their judgment and their conscience for decades to put out information that the public needed to know, and it just hadn't happened.

For example, in the Iraq war, I think that if there had been an Edward Snowden, or - and now that I've met him - at a higher level with greater access than he had - or a Chelsea Manning with greater access than she had at her lower level - in the 2002, there would have been no Iraq war, no ISIS, no - nothing that we've seen later. That was a mad venture based on terribly unrealistic, totally unrealistic beliefs.

And I think that if the information had been put out, Congress would not have gone along with that war as they did - just as I'm very sorry to say if I'd put out the information in my safe in the Pentagon about our widening war that was projected in 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two senators who voted against that widening - the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - told me, if you'd put that out, there would have been no vote in the committee. It would have not passed the committee. And if they bypassed that to go to the floor of Congress, it would not have passed.

ELLSBERG: So he's telling me that I had had the power to avert the Vietnam War. I think that's true not only of me. That's a heavy burden to bear. I share it with a thousand others who had that kind of access.

DAVIES: So many of us loved the film "Dr. Strangelove," the Stanley Kubrick film about, you know, the nuclear confrontation that started by a rogue American commander. And it spirals off from there. And, you know, to us, it was a great dark comedy. I'm wondering what you thought when you saw it. And you were doing nuclear war planning then.

ELLSBERG: (Laughter) When I was working for the Defense Department now, in 1964, as a full-time employee, it was part of our job, we thought, for my boss and I - Harry Rowen, deputy assistant secretary of defense - during the day, to go see this new film, "Dr. Strangelove," and see what it looked like. And when we came out into the daylight that afternoon, we each agreed, that's a documentary.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ELLSBERG: This is a pleasure. Very good questions. Thank you.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg recorded in 2017. Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. In Ellsberg's book about his days as a nuclear war planner, he revealed that he'd always wanted to reveal more classified information about U.S. nuclear strategy, much of which he found appalling. In a moment, we'll hear how he managed to do some of that at the age of 90, less than two years before his death. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISOTOPE 217'S "AUDIO BOXING")

DAVIES: We've just listened to my 2017 interview with Daniel Ellsberg, the former military intelligence analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. It turns out that four years after our interview and two years before his death, Ellsberg approached another journalist with a leak he hoped would be published and get him arrested and charged with a violation of the Espionage Act. That journalist was Charlie Savage of the New York Times, who shared that recollection with his readers a few days ago, and who joins us now to tell us the story. Charlie Savage, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: So Daniel Ellsberg reaches out to you in 2021. What does he tell you?

SAVAGE: So Dan and I had talked a few times through the years about leakers and leak investigations. I hadn't heard from him for a while, but he called me one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 2021. I was at a Little League baseball game watching my kid, and I moved away from the other parents so I wouldn't disturb their enjoyment of the game and asked him what was up. And he said that he had another classified document that he had taken at the same time he took the Pentagon Papers, and he never gave it to reporters back in the early '70s because it was not about the Vietnam War. It was something he was going to do something with later.

And what it was about was about the 1958 Straits of Taiwan crisis in which mainland China started bombing some islands controlled by Taiwan, and the United States was preparing to defend Taiwan. And the report was similar to the Pentagon Papers study. It was based on internal government classified documents. But it was a study of this crisis, and it showed that the world had come much closer to nuclear war then than the public had ever been allowed to know, that senior generals were really pushing to use a first-strike nuclear attack on mainland China, even though they accepted the risk that that would cause the Soviet Union to retaliate in kind and millions would die because the alternative of losing Taiwan was seen as too great a risk. And instead China broke off the attack. So this nuclear strike never happened.

DAVIES: So in 1958, this document tells us, we came closer to nuclear war than anybody realized because American military commanders were prepared to deal with these Chinese bombings by - with nuclear strikes. He's had this information in a long time. Why was it of more relevance today now?

SAVAGE: Well, it's almost hard to remember now because Russia's invasion of Ukraine has taken over the sort of geopolitical brain. But in the spring of 2021, before that had happened, there was a tremendous uptick in tensions around Taiwan and between China and the United States over Chinese saber-rattling that perhaps they would finally invade Taiwan and retake it, since they consider it to not be a legitimate standalone country. You know, the cover of The Economist said that this was the most dangerous place in the world. My colleague Tom Friedman had written a column a couple of days earlier asking, are we about to go to war with China?

And against the backdrop of that, Daniel Ellsberg decided that it would be worthy to put this information about what happened in 1958 out because his intuition was that the Pentagon war planners must at that moment be developing war plans for what happens - contingency plans - if China does indeed invade Taiwan and conventional weapons are not enough to prevent them from winning the war. If nuclear weapon strikes were going to be on the table again as they were in 1958, he thought people should see how it went last time and the sort of rationales that people used to justify it last time in order for there to be a public debate this time before any such dire step would be considered.

DAVIES: Right. Now, he, in leaking this information to you, hoped that you would publish it and that that would get him arrested?

SAVAGE: Yes. So he had a second, co-equal motivation, which he explained quite openly to me, which is that he wanted to be charged with the Espionage Act for unauthorized retention and dissemination of national security secrets.

DAVIES: So here he was at age 90 saying to the government, come and get me again, hoping that he could get it to the Supreme Court and get this resolved. You know, it's interesting to me, it seems from reading your story as if he felt that it should be a crime for someone to disclose, you know, secret military information to a foreign adversary, right? His objection was that these efforts to tell the truth for public benefit was being criminalized. That was his case?

SAVAGE: That's right. I think as I understand, he wasn't saying the Espionage Act was unconstitutional on its face in all applications and using it against spies is fine. He was saying that it's unethical, in his view, unconstitutional as applied to the whistleblower, to the person who's making information available to the American public that the American public needs to know. One of his big objections to the Espionage Act is the way the law works. If you're on trial for leaking to the press, you are not permitted to suggest to the jury that they ought to acquit you not because you didn't do it, but because the disclosure was in the public interest. You're just not even allowed to inject that thought into the trial. And he thinks that that's - he thought that was unconstitutional, and he wanted to put the law before the Supreme Court in hopes that they would agree.

DAVIES: OK, so he was trying to provoke the government into charging him. Did they?

SAVAGE: They did not. We - the article ran, which, you know, included his open confession that he had held onto this classified document all these years without authorization and then disclosed it. And people paid attention to that article, but no charges were forthcoming, to his disappointment.

DAVIES: So when he comes to you with this document, I mean, he has - you know, he wants to generate a legal challenge, to establish a precedent. But for you to publish it, you've got to be convinced that it's newsworthy. You decided it was. What was it about this account of a standoff more than 50 years ago at which U.S. military officials considered a nuclear response - what was it about that account that made it newsworthy to you?

SAVAGE: Well, I thought it was objectively interesting to see - you know, a redacted version of this report had been made public years ago, but to see what they had covered up, which - some of which was quite alarming and sort of inflammatory language about the internal debates in which various generals were sort of callously accepting the risk that millions of people would die, and nevertheless thinking that was, you know, necessary to prevent, you know, domino theory falling of communism expanding in that era. It just was objectively interesting. It was also objectively interesting that the document was coming - from all people, from Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, that he'd had it all this time. And there was a certain spectacle about it, and his demand to be prosecuted certainly added a layer to it.

DAVIES: What was the alarming language in the document that Ellsberg gave you that you found so noteworthy?

SAVAGE: Well, so one of the pages that the government had blacked out in the official release of the study quoted the top Air Force commander for the Pacific at the time. He was one of the ones pushing for authorization for a first-use nuclear attack on mainland China. And he praised a plan that would start by dropping atomic bombs on Chinese airfields but not other targets. His argument, as described in this censored version of the report or - was that the relative restraint of only hitting airfields and not I guess just civilian population centers would make it harder for skeptics of nuclear war in the American government to block his plan. And the quotation was something like, there would be merit in a proposal from the military to limit the war geographically to the air bases if that proposal would forestall some misguided humanitarians' intention to limit a war to obsolete iron bombs and hot lead - just really vivid, striking language, a misguided humanitarian who doesn't want nuclear war.

DAVIES: When did you last speak to Daniel Ellsberg?

SAVAGE: I think it was then. We had email exchanges or - but while I was writing that article, I talked to him a lot, like, directly. He liked to talk over FaceTime or Skype. I don't remember which platform he used, but, you know, video where you could see each other's face. I think it was easier for him to hear coming out of computer speakers than over a telephone. And so we had very long conversations during that month when I was - about sort of what is in this that's interesting? What are the salient things here? What are you trying to do? What is your motivation? So that was an enjoyable period of interaction, actually.

DAVIES: Charlie Savage, thank you so much for speaking with us. I really appreciate it.

SAVAGE: Thanks for having me on.

DAVIES: Charlie Savage is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Daniel Ellsberg died last week at the age of 92. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new reality TV competition show "Morimoto's Sushi Master" on The Roku Channel. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEE WEE RUSSELL'S "HOW ABOUT ME?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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