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The Pentagon Papers Then and Now: Unitarian Universalists Confronting Government Secrecy

General Assembly 2007 Event 4049

Participants: Amy Goodman, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Mike Gravel, Rev. Robert West

Amy Goodman, anchor of Democracy Now, an independent, liberal news program carried on public television and radio stations, started the panel discussion by saying "It's appropriate that we mark something that has such relevance today. As George Orwell reminded us, in a time of universal deceit, it's a revolutionary act to tell the truth. That's what these three men did." She then introduced the three panelists. Daniel Ellsberg, who worked for the Rand Corporation at the time, copied thousands of pages of documents of classified information which revealed the Nixon administration's duplicity over the war in Vietnam. Senator Mike Gravel from Alaska made the decision to help get the Pentagon papers into the Congressional Record. Rev. Robert West, the then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, stood up to enormous pressure. Dozens of other publishers turned down Sen. Gravel's request to publish the papers, but Beacon Press did.

Daniel Ellsberg began his remarks by saying "Here's the origin of all this: I was in association with some draft resisters who were on their way to prison. Their actions put the question in my mind. They were ordinary Americans. If they could do this, I can do this. That kind of courage was contagious." He described how he acted quickly with his friend Tony Russo from Rand. They copied 7,000 pages top-secret pages that demonstrated many administration officals had violated the law.

There were twenty-two months that passed after he copied the papers when they were still a secret. Senators and congressmen, despite their opposition to the administration, would not make the papers public. They did not refuse directly to bring them out. First they agreed to do it, then thought better of it over time. Ellsberg said "The prevailing line was "YOU take the risk, I can't do it. I can't afford to look ridiculous. If I could find somebody else to do it with me, then I might think about it'."

Ellsberg gave the papers to reporter Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, who did not tell him the Times was bringing them out in the spring of 1971. He finally found Senator Gravel, one of the few Unitarian Universalist senators, who was not afraid to look foolish, and who was doing a filibuster at the time. Ellsberg said "On June 13, 1971, nobody had told me that the New York Times was publishing the papers the next day. I had a number of copies stashed with different people. For once, I had the whole set of copies in my apartment. I didn't usually keep them there, as I was afraid of an FBI raid."

There was not much attention paid to them the day after the first part of the papers were published. Then Attorney General John Mitchell informally asked the New York Times to desist from publishing the papers. But the Times went ahead, and the next day the government formally enjoined the newspaper to stop publishing.

Ellsberg got a laugh out of the audience when he said "I called Sen. Gravel's office and asked, "Is your boss intending to keep the filibuster going? I've got some material which can keep him reading for the rest of the year'!" By the next day he had been identified as the person behind all this. "We turned on the television and saw on live TV that the FBI had staked out my house, so we stayed in Cambridge for thirteen days" he said. There were seventeen other newspapers altogether that published the papers, not just the New York Times and Washington Post. "That was a wave of civil disobedience by publishers across the country who could have been accused of treasonous behavior" said Ellsberg.

Senator Mike Gravel then took the podium. "Dan Ellsberg's aide had a copy of the papers and agreed to meet me at the Mayflower Hotel at midnight to transfer them to me. His car would drive up to the hotel; I'd get my car from the hotel garage, drive up behind him, and put the papers in the trunk" he said. Gravel described how at ten minutes to midnight he went into the hotel lobby, ready to head down to the garage. Just then a group of his constituents from Alaska walked by and wanted to chat. He quickly tried to get rid of them so he could make his appointment.

"I took the papers home and put them under the bed" he said. "The next day I invited my staff in, and over the next four days we all read the papers. We excised some names that needed to be cut out. I was frightened, like anybody else." He packed up the papers and took them to his office in the Capitol. "I couldn't trust anybody else with this important cargo, so I carried them myself. "Why is the senator carrying these heavy bags and not his staff?' people wondered. I knew I'd need extra security for my office so I called the Vietnam Vets Against the War." Shortly thereafter, six veterans arrived, all in wheel chairs with pony tails and covered with medals. They guarded the office for days.

Gravel got plenty of laughs when he confided, "Here's something most people don't know: You have to get a colostomy bag to do a long filibuster! I got fitted, and told Senator Alan Cranston, the presiding officer, to do the same thing!"

But a quorum was not available in the Senate, so he couldn't continue the filibuster. His staff suggested that he follow the precedent of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). "Under the rules of Congress, any chair of a subcommittee can convene a hearing" he explained. "As a freshman senator, I was the chair of the lowly Buildings and Grounds subcommittee. So I convened a meeting of that committee, redirecting the subject slightly. I told them "there's no money for your building request because all the money is going to the Vietnam War, and while we're talking about the war...'! That's how I was able to put the papers into the Congressional Record" Gravel said. "We then scoured the country to find a publishing house to publish the papers. Harvard Press, MIT Press, none of the major or minor publishing houses would touch it, until Beacon Press did!" The audience erupted into applause and cheering.

Then it was Rev. Robert West's turn. He started his remarks by thanking the Veach Program at the Shelter Rock for offering to loan Beacon Press $100,000 as working capital to publish the Pentagon Papers. "Some thirty-five newspapers had refused to publish the Pentagon Papers when it came to us" He said. "I immediately said yes, and that led to two and a half years of harassment and legal difficulties." In September of 1974, the UUA's bank records were subpoenaed by the FBI, which included thousands of checks from people who had contributed to our denomination. West said "Senator Gravel immediately brought contempt proceedings against the government and that halted everything for two months. But it resumed in January."

The relevance for today is obvious. As in today's situation, the three points then were misuse of power by the Justice Department, invasion of privacy, and misuse of secrets by the government. The audience applauded when West told them "Justice William O. Douglas said in his dissenting opinion that it was the government that was breaking the law, not Beacon Press." West added "This statement, read at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1973, is still relevant today."

"We in this denomination have confidence in the democratic process. We want to encourage others also to resist. We as a religious movement are qualified by our nature, our heritage and our recent experience to play a significant role at this time in our history to help resist and reverse the ominous trend regarding constitutional liberties. We can and we will."

During the wrap up of the discussion, Amy Goodman asked the three gentlemen to comment on whether "the equivalence of the Pentagon papers exist today."

Ellsberg replied, "Of course, in many safes in Washington. We know from memoirs that there were many people who were lied to. Richard Clarke relayed in his memoir that he knew on Sept. 12, 2001, that Vice-President Cheney and President Bush were going to go after Iraq, even though that country that had no part in 9/11. Clarke was concerned that this would undermine his counter-terrorist department's plans." There are many documents of estimates, plans, oral testimony, that are secretly held there.

Ellsberg was sincere as he said "I rue every day that I kept silent from 1964 to 1969. There are a hundred people who could have done what I did not do in 1963 or 1964." He continued "Sen. Wayne Morse once told me that if I had released the papers then, and not in 1971, there would have been no Gulf of Tonkin resolution and thus no Vietnam War."

Ellsberg put out a plea to the people in Washington today who know of plans to bomb Iran. "We need people to go public now. Here's what I would say to them. "Don't do what I did. Don't wait until the war has started, until the engine of war is unstoppable. Take the risk BEFORE the action starts. Obey your oath to the Constitution, which every one of you took, not to your superiors, or the Commander-in-Chief, but to the Constitution'!" The audience stood to applaud these three courageous men.

Reported by Allan Stern; edited by Pat Emery.

Pentagon Papers author Daniel Ellsberg.

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg and former Senator (D-AK) Mike Gravel.

Daniel Ellsberg, Mike Gravel

Former UUA President Robert West.

Robert West