Pen­tagon Pa­pers whistle­blower Daniel Ells­berg talks Trump and North Korea with Ed­ward Luce in Wash­ing­ton.


Pen­tagon Pa­pers whistle­blower Daniel Ells­berg talks Trump and North Korea with Ed­ward Luce in Wash­ing­ton.

I am half-ex­pect­ing an in­valid to turn up. Daniel Ells­berg’s pub­lisher had e-mailed a week be­fore to say he had been suf­fer­ing from laryn­gi­tis, needed rest and that his en­ergy tended to flag early. They asked if I could bring the lunch for­ward to be­fore noon. I could hardly blame Ells­berg, now 86, for want­ing to cut our en­gage­ment short. Shortly after I take a seat at our ta­ble, a sprightly, be­suited man wan­ders in. The only hint of in­fir­mity is a large pink hear­ing aid pro­trud­ing from his left ear. I rush to help Ells­berg with his coat. It takes a while to dis­en­tan­gle him. “I got this in Moscow when I vis­ited Ed­ward Snow­den,” he says, as if apol­o­gis­ing for the gar­ment. The mo­ment we are seated, he asks a waiter for chamomile tea with honey. “I need it for my throat,” he says. Sev­eral times over lunch he ex­plains he can­not talk for long. “My voice is go­ing very fast,” he says. It be­gins weakly but grows steadily more an­i­mated. Two hours later, he is still talk­ing.

The venue is The Oval Room, an up­mar­ket mod­ern Amer­i­can restau­rant the other side of Lafayette Square to the White House. The rea­son is Ells­berg’s new book, The Dooms­day Ma­chine: Con­fes­sions of a Nu­clear War Plan­ner, which came out re­cently decades of ges­ta­tion. Ells­berg is best known for hav­ing leaked the Pen­tagon Pa­pers in 1971, re­veal­ing that Amer­ica’s gen­er­als had known for years that the best out­come in Viet­nam was a mil­i­tary stale­mate. Yet they, and suc­ces­sive White House com­man­ders-in-chief, had pressed on for fear of sac­ri­fic­ing US cred­i­bil­ity.

The 7,000-page leak, which Ells­berg smug­gled from his of­fice at the Rand Cor­po­ra­tion and spent nights Xerox­ing, helped de­stroy what­ever re­main­ing case there was for the Viet­nam war. Two weeks after­wards, Ells­berg turned him­self in to the au­thor­i­ties. It was later re­vealed that Richard Nixon, the then pres­i­dent, who had done his best to stop pub­li­ca­tion of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, had promised the pre­sid­ing judge that he would ap­point him as the next head of the FBI. It was the judge’s life­long am­bi­tion, but the gam­bit failed. The es­pi­onage trial, which could have re­sulted in a 115-year jail term, was de­clared a mis­trial. Ells­berg walked free. (A Steven Spiel­berg movie, The Post, based on the leak and star­ring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Matthew Rhys as Ells­berg was re­leased in 2017.)

Less well known is that Ells­berg was one of Cold War Amer­ica’s most se­nior nu­clear plan­ners. First at the Pen­tagon, then at the Rand Cor­po­ra­tion, he helped de­vise the nu­clear doc­trines that still hold to­day. Ells­berg went from be­ing a bril­liant Cold War hawk to be­com­ing an ad­vo­cate of nu­clear elim­i­na­tion.

He has been try­ing to sell this book on and off since 1975. No­body wanted to read about nu­clear weapons. “My pre­vi­ous agent, who was very good, said he would not rep­re­sent me on a nu­clear book,” says Ells­berg. “Even five years ago, this same book was re­jected by 17 dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ers on com­mer­cial grounds.” Then some­thing changed. Per­haps it was Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, or North Korea’s nu­clear ad­vance, or Don­ald Trump’s can­di­dacy. Why was it snapped up now when no one else had wanted it, I ask? The world got scarier, he replies. “The only sil­ver lin­ing to to­day’s world is that peo­ple now want to read my book,” he says.

We or­der our starters. Ells­berg chooses beet salad and I opt for lob­ster bisque. Ells­berg is keen to avoid any­thing with salt in it. The waiter prom­ises to oblige. Ells­berg’s salt aver­sion re­minds me of the botched at­tempt to mess with his state of mind be­fore he ad­dressed an an­ti­war rally in 1971. Nixon’s aides hatched the idea of putting LSD in Ells­berg’s soup, hop­ing to de­pict him as a de­ranged hip­pie. The op­er­a­tives charged with ex­e­cut­ing the plan failed to get the in­struc­tions in time. Ells­berg is some­thing of an ex­pert on bun­gled hatchet jobs. His psy­chi­a­trist’s of­fice was bur­gled on Nixon’s in­struc­tions, with the goal of find­ing doc­tor’s notes that would raise doubts about Ells­berg’s san­ity. His case file turned out to be in­nocu­ous. “They tried all sorts of tricks on me,” he re­calls.

I was keen to go fur­ther back in Ells­berg’s life than that. When he was 15, his fa­ther crashed the car that was car­ry­ing his fam­ily. Ells­berg’s mother and younger sis­ter were killed. Ells­berg nearly joined them. He was in a coma for al­most four days. How has that af­fected him? “The car crash alerted me to the pos­si­bil­ity that the world can change in a flash for the worst,” he says. “That is the story I have been telling my­self for more than 70 years.” But in the past few months, he has been re­vis­ing what he thinks of the tragedy. “Was it re­ally an ac­ci­dent?” he asks. His new an­swer is com­plex. It also goes some way to ex­plain­ing why Ells­berg is more wor­ried about hu­man fal­li­bil­ity than most peo­ple.

The tragedy oc­curred on the 4 July hol­i­day in 1946. Ells­berg’s mother wanted to drive to Den­ver from Detroit, where they lived. She for­got to book a mo­tel for the first night, so they slept on the dunes of Lake Michi­gan. Ells­berg and his fa­ther shiv­ered un­der blan­kets on the beach

for most of the night. His mother and sis­ter slept in the car. “I re­mem­ber my fa­ther hardly got any sleep,” Ells­berg re­called. “I also re­mem­ber wak­ing up in the mid­dle of the night and see­ing fall­ing stars, this shower of me­te­ors – I’d never seen so many.”

The next day, Ells­berg’s fa­ther kept say­ing he was too tired to drive, and sug­gested they pull over. But his mother said they should press on. At some point in the mid­dle of Iowa’s corn­fields, Ells­berg’s fa­ther must have nod­ded off at the wheel. They veered calami­tously off the road. “‘Ac­ci­dent’ is the wrong word,” says Ells­berg. “It was an ac­ci­dent in the sense that no­body in­tended it to hap­pen. But both my par­ents knew the risks and they took the gam­ble any­way.”

Ells­berg re­lates this calmly but sadly. He also draws the nat­u­ral par­al­lel. “Nu­clear war is also an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen,” he says. “The world has been pre­par­ing for nu­clear catas­tro­phe – for the end of civil­i­sa­tion – for 70 years now. I know: I have seen the plans.” The in­ci­dent taught Ells­berg that lead­ers whom you trust and even love – like his fa­ther – can gam­ble for lit­tle up­side with ev­ery­thing they hold dear. “He should never have been driv­ing,” Ells­berg says. “My mother should have lis­tened to him.” It was a straight road. There were no other cars. “It was not as if we were hit by a me­teor,” he adds.

Our waiter in­ter­rupts to say that Ells­berg’s choice of en­trée, the pan-roasted Amish chicken, is too salty – it has been brined for three days. “Oh, that’s off the menu then,” says Ells­berg. He sub­sti­tutes it with a crispy skin salmon and len­tils. I have or­dered a ma­gret duck breast with bok choi. “That’s a pity,” Ells­berg adds. “Amish had a good ring to me there. I’m more ap­pre­cia­tive of all the peace re­li­gions than I was be­fore, in­clud­ing the Chris­tian Sci­en­tists.” Al­though Jewish by eth­nicity, Ells­berg was raised a Chris­tian Sci­en­tist. After the car crash, his fa­ther re­fused Ells­berg any med­i­cal treat­ment, in keep­ing with the sect’s prac­tice. Rel­a­tives man­aged to re­move the in­jured boy to an­other hos­pi­tal. “If they hadn’t re­set my knee, one of my legs would be an inch-and-a-half shorter,” he says. “Any­way, it put me off Chris­tian Sci­ence.”

Could Ells­berg imag­ine he would have been a whistle­blower with­out his tragedy? He pon­ders for a while. He has be­come a friend both to Snow­den, who is in ex­ile in Moscow after hav­ing dumped moun­tains of data from the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, and Chelsea Man­ning, the for­mer US soldier who was jailed for hav­ing re­leased troves of US diplo­matic ca­bles. Ells­berg has also made a point of be­friend­ing cor­po­rate whistle­blow­ers. In each case, he quizzes them about their mo­tives. “We all agree on three things,” he says. “First, what we know about what is hap­pen­ing is wrong. Sec­ond, peo­ple should know about it. Third, I will tell them.”

The only part nei­ther Ells­berg nor his fel­low whistle­blow­ers can ex­plain is the third. Why them? Why don’t more peo­ple come for­ward? Ells­berg says Snow­den has the best an­swer. “Peo­ple have ca­reers, jobs, se­cu­rity – they don’t want to risk that,” he says. He then tells me that he once read that whistle­blow­ers di­vorce on av­er­age within 18 months of speak­ing out. Their spouses did not sign up for the change of lo­ca­tion, the pres­sure or the con­dem­na­tion from their peers. “Per­haps that is the most im­por­tant thing,” says Ells­berg. “It’s some­thing about hu­man­ity – the fear of os­tracism. Peo­ple will go along with al­most any­thing, in­clud­ing risk­ing the end of the world, to avoid be­ing os­tracised.”

I ask if Ells­berg hopes his new book will in­spire nu­clear per­son­nel to be­come whistle­blow­ers. “Well, you know, nu­clear war­heads can’t read,” he says. “But the peo­ple work­ing in the si­los have a lot of time on their hands: they tend to ap­ply to work in these bunkers so they can com­plete cor­re­spon­dence de­grees and such like. They have time to read. I hope my book trig­gers a lot of res­ig­na­tions.” I tell Ells­berg that I was at a con­fer­ence in Hal­i­fax last month when Gen­eral John Hyten, head of the US strate­gic com­mand that con­trols Amer­ica’s nu­clear arse­nal, said he would refuse an “il­le­gal or­der” from the pres­i­dent to use nu­clear weapons.

It has been more than an hour and we have yet to talk about Pres­i­dent Trump. Given that we are a stone’s throw from the White House, this must rank as some­thing of a mile­stone. Ells­berg is dis­mis­sive of Hyten’s re­as­sur­ance. “No pres­i­dent ever be­lieves he is do­ing any­thing il­le­gal,” he says. “Trump is dif­fer­ent in that he talks about that openly. He says what­ever he does is le­gal, just like Nixon said. Of course, Trump is much more un­bal­anced than most pres­i­dents, but Hyten was talk­ing non­sense. Which Amer­i­can of­fi­cer has ever been sent to jail for obey­ing or­ders? Name me one. Be­sides, if the gen­eral re­fused the pres­i­dent’s or­der, Trump could fire him and re­place him with some­one who would.” At this point, Ells­berg’s pub­li­cist ap­proaches to re­mind him that his voice will go if he car­ries on talk­ing. “I’ll be a few more min­utes,” Ells­berg replies ami­ably. “I am en­joy­ing this.”

So is Trump no bet­ter or worse than his pre­de­ces­sors, I ask. Ells­berg con­fesses to hav­ing voted “re­luc­tantly” for Hil­lary Clin­ton. But Trump is only pub­licly declar­ing what many pres­i­dents do pri­vately, he says. “Do you think Trump is the first pres­i­dent to grope a woman? Do you think he’s the first racist in the White House?” No, I an­swer. But surely he’s the least sta­ble. Ells­berg agrees. But first, he re­minds me of Nixon’s anti- Semitism, some­thing that was cap­tured on the Oval Of­fice tapes in the con­text of a dis­cus­sion about Ells­berg. “Most Jews are dis­loyal,” said Nixon. “You can’t trust the bas­tards. They turn on you.”

Ells­berg then turns to North Korea. He be­lieves Trump has largely cre­ated the cri­sis by say­ing North Korea will not be­come a nu­clear weapons state on his watch. “‘I won’t let it hap­pen,’ ac­cord­ing to Trump,” says Ells­berg. “But it al­ready did hap­pen be­fore he took of­fice.”


The re­sult is that the US is now, for the first time since the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis of 1962, threat­en­ing to at­tack a coun­try equipped with nu­clear weapons. “We are talk­ing openly about as­sas­si­na­tion teams, about full-scale in­va­sion ex­er­cises, about the de­cap­i­ta­tion of North Korea’s lead­er­ship. This is in­san­ity. HR McMaster (Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser) says we’re mov­ing closer to nu­clear war ev­ery day. It’s crazy.”

The re­sult of Trump’s words is to ac­cel­er­ate Kim Jong Un’s mis­sile pro­gramme. Trump has con­vinced Kim that North Korea’s abil­ity to oblit­er­ate South Korea and parts of Ja­pan would not de­ter the US. Only the ca­pa­bil­ity of hit­ting the US main­land would suf­fice. As a re­sult, North Korea has stepped up its in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­vel­op­ment. It is only a mat­ter of time – “per­haps weeks” – be­fore Kim tests a hy­dro­gen bomb in the at­mos­phere, which he needs to do for his ICBMs to be cred­i­ble. At which point, all bets are off, says Ells­berg. “Trump is at least pre­tend­ing to be un­sta­ble and crazy,” he says. “At the mo­ment, he’s fool­ing me.”

By this point I am drink­ing an espresso, al­though pro­foundly re­gret­ting not hav­ing or­dered a large co­gnac. Ells­berg is back on the chamomile and honey. Does any­thing give him cause for op­ti­mism? He men­tions Mikhail Gor­bachev and Nel­son Man­dela, and oth­ers who im­proved the world, but keeps re­turn­ing to his abid­ing theme: hu­mans con­trol nu­clear weapons and they are fal­li­ble. Lead­ers in the US and Rus­sia have del­e­gated the au­thor­ity to use them to un­der­lings. The US alone pos­sesses an arse­nal large enough to de­stroy the world hun­dreds of times over. Barack Obama could not cut Amer­ica’s nu­clear ca­pac­ity in spite of want­ing to. In­stead, the Pen­tagon per­suaded him to spend an­other USD1 tril­lion mod­ernising Amer­ica’s arse­nal. “The chances that we can get off the Ti­tanic are van­ish­ing,” says Ells­berg. “But in spite of all this, I am an op­ti­mist,” he adds. My ears prick up. It sounds like Ells­berg is go­ing to end on an up­beat note. “The hu­man race would not go ex­tinct from a nu­clear win­ter,” he says. “One or two per cent of us would sur­vive, liv­ing on mol­luscs in places like Aus­tralia and New Zealand. Civil­i­sa­tion would cer­tainly dis­ap­pear. But we would sur­vive as a species.”

Buoyed by this slim chance of re­prieve, I hint that it is prob­a­bly time to leave. It has been two hours since we started talk­ing, though it has sailed by. To my amuse­ment, we spend 10 min­utes chat­ting by the coat rack. It takes an­other five to get him out the door. “Give me your card,” says a full-throated Ells­berg as we fi­nally take our leave. “I want to con­tinue talk­ing.”

BE­LOW Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks starred in The Post (also ti­tled Pen­tagon Pa­pers), which drama­tised the events that fol­lowed Daniel Ells­berg’s leak.

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