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Daniel Ellsburg

Recipient of the 2016 MLRC William J. Brennan Jr. Defense of Freedom Award

Daniel Ellsberg was born in Chicago in 1931. He graduated from Harvard in 1952 with a B.A. summa cum laude in Economics, and, after a year at Cambridge on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, spent three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving as rifle platoon leader, operations officer, and rifle company commander.

He earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard in 1962 with his thesis, Risk, Ambiguity and Decision, which is widely considered a landmark in decision theory and behavioral economics.

In 1959, Ellsberg became a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and consultant to the Defense Department and the White House, specializing in problems of the command and control of nuclear weapons, nuclear war plans, and crisis decision-making. He was a member of two of the three working groups reporting to the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOM) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense, working on the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Ironically, his first day as a full-time Pentagon employee was the day of the supposed attack on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. He transferred to the State Department in 1965 to serve two years at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, evaluating pacification in the field.

On return to the RAND Corporation in 1967, Ellsberg worked on the top-secret study of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. In 1969, he photocopied the 47 volume, 7,000 page study and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In March 1971 he gave it to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

After months of internal deliberations about whether to publish classified materials, on June 13, 1971, the Times began running a series of articles based on and including the documents. The first days' articles gave rise to a lawsuit brought by the Nixon administration seeking to restrain publication. Within three weeks, the case went to the Supreme Court, which, 6-3, ruled in favor of the Times and rejected the Government's motion for a prior restraint. The Court held that the disclosures did not "surely result in direct, immediate and irreparable damage to our nation and its people" and that, hence, a prior restraint was unconstitutional.

During the pendency of the litigation, while the Times was temporarily enjoined from publishing, and while eluding an FBI manhunt, Ellsberg gave the so-called Vietnam Archive to the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. Two days before the Supreme Court ruling, Ellsberg was arrested for leaking the documents to the press, and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, along with other claims of theft and conspiracy. His trial, on twelve felony counts posing a possible sentence of 115 years, was dismissed in 1973 on grounds of governmental misconduct against him, including that White House henchmen had broken into his psychiatrist's office – a forerunner of the Watergate scandal which was soon to follow.

Ellsberg is the author of three books: Papers on the War (1971); Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002); and Risk, Ambiguity and Decision (2001). In December 2006 he was awarded the 2006 Right Livelihood Award, known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize," in Stockholm, Sweden, "for putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk, and dedicating his life to inspiring others to follow his example." In 2012, Ellsberg became one of the founders of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Daniel Ellsberg lives in Kensington, California with his wife, Patricia Marx Ellsberg. He has three children and five grandchildren. A 2009 documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, tells the story of Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers, the Times' decision to publish and the Nixon administration's attempts to stop publication and discredit Ellsberg.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg has been a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era, wrongful U.S. interventions and the urgent need for patriotic whistleblowing. He has been arrested in non-violent disobedience actions over 70 times, mainly protests focused on use of nuclear weapons and U.S. interventions abroad.

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