New “On Mic” podcast episode on the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers looks at the emotional challenge of whistleblowing

July 15, 2021

Together with whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and his wife Patricia, we probe the “civic courage” that led them to release the Pentagon Papers—and the spiritual strength it took to survive.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the newspaper publication of the Pentagon Papers, one of the largest leaks of secret government documents to the press in U.S. history that set the legal posture relating to leaks for decades.

Since the story of the Pentagon Papers is so well documented in the history books, we wanted to use the occasion to understand on a human level the experiences that led Daniel Ellsberg and his wife Patricia Ellsberg to leak these secret documents about the Vietnam War. What was the emotional and spiritual journey that led them to take the risk of landing in prison for life? Where did they find the resiliency to survive the aftermath?

To probe these questions, and more, we produced a special extended-length podcast with Daniel Ellsberg, who serves as a member of the Berkeley Journalism Advisory Board, Patricia, who played a key role in partnership with her husband, and Robert Rosenthal, who worked as a clerk for The New York Times as it was publishing stories based on the leaked documents. He went on to lead many news organizations, including the Center for Investigative Reporting. Dean Geeta Anand moderated this important conversation.

“Daniel and Patricia’s story offers us a rare insight into the minds and hearts of whistleblowers, how people who deeply love their country reach the decision to take great personal risk to tell the world that their government is behaving badly,” said Dean Anand. “We also talked to my friend Robert Rosenthal about the role he played as a young reporter at The New York Times in publishing the secret documents. Hearing their stories was inspiring to me as a journalist, an educator and a human being.”

The podcast also touches on a trauma many don’t know of: How the death of Daniel’s mother and sister in a car crash in his youth influenced his becoming a whistleblower. “It’s sort of like being a canary in the coal mine,” he said. “I am perhaps a little more sensitive than others, to the possibility of disaster and (have) a sense of obligation to try to avert that. Some people call that survivor guilt or survivor syndrome.”

We also hear push-back against the traitor narrative that has been used against contemporary whistleblowers. Patricia Ellsberg tells Dean Anand unequivocally that, “Whistleblowers are heroes. And they are patriots. And they are courageous people of integrity and should be honored by our country.”

Daniel Ellsberg argues there’s a form of courage that is rarely talked about: “civic courage,” which is when government officials, exposed to wrongdoing, risk their jobs and the livelihoods of their families to expose wrongdoing by their governments or their companies. “It is amazing that people will take risks with their lives, to defend the country, quote, unquote, defend and won’t take risks when they’re in a bureaucracy of their job in their future, and their wife being upset. Whatever it be, there is a disproportionate lack of civic courage. And I think that is one of the things that must be more and more cultivated.”

We also hear a skeptical warning from Daniel Ellsberg: “Don’t use us as an example of getting away with it, because we’re virtually the only example of that.”

Our producer for this episode was Marlena Telvick. Rick Johnson, Topher Routh and Chris O’Dea recorded and audio mixed this episode. Technical facilities for On Mic are underwritten by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. Photo: Brian Nguyen (’22).

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