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'Most Dangerous Man in America' revisits war dissenter Daniel Ellsberg's critical choice

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; C01

If one theme animates "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," it's the theme of decision-making. The film's subject, Vietnam War-era whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, earned his PhD in economics at Harvard in the arcane subject of decision theory. There's even an Ellsberg Paradox in experimental economics, which describes people's behavior when faced with uncertain outcomes.

As a strategic analyst with the Rand Corp. and the Pentagon in the early 1960s, Ellsberg specialized in decision-making in crisis conditions. His expertise led him to contribute to a top-secret report commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, studying the history of U.S. decision-making in Indochina.

That 7,000-page document, completed in 1969, came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. After reading its account of American presence and escalation in the region since the 1940s, and systematic government deception about that involvement, Ellsberg concluded, "We weren't on the wrong side, we were the wrong side." That stunning realization compelled Ellsberg, a former Marine and committed Cold Warrior, to make the most momentous decision of his life: to share the classified study first with Congress and, eventually, with the press and the American public.

"The Most Dangerous Man in America," the compelling documentary that chronicles Ellsberg's journey, opens Friday night. In a lengthy phone interview last week, Ellsberg, now 78, talked about that choice -- which eventually changed the course of the war, American politics and, perhaps most dramatically, the meaning and focus of his own life, putting it in the context of the very paradox that bears his name.

"A lot of people thought [that if] I was willing to go to prison, I must have been sure it would end the war, and it's not true," he said. "Now, why would they think that? Because they want to tell themselves that unless they're sure it will end the war, it's no use doing it."

It was the very uncertainty of the outcome that led him to act so decisively. "I thought there was a small chance what I did would shorten the war, so that's the gamble I took. If I'd been sure it would have no effect, I wouldn't have done it."

That simple, even elegant calculus, as well as Ellsberg's formidable logic -- intellectual and moral -- propel "The Most Dangerous Man in America," which transports viewers back to one of the most heady and contentious chapters of American history.

The broad contours of the story -- Vietnam, domestic unrest, governmental mendacity and journalistic heroics -- are well known. But with the taut pacing of a thriller and judicious balance of archival footage, audiotapes, present-day interviews, reenactments and Ellsberg's own narration, filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith inject even the most familiar facts with a surprising jolt of fresh urgency. What's more, they connect those dots to reveal something of a political-historical Rosetta stone, reminding viewers that Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 resulted not only in the eventual end of the war, but in the Watergate investigation that would force President Richard Nixon from office. (The infamous "plumbers" who burgled Democratic Party headquarters were first detailed by Nixon's White House with breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.)

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" has deservedly been nominated for an Oscar. And with its gripping mix of politics, history and the derring-do of one of the era's most audacious capers, it often plays like a mash-up of two previous documentary Oscar winners, "The Fog of War" and "Man on Wire." But in addition to providing a charismatic portrait of one man's political and spiritual growth -- not to mention delectable fodder for history buffs, policy wonks and news junkies alike -- "The Most Dangerous Man in America" offers a primer in the peculiar logic of Washington, a place driven in equal measure by the bare-knuckled pursuit of power and the cowardice born of the fear of losing it.

"It's puzzled me that no one has seen fit to do what I did in a more timely way," Ellsberg said from the UCLA campus, where "The Most Dangerous Man in America" had just been shown. "I don't understand why that is."

Ellsberg, who has been a political activist and lecturer since the 1970s, applauded recent whistle-blowers who emerged during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts: former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who was an early critic of the 2003 invasion, and Matthew Hoh, a foreign service officer in Afghanistan who resigned in October in disagreement with U.S. policy there. But Ellsberg admitted that he's been hoping for more internal critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to emerge. One variable, he thinks, is a skewed sense of loyalty on the part of most high-level bureaucrats.

"Yes, people need their job, their pension, they don't want to lose their [security] clearance," he said. "But there's also a sense of morality. Their morality says, 'It's wrong to bite the hand that feeds me, it's wrong to embarrass the man who appointed me.' . . . What these people never consider is a possible conflict between a promise to keep secrets and a promise to defend the Constitution. And that conflict occurs every day."

But even when secrets are disclosed, there's no guarantee people will listen. One of the more sobering passages in this new documentary recounts how, after Ellsberg has risked his career, his reputation, a lifetime in jail and maybe worse (Ellsberg points out that Nixon had ordered the plumbers to "totally incapacitate" him), the American public largely ignored the most troubling implications of the Pentagon Papers and the administration's efforts to squelch them. "The problem with the public is not that they desire war and massacre and torture," Ellsberg said. "The problem is that they can easily be frightened or fooled into killing and massacring and torturing. It just isn't that hard. And it's very hard to stop."

The government and the governed may not come off entirely well in "The Most Dangerous Man in America," but the press can be seen in its finest hour, with such venerable institutions as the New York Times and The Washington Post helping Ellsberg to disseminate the documents, and standing up against the Justice Department's attempts to enjoin them from publishing. Ellsberg ultimately took the documents to 17 outlets in all, leading one observer to note that trying to stop publication was "like herding bees."

To watch this film is to simultaneously re-experience and mourn a bygone common culture, when press outlets now derided as the lockstep MSM could declare something important by putting it on the front page with a 72-point headline. Contemporary Web-centric media culture, with its proliferation of voices and reigning ethic of decentralization, makes everything equally important and unimportant, with each bit and byte of information just another bee to be herded, heeded or tuned out. Had the Pentagon Papers first been published on the Web, one wonders, would they have been all the more easily marginalized or ignored?

One way to rise above the buzz, in fact, is exactly what Ellsberg and the makers of "The Most Dangerous Man in America" are doing, by appearing whenever possible at screenings for Q&A sessions. Taking a page from Al Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth," they're making an otherwise conventional theatrical release a consciousness-raising event and grass-roots organizing tool.

"I have some real hopes for this movie," Ellsberg said. "It could show people two things: one, that taking a risk in your personal life in order to expose a wrong or to tell the truth can have an effect. And two, that the voice in you that says 'Don't go against the crowd' is wrong."

Ellsberg is acutely aware that screening "The Most Dangerous Man in America" in Washington possesses special resonance -- and potential. "I would like nothing better than having this movie shown in the Pentagon and CIA," he said, adding, "I really believe it has a chance of changing the lives of a fraction of the people who've seen it." An uncertain outcome, to be sure. But as Ellsberg pursues it, he sees no paradox at all.

The Most Dangerous Man

in America

* * * 1/2

(94 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains profanity. Daniel Ellsberg and Rick Goldsmith are scheduled to answer questions after the 7:30 p.m. screening Friday.

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