MARY ELLSBERG TOOK HER FIRST RISKY political position at 11 years old when she helped her father, Daniel, copy the Pentagon Papers.

"My brother was 14 and my father confided in him, but he didn't plan to take me along. I just happened to be around. They were busy copying in this empty office, and I guess I pestered them so much that my father finally gave me something to do. My job was to cut 'Top Secret' off the top and bottom of every sheet."

That was 1970, and the next year the Pentagon Papers appeared in The New York Times. For the next three years Mary Ellsberg's life was caught up in her father's cause, his celebrity, his trial, his ultimate acquittal. She was referred to almost exclusively as "Daniel Ellsberg's daughter."

She might have accepted that role, and her presence today in Nicaragua would be more easily explained. But she found her father's shoes uncomfortable, rebelled against her rebellious father and turned, in her own words, more conservative.

"I didn't want my identity to be based on my father. My parents were divorced, I lived with my mother, and like her I had always been active in the Episcopal Church. I wanted to show I was a regular American girl. I taught Sunday school at the church and I sang in the choir."

Ultimately, however, she could not escape from political activism. As Ellsberg became more involved with the Episcopal Church, the church was becoming uncomfortable with Third World hunger. In 1976, she went to Honduras to vaccinate the population and to participate in a study of malnutrition. She also had her eyes opened.

"I went to do vaccinations in this little town and near some lands that were controlled by the United Brands Company. The people swarmed all over us and told us how wonderful we were, and I started to feel uncomfortable. I realized that the idea being promoted was that to solve Latin American problems was to have the United States take care of things, even teen-agers like us, because the Hondurans were too incompetent.

"There was also this nutritional study. The study implied that people were malnourished because of their eating habits. But when you asked why they didn't eat {the right} things, they told you, 'We're poor.' And the reason they were poor was that the only good farmland in that entire area was controlled by the United Brands Company for exporting bananas. The government there was a military government and friendly with the United States and friendly to United Brands. That's when I decided that the next time I came to Latin America it wouldn't be as an emissary of Americans because the U.S. government was more part of the problem than it was of the solution."

She majored in Latin American studies at Yale. By 1980, one year after the Somoza regime was overrun by the Sandinistas, Ellsberg was on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, first teaching in a government-sponsored literacy program, then training Nicaraguans to do vaccinations and health consultations in small villages.

But then American military aid began to empower the contras, who were hiding in the same areas where the trainees were working.

"In 1983, we had 250 brigade members in 135 communities. By the end of 1984, we had 60 active brigade members in 40 villages. I guess I've known 30 to 40 people who have been killed by the contras in the past four years, known them personally. I guess the ones I feel about most are the brigadistas, because I was involved in recruiting them and it was their involvement in the program that cost them their lives.

"As a North American, I find it extremely painful that my government is financing the atrocities that surround me every day. That my husband and my child are placed at risk by the American government. That the brigadistas, who are extremely idealistic people, have been killed or can't work because their work is considered a crime by the contras and by my government. And the American people are paying for it, at times unwittingly, but at times consciously."