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Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, dies at 92

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Do I keep my silence? Such a simple question, but for Daniel Ellsberg, everything hung in the balance - his future but, more importantly, he decided, his country's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Do I keep my silence, go along with presidential deception, not reveal it to Congress or the public? Or should I take what I knew was the very great risk of giving Congress a real indication of where the country was going on this? And I decided that it was worth a life in prison to do that.

RASCOE: And so the military analyst and whistleblower, with the help of a friend, Anthony Russo, leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, which published them in June of 1971. Those infamous documents contained information about the extent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and revealed how Congress and the American people were lied to. Ellsberg and Russo were charged with espionage, theft and conspiracy. But the judge ultimately dismissed the case after a government plot to discredit them was revealed. The leak set in motion events that led to the Watergate scandal and forced President Richard Nixon out of office. Ellsberg spoke to NPR's Linda Wertheimer on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY in 2013, when he said he was aware of the weight of his choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELLSBERG: The whole focus has been on the risks of truth-telling, the risks of openness, which are the risks of democracy and of separation of powers. I really heard nothing at all about the risks of closed society, of silence, of lies.

RASCOE: Ellsberg also said that like him, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were careful with what they chose to leak. But he did admit that he wished he had done some things differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELLSBERG: I would say I did it the wrong way. I wasted years of trying to do it through channels, first within the executive branch and then with Congress. During that time, more than 10,000 Americans died and probably more than a million Vietnamese. So that's not a point of pride with me that I did what I should have done going through channels. That was a fruitless effort, as it would have been for Manning and Snowden.

RASCOE: Daniel Ellsberg died of pancreatic cancer Friday in his home. He was 92.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAYNE SHORTER'S "FOOTPRINTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.