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Ellsberg Tells Students to Put Conscience First

Daniel Ellsberg came to American University to discuss his film 'Most Dangerous Man in America.'

Daniel Ellsberg came to American University to discuss his film "The Most Dangerous Man in America". The event was sponsored by SOC, SPA, AU Library, CSM, and the CAS Department of History.

When Daniel Ellsberg handed over secret documents that revealed decades of lies by the government about the Viet Nam War, he lost his career and many of his closest friends.

He told American University students this week that they should be prepared to do the same.

“Go with your conscience,” he said. “When it comes down to your conscience versus your career, there really is a right choice.” He told a packed audience in AU School of Communication’s Wechsler Theater that “the American Government has done a lot of evil things” and the only way it can change is if members of the public expose it.   

Ellsberg spoke after a showing of the 90-minute  Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America, which detailed his inner turmoil in releasing 14,000 pages of top secret documents to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a dozen other newspapers in 1971.  His actions help to end the Viet Nam War as well as his career as a top Pentagon strategist. Following the film, Ellsberg answered questions from Dr. James Thurber, who heads the Center for Congress and Presidential Studies, and the audience.  Ellsberg didn’t need much prompting to spark his blunt commentary.

“The government is not to be trusted,” said Ellsberg, a former inside advisor to then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He says little has changed since he turned over the Pentagon Papers in the early 70’s.  “People have to be vigilant. It’s what the government is not saying and what its motives are that should be questioned.”
In response to a student’s question about a career in government service, Ellsberg advised: “Go in with a private commitment that you will not undertake criminal actions or support aggressive wars.” He said oaths government workers must take are “illegitimate” because they require workers to lie.         

Ellsberg said he supports President Barack Obama but has been disappointed in the president’s unwillingness to investigate the Bush Administration’s use of the War Powers Act to condone torture and wiretapping.  Each president, he explained, takes more power that the Constitution gave to Congress and none gives it back. “It’s an executive coup against the Constitution.”