Daniel Ellsberg: #ExxonKnew Is the Best 'Thank You' Since the Pentagon Papers

Whistleblowers' champion says he is elated that he inspired InsideClimate News' Exxon investigation.

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg is seen here in San Francisco in 2010. ICN Publisher David Sassoon had been inspired at a conference by Daniel Ellsberg, who suggested to him that ICN find people inside energy companies to expose the origins of climate denialism. Credit: Steve Rhodes, flickr

Last fall at a journalism conference in Phoenix, Daniel Ellsberg spoke to me over dinner about the vital role that whistleblowers play in investigative journalism. He said journalists should not wait for whistleblowers to come forward—we should go looking for them.

In particular, in the case of climate reporting, he suggested to me that we find people inside energy companies to expose the origins of climate denialism.

"You'll find people of conscience in every company," he said. "I should know."

Ellsberg, now 84, is an approachable and avuncular guy, despite his uncommon brilliance. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, served three years in the Marine Corps, and after getting a Ph.D., also at Harvard, went to work for the RAND Corporation. He became an expert on nuclear weapons and a consultant to the Department of Defense and the White House before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Eventually he went to work on a top-secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which, after he made it public, came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He was put on trial for his act of whistleblowing, and faced a possible sentence of 115 years in prison. He also became the target of governmental misconduct that figured in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.

The next day at the conference, this time standing before a roomful of journalists, Ellsberg repeated the suggestion he had made to me. I was hoping no one else was paying attention.

After InsideClimate News published Exxon: The Road Not Taken, I sent Ellsberg a note of thanks. His reply was enthusiastic. With his permission, parts of it are published below.

Dear David

This is the BEST, most heartwarming feedback and "thank you" I've ever gotten since the Pentagon Papers!  (Forty years ago).  I could not be more pleased, really overjoyed, at what you're telling me! 

I said to Patricia [his wife], "I've been saying this for a year, whenever I talk about whistleblowing; I'm sure the fossil fuel companies have done internal studies of the effects of their product, just like the tobacco companies.  If only someone would dig those out, or spill the beans. I knew it! And now they've got it!" 

Next I read that there was a possibility of prosecution. And now, you tell me I had a hand in this! (I'm wearing down my exclamation points). I could not be more pleased. I really think that you've come up with something that might make a difference.  

For years I've tried to spread the word that officials (I usually talk about government officials, only lately I've added corporate ones) lie all the time and keep secrets the public should know. The documents exist in safes and files (and now computers), and journalists should be actively looking for people who realize that telling certain secret truths is worth personal risk to themselves. 

I can only hope that I'm spreading seeds. I've almost never been told if one bore fruit. Now I feel like a fan who pointed to the bleachers: and it turns out I was yelling to Babe Ruth!

OK, I think you get my mood.  I appreciate very much that you gave me this notice.  Now, I know I don't have to tell you to Stay With It!  Please thank and congratulate your team for me!

Love, Dan

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