Ellsberg: Remembering Anthony Russo
Anthony Russo, my partner in the March 1971 leak of secret government archives (The Pentagon Papers) exposed how successive U.S. administrations manipulated America into the Vietnam War, died August 5, 2008 at his home in Suffolk, Virginia.
Tony Russo came to be my best friend at Rand after I came back from Vietnam in 1967, and we became even closer after he left. He was fired from Rand, despite my efforts to keep him, for the best of reasons: He had, in classified reports, analyzed the class basis of the Vietnam conflict, and he had exposed the widespread use of torture by our Vietnamese forces, with American involvement. I learned more from Tony than from anyone else about the nature of the National Liberation Front, some members of which had impressed him deeply when he interviewed them about a Rand research project. He was brilliant and funny, with a very original and creative mind. He was also very warm â€” more likeable than me, as many who attended our trial discovered.
Just before I decided to copy the Pentagon Papers, with Tonyâ€™s help, he made a suggestion that played a key role in my decision. Tony did not know that the Pentagon Papers were being held at Rand, or were in my safe, or even that I had worked on the study, because I was under orders not to tell anyone. But I did tell him in late September 1969 that I had been reading a study (which later became the basis of the Pentagon Papers) that revealed a lot of high-level lying. He said to me, â€œYou ought to put that out.â€ This was an extraordinary thing for someone who had until recently held a top secret clearance to say to anyone, least of all to someone who still had a clearance. In fact, I never heard of such a suggestion being made before or since (except of course by me, later). A week after this conversation, with other events working on my mind, I called him up and said, â€œTony, do you know a study that I mentioned last week? Well, Iâ€™ve got it, and I think I will put it out. Can you help?â€
I donâ€™t think there was anyone else in the world with past official experience I wouldâ€™ve gone to with that request, no matter how close a friend they were. I knew that he was the one person with the combination of guts and passionate concern about the war who would take the risk of helping me. I asked him if he knew where we could find a Xerox machine, and within an hour he got back to me with the word that his then-girlfriend had a machine in her office we could use. We started either that night or the next, we were never able to recall which. If he had not found that machine, that very week, before Nixon had committed himself to staying in Vietnam in a speech on November 3rd, I donâ€™t think I would have taken the route I did, because it simply wouldnâ€™t have seemed promising enough. As it was, Tony took the exact same risks I did of prosecution. Frankly, at the time, I didnâ€™t think that was true; I thought I was the only one at risk. But I was mistaken, as it turned out, when Tony was indicted on three felony counts in the fall of 1971.
One further note: It is frequently said in relation to the current trial of the former AIPAC employees that theirs is the first prosecution of someone for a leak who was not an official and did not have a clearance. That is false. Tony Russo was indicted on the exact same charges, with the exact same status. As is the case with the AIPAC employees, if he had been convicted on that basis, every journalist and even every newspaper reader who had possession of information that had been disclosed without authorization (that is, â€˜leakedâ€™) would be equally subject to prosecution. So it was crucial for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the publicâ€™s need to know that Tony was not convicted in our trial, by reason of governmental misconduct.
Our friendship was strained later (not so much during the trial, as far as I was concerned, but by some events shortly after the trial), and we saw each other only intermittently over the next 30 years. In the last few years, on several occasions when he was gravely ill, we did meet, and had very warm conversations which I appreciated. The fact is I will be eternally grateful to Tony for his courage and partnership in what proved to be a useful action. He set an example of willingness to risk everything for his country and for the Vietnam that he loved that very few, unfortunately, have emulated. I only hope that others will continue to be inspired by it.