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Antiwar Activist Daniel Ellsberg Captivates Trent Students in First Ever Canadian Engagement
December 12, 2007

More than 350 faculty, students, staff and community members filled the Great Hall at Trent University on November 21 to experience history in the making as renowned American antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg spoke for the first time in Canada.

Mr. Ellsberg was delighted that his first Canadian speaking engagement was taking place at Trent University. "Trent has a reputation of being freedom-minded," he told the audience.

They gathered to hear Mr. Ellsberg share his personal stories about his courageous efforts to expose government lies in the 1970s and the disturbing similarities between current U.S. aggression in Iraq and Vietnam, and Iran and Cambodia. Motivated by the tumultuous course of events during the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair, Mr. Ellsberg transformed himself from a senior government insider into a devoted peace and nuclear disarmament advocate.

"To attack Iraq following 9-11 is like attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbour," said Mr. Ellsberg when describing President Bush’s decision to enter the "war on terror". "The government is filled with people who see the attack on Iraq for what it is, but no one has taken the risk of their career or clearance to expose it other than the occasional anonymous leaks to the media." Mr. Ellsberg went on to illustrate the kinds of actions that inside government officials could take if they wanted to provoke the end of the war, noting "there’s nothing like documents in large numbers to be effective."

Mr. Ellsberg was a former high-ranking Pentagon official and soldier in the Vietnam War, who gained international renown when he leaked a collection of secret government documents that revealed the duplicity and brutality of U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. Drawing from his own experiences of the early 1970s, he related how the government tried to suppress him, resulting in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that asserted the right of American citizens to be informed about the misdeeds of their government in foreign lands, as well as at home.

Mr. Ellsberg recalled the efforts of President Nixon who in 1971 illegally arranged the burglary of his former psychoanalyst, hoping to find information with which to blackmail Mr. Ellsberg into silence. This became part of the Watergate scandal, which led to President Nixon’s resignation and, ultimately, the end of the Vietnam War. In comparing this situation to today, Mr. Ellsberg said, "With the passing of the Patriot Act, it is now legal to wiretap and raid doctors offices in the United States without a warrant. In fact, the illegal acts perpetrated against me in 1971 are no longer criminal."

A large part of Mr. Ellsberg’s presentation centred on the philosophies and individuals who influenced him to adopt the values of non-violence and civil disobedience, such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. He quoted Thoreau’s idea that "withdrawing cooperation from tyrants undermines their power" and stated that concealing secrets is a form of cooperation. "To carry out a war, governments rely on secrecy, propaganda and groundless rationales, which means it’s vulnerable to the truth," he said.

Students in the audience were pleased to have this opportunity to listen to Mr. Ellsberg. "I have a broad knowledge of these subjects, but I wanted to hear about it from someone who’s spent his life thinking about this so I can draw my own conclusions about the current situation in Iraq," said Rob Kiley, a concurrent education student joint majoring in physics, psychology and history. Indeed, this was a sentiment shared by many others who appreciated participating in this significant event delving into one of the most important issues of our time.