Daniel Ellsberg, the man famous for leaking the top-secret "Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971, delivered the keynote address Thursday at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The gathering was in the Sheraton City Center.

Ellsberg revisited his whistle-blowing — the 7,000-page document he shared with the media detailed U.S. policy and military escalation in southeast Asia from 1945 to 1968 — in a presentation that drew parallels with the conduct of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the conflict and President George W. Bush's policies and decisionmaking in the current war in Iraq.

Ellsberg noted that some of the most critical information to which he was privy discounted the very act that precipitated the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" passed by the U.S. Congress in 1964, widely considered the official start of the war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg knew that the supposed attack of Aug. 4, 1964, on U.S. naval vessels in international waters did not occur, and he correlated that false report with statements made by Bush administration officials about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction in the days leading to the U.S. invasion of that country.

"This administration has blatantly ... broken grave laws over and over and continues to do it," Ellsberg said. "They're not the first to do that. I worked for a president, Lyndon Johnson, who lied us into a war as egregiously as we were lied into the Iraq war. I knew the night of the alleged attack on our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf."

Ellsberg said that many of the government activities carried out covertly in the late '60s and early '70s — wiretapping, illegal detention, attempts to control press access — are currently sanctioned by provisions of the Patriot Act. These new powers granted to the country's executive branch, combined with what Ellsberg described as a declaration of war without congressional approval, bears more resemblance to a monarchy than a republic, he said. This, said Ellsberg, diverges far from the intent of the U.S. Founding Fathers.

"The power to start a war on his own initiative was the attribute of kingship that our founders most wanted to deny to the new president," Ellsberg said. "The theory of that constitution is that no one man could make that decision."

Ellsberg's address was well-received by the 500-plus ACLU members and supporters in attendance. Several awards were presented, including the Torch of Freedom award to state Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City. The group lauded Romero as "an indispensable ally of civil liberties who eloquently and passionately speaks out against racism and abuse of power."

Romero demanded that legislative leadership respond to comments made by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, during the 2008 Utah legislative session in which Buttars compared a bill on school district splits to a baby that was "black" and "ugly." Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, said in a videotaped interview that he has great admiration and respect for his colleague.

"I think (Romero's) legal training and his intellect really are a great asset," McCoy said. "A great resource to the rest of us at the Senate."

ACLU of Utah development director, Anna Brower, said after the event that it was one of the biggest gatherings hosted by the group and that her organization, which has about 2,500 members in the state, continues in its commitment to the defense and preservation of the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.


E-mail: araymond@desnews.com