Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Memoriam: Anthony Russo

There were many occasions during my long struggle to complete Smokescreen, my expose of Canadian security intelligence follies and incompetence, when I almost gave up, believing that the project was either impossible or, worse, that publishing the verboten would land me into trouble with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), my former employer.

But whenever I found myself on the brink of giving up and flushing the manuscript down the toilet, something would happen (call it fate, or just plain luck) that would convince me that I shouldn’t. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the arrest of 17 individuals in Toronto in June of that year over an alleged terrorist plot, Canadian soldiers killing and getting killed in Afghanistan, and the long march, inch by inch, to war with Iran — all intensified the chorus inside my head telling me that my book had to see the light of day, that what I had to say as a former intelligence officer and individual of conscience mattered.

Another thing that encouraged me to bring this painful project to fruition was reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book Secrets: A memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, which depicts the intellectual and emotional journey of an earnest Cold Warrior in Vietnam. After returning from Southeast Asia on a fact-finding mission, Ellsberg went back to work as an analyst for RAND Corporation, a think-tank with ties to the US Air Force, where he had been employed in the early 1960s. Soon afterwards, then-US secretary of defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of the conduct of the Vietnam War, to which Ellsberg participated. Completed in 1968, the documents came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

A year later, Ellsberg had become convinced that the Vietnam War not only couldn’t be won, but that it was wrong, and that the entire adventure was built on layer upon of layer of lies to the American public. Over time, and as Ellsberg befriended anti-war protesters, he reached the conclusion that it was his duty, as someone from the "inside," to do everything he could to end the war, risking his career — and the safety of his family — in the process. After failed attempts to gain the ear of sympathetic US senators, Ellsberg’s quest culminated in his decision to leak the Pentagon Papers, all of 7,000 pages, to the New York Times.

One person who helped him in the process, and who also risked his career, was Anthony Russo (pictured right), also at RAND. Soon after the first excerpts were published, the US government took the Times to court in an attempt to embargo publication. The paper ultimately won the case (New York Times Co. v. United States) and publication of the Papers continued, prompting the Nixon administration to target Ellsberg via the FBI, wiretap his conversations, break into his psychiatrist’s office and, in 1973, Ellsberg’s and Russo’s trial. Given the subsequent exposure of gross government misconduct, all charges against the duo were eventually dropped. The rest is history, with Nixon soon forced out of office and the entire Vietnam War discredited.

Anthony Russo, whom Ellsberg called a “courageous collaborator” and who defied the all-powerful defense apparatus and system of silence of which he was part to expose the truth about an unjust war, died in Suffolk on Wednesday. He was 71. His name may have been unknown to most, and his death unnoticed by many, but we all owe him a debt of gratitude. I know I do, as it is people like him who gave me the strength and courage to complete what would become my own version of the Pentagon Papers (minus the classified material) and to keep striving to tell truth to power. May others carry on.

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