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Documentary Offers A Devastating Look At The Obama Administration's 'Final Year'

Greg Barker's new film follows Obama's foreign policy team as they set about negotiating an arms deal in Iran, a climate accord in Paris and a response to refugee crises in Syria and parts of Africa.



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Other segments from the episode on January 19, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 19, 2018: Obit for Joe Frank; Interview with Daniel Ellsberg; Review of film 'The Final Year.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Many years ago, when FRESH AIR was a three-hour local show with plenty of time to fill, Terry was always happy when some new material was available from Joe Frank, a masterful storyteller whose syndicated radio show Work In Progress was a one-of-a-kind production that defies easy description. Frank died Monday in Beverly Hills at the age of 79. Frank's shows combined interviews, personal monologues, dramas with radio actors - even tapes Frank had surreptitiously recorded of friends, family and strangers.

Ira Glass worked as a production assistant for Frank in the early '80s, and he credits Frank as a major influence on his program This American Life. Terry spoke to Joe Frank in 1989, and they began with an episode of his program called Rent-A-Family, in which a woman named Eleanor phones her ex-husband Arthur, who's remarried. It's one of a series of desperate calls she's made, and Arthur's begged her to stop calling.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) Hello. May I speak to Arthur, please?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Kathy) Eleanor - Eleanor, this has got to stop. I mean, this can't go on. Surely, you're aware of that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) May I speak to Arthur, please?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Kathy) Eleanor, listen. I understand what you are going through, but what you've got know is that it's not working. None of what you are doing is working.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) May I speak to Arthur, please.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) Arthur, I've been thinking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) Yeah, what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) I would like to come and visit with you and Kathy (ph) for a while. Now hear me out. I won't be any trouble. I can do all the things I'm sure Kathy has no time to do because she has her job. And I can cook nice things for you both. And I can clean the house. And I can do the gardening. And I can take care of all of the little things that you don't have time to do or that you don't like to do - you know, Arthur, those things. And I'll stay - I'll stay out of your way. I won't say a word if I'm not - I'll be sort of a housekeeper - a silent housekeeper. You see the thing is that I need - I need a family, Arthur.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) Eleanor, I feel for you. Kathy feels for you. But you got to understand we have our own life. It won't work. How could you possibly imagine that the three of us could share a house together?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) But you don't understand. I could do all kinds of things for you. I could clean the house. I could keep the garden beautiful. And your life would be so much easier. Don't you understand? It would be...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) What you're suggesting is bizarre.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) It's absurd.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) It could work. It could. It could.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: An excerpt of "Rent-A-Family," written and directed by my guest Joe Frank from his series "Work In Progress," which is produced at public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica and is carried on many public radio stations around the country.

Joe Frank, what's really eerie about that tape is how real it sounds. I'm usually not a really big - real big fan of radio drama. There's something about it that sounds very phony and actorly (ph) a lot of the time. And these sound like real phone conversations - real scary ones.

JOE FRANK: Well, I agree with you entirely about radio drama. And I've never been able to listen to radio drama and believe in the credibility of the performances. And I'm always distanced from it, and it does seem artificial to me. And so the approach that I've taken in all the dramas that I've created is that in fact they're not written. It's not accurate to say it was written by Joe Frank because these are improvisations performed by actors, which are very carefully directed. And what this involves is a great deal of editing because you do a lot of - you create a lot of tape. You create a lot of - you do the telephone calls over and over again. And then I edit them in such a way that I hope creates a credible performance.

GROSS: Well, sometimes you do tell your own story. And I want to play an excerpt of a show in which you did that - at least I assume it was your story. And the show is called "No Show." And do you want to explain what this show is about?

FRANK: Well, "No Show" came out of an experience in which I was - I came into the radio station unprepared to do a radio show. I had had a horrendous week. Everything seemed to had gone wrong that week. I'd had no chance to write or to work on creating a radio program. And so I decided since I had to go on the air, and there was no way of avoiding it, that I would simply explain to my listening audience why I had no show prepared.

GROSS: And one of the many reasons why you had no show, in addition to having been out with a friend till 4 in the morning, having a sick cat, having a lonely friend come over - (laughter) in spite of your asking her not to - you were invited to a dinner party. And you had to go. And this is the part of your program "No Show" in which you talked about that dinner party, which prevented you from producing your program that week.


FRANK: Well, the dinner party that I attended began with a group of people sitting and talking in the parlor living room of a woman's house - of the hostess who had invited us all - eating caviar and sour cream, liverwurst spread and cheese on crackers. And there was a table with a row of wine bottles and some glasses on it. I was compulsively eating the crackers and the cheeses and drinking wine - wishing that I could wake up from this dream, be back alone in my hotel room. But I was also thinking, this is good for you. This is good for you. Get out. Meet people. You could learn something. This will be nourishing. Maybe you can get some good material out of it.

But, you know, it's hard to be a gatherer of material when you find yourself periodically tuning out to what's going on, when you lose track of the conversation, when you suddenly find yourself on Dream Street. You don't have the faintest notion of what anybody is saying - of what's being discussed. You're thousands of miles away. It's like the other people there are on television. They're characters in a sitcom with the volume turned off. And you can see them gesturing and talking and laughing, but you can't hear anything. And you're thinking of nothing. Your mind is in brownout.

And yet I was painfully aware of the fact that to some extent I was on trial. The party was being given - I was told, to my chagrin - in my honor. And everyone else here, I figured, was - were members of the jury. You know, they were all being very nice, and they were being pleasant. But I knew that at the end of the evening when they were walking and driving home with their friends, with their lovers, with their wives, they would discuss how the evening went.

And my name eventually would come up at some point. And they'd say something like he seemed so intelligent, so outgoing on the air. But really he's rather disappointing, don't you think? George was so much funnier. George was so much cleverer. He was so much faster on his feet than Joe Frank was. I mean, did the man say one arresting thing all evening? No, he just sat there listening, laughing at what other people said - trying to avoid the limelight for all he was worth. He's obviously typical of so many performers - shy, neurotically withdrawn.

GROSS: Joe Frank - an excerpt of his program "Work In Progress," which is heard on many public radio stations around the country. Joe, do you really make pacts with yourself to never go out again (laughter)?

FRANK: Well, I don't go out, or I very rarely go out. And I certainly haven't been to a dinner party since the one that I described.


FRANK: And that was at least a year ago. Yes, I remember that party well. And I'm pretty much a loner and pretty much work-obsessed and spent most of my time working or thinking about the work that I'm doing.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you about the work obsession. You have to eliminate a lot of, quote, "real life" to stay home all the time and obsess on your work. Do you think that that kind of real life is sometimes overrated as it's filled with stuff that you don't much enjoy anyways?

FRANK: No. I think I've been caught in a paradox, really, because in order to be able to create compelling radio programs, you have to have some experiences to base, you know, those programs on. And if you live the kind of life that I've been living recently, you're not living yourself. You're just - you're not gathering material from your own life.

So what I have done recently, although I'm going to change that very soon, is I have drawn on the experiences of others. I interview people. I talk to people. People come to me with their stories. And we'll sit late at night for hours in my apartment with a tape recorder rolling. And then on the basis of that extended interview - and some of these interviews will go on for days - radio programs will be created.

But I'm beginning to find this approach too parasitic and not that personally satisfying. So I'm going to go out and begin to live as a normal human being or maybe an abnormal human being in order to gather my own material and sort of create experiences for my radio program out of my own life as opposed to drawing from other people's lives.

GROSS: You know, a lot of your more personal shows deal with fears and insecurities - ones that, you know, we can all relate to. But I wonder if when you take your own insecurities and put them in a kind of persona and make them into an hour radio program, if they're easier to deal with than they are, say, when you're lying awake alone in the middle of the night.

FRANK: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, by using those experiences for radio programs, you transcend them. You almost look for bad experiences or painful experiences. Whatever tragedies might befall you, you can always, right away, think, well, that would make a great story for radio. And so that whatever happens, even if it has a great negative content, even if it's painful - because you can then tell it on the radio and share it with many listeners and move people or entertain people, it then takes on a positive value.

And I remember distinctly that - coming to that revelation a number of years ago when I realized that I no longer wanted to avoid pain - that I could use it in a way that was very productive so that it was easier to experience whatever suffering that came my way.

DAVIES: Radio artist Joe Frank speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1989. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 1989 interview with radio artist Joe Frank. Frank died Monday at the age of 79.


GROSS: I want to play another excerpt from one of your shows. And this is from a program that you did called "Let Me Not Dream." And for this show, you called a lot of your ex-lovers. And explain what this was about.

FRANK: I'm constantly driven by the desire to do something that has never been done before on the radio or to surprise and astonish and amaze my listeners or just to kind of press the limits as far as I can carry them or press them. One thing that had occurred to me was to call up all my former lovers and girlfriends.

It was 11 o'clock in Los Angeles. And all - they were all living on the East Coast because that's where I was originally from. So they - it was late at night in New York and Washington, D.C., which was where they all lived. And I called one after another after another after another and woke most of them up and just told them that I was calling them live on the air and engaged them in conversation. And at the end of each conversation, I sang the song "I Remember You."

GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of this program.


AMY: Hello?

FRANK: Hello, Amy?

AMY: Joe?

FRANK: Yeah.

AMY: Hi.

FRANK: Hi. How are you doing?

AMY: I was asleep.

FRANK: Well, I guess...

AMY: What time is it?

FRANK: Your time - it's probably 2:30 now. Do you know what I'm doing?

AMY: You just finished your show?

FRANK: No, my show is still on.

AMY: Oh.

FRANK: Do you know what that means?

AMY: Am I on the air?

FRANK: That's right. You're on the air now.

AMY: Oh, well, glad I'm so sleepy.

FRANK: That's all right. I just want to sing you a song.

AMY: You do?

FRANK: Yeah. You can sing with me if you want to.

AMY: Oh.

FRANK: You ready? Here we go.


FRANK: (Singing) I remember you. You're the one who made my dreams come true a few kisses ago.

You can sing along if you want to. (Singing) I remember you. You're the one who said I love you, too. I do. Didn't you know...

I remember, too, what distant bells... (Singing) I remember, too, what distant bells...

And stars that fell... (Singing) And stars that fell...

Like rain out of the blue... (Singing) Like rain out of the blue...

AMY: (Laughter).

FRANK: (Singing) When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all, then I shall tell them I remember you.

I'm going to go away now.

AMY: Was that just for me?

FRANK: That was just for you.

AMY: Oh, that's sweet.

FRANK: Good night.

AMY: Good night, Joe.

GROSS: Well, Joe Frank, I think that was really funny and really cruel (laughter). It's one of the weirdest pieces of tape I've heard. Don't you think it's a little cruel - calling up - wait. Let me just run through the ways (laughter) - calling up old girlfriends, waking them up because it's 2:30 their time, singing a song they don't know and asking them to sing along and then telling them - leading them to believe that they're the only one that you've called to sing "I Remember You" to (laughter).

FRANK: I feel guilty about that program. On that...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: You know, very often, when you do what I do, you...

GROSS: Sell out a friend for a program (laughter).

FRANK: That's - well, I must say that she was the only one who asked me, did you just do this for me? So I only had to lie once. And the - it's true. It was - there was cruelty in doing that. And I sometimes question myself about that particular program. In fact, Let Me Not Dream - I could have repeated it recently on KCRW at a certain point. And I didn't want to do it because I feel uncomfortable with that show. However, on the other hand, it's a program that generated tremendous listener response. People loved it. And I got lots of letters and phone calls and people who wanted cassette copies of the show because they thought it was so amusing and entertaining and original. So you're kind of torn between doing things that may not be very nice sometimes but make really extraordinary radio.

GROSS: You are getting into performing in person now - I mean performing in performance spaces, instead of just on the radio, where you're invisible. And I wonder what it's been like for you to actually, you know, have a body in front of the people who you're talking to. I found myself - that I frequently feel when I meet listeners - that I'm disappointing them, you know, that they've imagined somebody in their mind and that there you are, the real person, and that you're not necessarily going to measure up to who they imagined you were, you know? Do you ever feel that way?

FRANK: Oh, absolutely. But I feel that way when listeners come by the radio station - those avid, slavering, salivating fans with their eyes brightly shining. And they're looking for you. And then suddenly, they see you. And they - and you can see their expressions drop, and their hair seems to lose its luster.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: And they seem suddenly deeply saddened by seeing you. But the performance that I've been doing at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is a different experience altogether because in that case, I'm actually in front of an audience of just about 200. And in that case, I don't feel that particular experience because I do a performance which is similar to the radio programs that I present. And the audience seems to enjoy it. But it's not how attractive you are. It's simply that people have a preconceived notion somehow of what you look like based on this voice that they've been listening to maybe for years. And whatever you look like, it's not going to be what they they've imagined.

DAVIES: Radio artist Joe Frank speaking with Terry Gross - recorded in 1989. Frank died Monday. He was 79. Coming up, we speak with Daniel Ellsberg, whose decision to leak the top-secret study of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers is portrayed in the new film "The Post." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Daniel Ellsberg, became one of the best-known opponents of the Vietnam War in 1971 when he leaked a secret Defense Department study of the war that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the country's leading newspapers. That story is the basis for the new film "The Post" starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. In this scene, Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian is meeting Ellsberg, who's hiding out in a motel, eluding an FBI manhunt. Piles of papers are spread out over the two beds in the room. Matthew Rhys plays Ellsberg. Bob Odenkirk plays Bagdikian.


MATTHEW RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Ben.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) Dan.


RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) The study had 47 volumes. I slipped out a couple at a time - took me months to copy it all.

ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) What the hell?

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Well, we were all former government guys - top clearance - all that. McNamara wanted academics to have the chance to examine what had happened. He would say to us, let the chips fall where they may.

ODENKIRK: (As Ben Bagdikian) Brave man.

RHYS: (As Daniel Ellsberg) Well, I think guilt was a bigger motivator than courage. McNamara lies as well as the rest, but I don't think he saw what was coming, what we'd find. But it didn't take him long to figure out - well, for us all to figure out. If the public ever saw these papers, they would turn against the war. Covert ops, guaranteed debt, rigged elections - it's all in there. Ike, Kennedy, Johnson. They violated the Geneva Convention. They lied to Congress, and they lied to the public. They knew we couldn't win and still sent boys to die.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, now 86, has a new book about his days before the Vietnam War when he worked on American nuclear war strategies in the late '50s and early '60s. Ellsberg was appalled by much of what he found and wishes he'd been able to leak those plans along with the Pentagon Papers. His book is called "The Doomsday Machine."


DAVIES: Well, Daniel Ellsberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. You became famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. And you tell us at the beginning of this book that you copied not just the Vietnam study but a lot of other material from your safe at the RAND Corporation about U.S. nuclear war plans. What were you going to do with that material?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I planned to release that as soon as the Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, had had whatever effect they could have on the Vietnam War. The nuclear information, I thought then and now, was actually more important. But the bombs were falling in Vietnam at that time, and I wanted to shorten that war as much as I could.

DAVIES: You went to work for the RAND Corporation, where you worked on high-level military strategy. Explain what the RAND Corporation was and what kind of work you did.

ELLSBERG: RAND, which stands for R and D - research and development - was really essence on research for the Air Force set up as a nonprofit corporation to do long-range research. And in particular, when I came there in 1958 for the summer and then later permanently in 1959, our obsession really was trying to plant our strategic forces in such a way that they couldn't be destroyed in a first strike by the Soviet Union. Those were the years that we all believed at RAND and in the Air Force that there was a missile gap in favor of the Russians and that a Russian surprise attack was a real possibility. And the idea was to assure retaliation for that so as to deter it so that no war would occur.

DAVIES: You know, this wasn't just a job for you, was it? I mean, it was kind of a special place to be. And it wasn't just a 9-to-5 paycheck thing for you, was it?

ELLSBERG: Not at all, I was working in the summer, especially when I arrived to get up to speed, probably 70-hour weeks there, reading top-secret or secret material - most of it was secret, actually, at RAND - and working on trying to avoid a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. So nothing in the world seemed as important. In effect, we thought we were trying to save the world, although we weren't very confident we'd be able to do it.

DAVIES: So you focused in your research and in your work at RAND on decision making in circumstances where information is incomplete or ambiguous. And you wanted to study how commanders in the military at all levels, right down to pilots, would make decisions on whether to attack Soviet targets in certain circumstances. And the research is fascinating as you describe it. What kind of access did you as the civilian have to military personnel?

ELLSBERG: Well, as a civilian consultant to the Commander in Chief Pacific Admiral Harry D. Felt at that time, I was doing a study for Office of Naval Research and looking at the actual reaction that could be expected at various levels to various execute messages, messages to go or - there weren't messages to not go, actually. There was no stop message. That's a little footnote here. But once a go message was received at any level, there was no provision whatever for stopping that or rescinding it or bringing it back.

DAVIES: This is one of the jaw-dropping things as we read the book. If there was a launch, there was literally no way to recall a bomber. You can't recall missiles. But, you know, things that had pilots - jet fighters and bombers - there was no way to send them - to bring them back?

ELLSBERG: Once they'd gotten an authenticated message that they were to execute the war plans - but the startling thing that I discovered at every level was that the general image that people had then and to this day that a message with the right code could only come from the president himself was never true. That was always a myth. At least it was from the late '50s, when President Eisenhower had delegated authority - his authority - to launch nuclear weapons to theater commanders in case there was an outage of communications, or Washington had been destroyed, or even the president had been incapacitated, as President Eisenhower was a couple of times.

That's almost essential that there be delegation like that in a nuclear era. Otherwise, a decapitating attack, as they call it, an attack on the command and control system, would paralyze us. A single bomb on Washington would paralyze our retaliation. Well, that could never be allowed, and it never has been allowed.

DAVIES: So not just the president but theater commanders have the authority, under some circumstances, to launch a nuclear attack. And these are experienced, high-level commanders. But what you found, I noted, when you looked in the Pacific is that these theater commanders had to be in communication with dozens and dozens of bases throughout the Pacific. And the question arises then, what about a base commander who has a number of fighter pilots or some aircraft - under what circumstances might they proceed on their own to launch an attack? What did you find?

ELLSBERG: Well, again, if they were out of communication with their superiors, a lot of them had authorization in the Pacific, I found, in the early '60s. As far as I know, that continued. I don't know if it's true today, and we ought to find out. But actually, there were people even at a lower - as at a single base - you probably read an anecdote I had about Kunsan in Korea - in South Korea - the base possibly closer to communist territory of any of our bases in the world.

And the commander there clearly believed that he had the authority simply as a base commander to send his planes off if he thought they were endangered. So at that point, had there been what he thought was an attack - for example, an accident on some other base that he heard about or a crisis that was going on - he felt - he told me that he would send his planes off.

DAVIES: There is a remarkable chapter in your book called Questions For The Joint Chiefs. When you write that President Kennedy, coming into the White House - he did not have, nor did anyone on his team have a copy of, essentially our plan for nuclear war, the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan - and that when they asked for it, they were - you know, that the military was sort of reluctant. And then they gave a briefing but not the actual plan itself. You had a copy. You examined it, and you wrote some questions. You - what troubled you about the plan that you saw?

ELLSBERG: Well, many things. It was a very strange plan. I'm not the only one who's called it the worst plan in human history. This was the plan for general war. It was an all-out attack on every city in the Soviet Union and China and attacks, in effect, in most of the Eastern Bloc because of air defenses and command and control. That kept for no reserves, created fallout that would kill perhaps a hundred million people in West Europe for our own weapons if the wind were in the right direction for that.

And many - and a hundred million in other contiguous areas of the Soviet Union like - neutrals like Austria and Finland and Afghanistan actually but also several hundred million in the USSR and China - several hundred million killed. That added up to an intention in a U.S. first strike, if we preempted or if we escalated a war in Europe, to 600 million dead that they were calculating.

DAVIES: My guest is Daniel Ellsberg. His new book is "The Doomsday Machine." We'll continue our conversation after just a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Daniel Ellsberg. You'll remember that he leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other publications. He has a new book called "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner" about his early days doing nuclear war planning for the Air Force.


DAVIES: You're best known, of course, for leaking the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of the Vietnam War. And you had spent many years for the government in Vietnam examining the war, concluding that it was futile, that there was no way to win it. And, you know, you had spent many years as a young man, as a real patriot. I mean, you truly believed in the country. You believed in the security clearances, right?

ELLSBERG: Pardon me. I think I'm going to make it clear, but I wouldn't even want the question - to raise that question, in a way. I am a patriot, and that has never changed.

DAVIES: I understand. And forgive me for putting it that way. I mean, you are devoted to doing the right thing for your country. But at that time, you were - you respected all of the high-level security clearances that you had. And it must have been hard for you to take the step of taking this top-secret document and making it public. What did it take to get you to make that step?

ELLSBERG: Without young men going to prison for nonviolent protests against the draft, men that I met on their way to prison, no Pentagon Papers. It wouldn't have occurred to me simply to do something that would put myself in prison for the rest of my life, as I assumed that would do. So, obviously, that was not an obvious decision to make, except once I'd seen the example of people like Randy Kehler and Bob Eaton and others and David Harris, who did go to prison to say that this war was wrong - the Vietnam War was wrong - and that they refused to participate in it.

DAVIES: How hard was it to actually copy the material?

ELLSBERG: Well, in those days, it was one page at a time. We didn't have these zip, zip, multi-page collators and whatnot machines that they have now or the - of course, the digital capability. So it took me a long time - months, actually.

DAVIES: So you would stay at night in the office copying and then come back to work during the day?


DAVIES: Did you - did night watchmen ever come upon you or anything?

ELLSBERG: Well, twice in that office, which was a small advertising office owned by a friend of a friend, really - twice during that period, police came to the door because she had turned the key the wrong way and set off the burglar alarm. And on one of those occasions, my children were there. That was the one time. Police came in and found my son running the Xerox machine.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ELLSBERG: No, I think I was running the Xerox machine, and he was collating. Or it might have been the other way around. He was then 13. And my daughter, who was 10, was cutting off top secret from the tops and bottoms of the pages with the scissors. The reason they were there was that I expected to be in prison very shortly. I'd hoped to get the papers out quickly, and that didn't happen in the Senate.

But I wanted them to know that their father was doing something in a businesslike way - a calm, sober way that I thought had to be done. And I did let my older son know in particular that it might - in fact, would probably result in my going to prison. And that was an example that I actually wanted to pass on to my children - that they might be in such a situation.

DAVIES: So it was very clear that Nixon regarded you as a really dangerous man because, you know, he had information - you'd leaked these secrets, and there was information about his own internal thinking about Vietnam. And it was the actions of, you know, operatives of the Nixon administration that led to the dismissal of charges at your trial because we learned that they, in fact - they planned a break-in at your psychoanalyst's office and some other things, too, right? What else did they do?

ELLSBERG: Well, Bernard Barker - Macho Bernard Barker of the Bay of Pigs, a CIA asset - said that his mission was to break both my legs. But I don't think that would have shut me up totally in the hospital bed. I think they probably wanted something to happen to my jaw. But they were going to attack me in the course of a rally that I was speaking to on the steps of the Capitol on May 3, 1972. And they brought 12 of these CIA assets, mostly Bay of Pigs veterans, up and was shown my picture and said I was to be incapacitated totally.

And when their prosecutor told me this later, I said, well, what does that mean? Kill me? He said, the words were to incapacitate you totally. But you have to understand these guys never use the word kill - use neutralize - all right? - terminate with extreme prejudice. They use a lot of euphemisms, CIA people, for assassination.

DAVIES: You know, you - your trial ended when the government actions taken against you were exposed, and there was a - the charges were dropped. You took action to disclose government secrets then that you felt the American public needed to know. And I'm wondering what your attitude is today towards classified information and how you regard the actions of, you know, Chelsea Manning, say, and Edward Snowden.

ELLSBERG: You know, I said earlier, without draft resisters like Randy Kehler or Bob Eaton, no Pentagon Papers. Well, I was very gratified to have Edward Snowden say on a Skype meeting - a couple of times, actually - say that without Daniel Ellsberg, no Ed Snowden. That was very nice to hear because I'd never gotten feedback like that. I'd been urging people to use their judgment and their conscience for decades at that point, and it just hadn't happened - to put out information that the public needed to know, and it just hadn't happened.

For example, in the Iraq War, I think that if there had been an Edward Snowden or - and now that I've met him - at a higher level with greater access than he had - or a Chelsea Manning with greater access than she had in the - 2002, there would have been no Iraq War, no ISIS, no - nothing that we've seen later. That was a mad venture based on terribly unreal - totally unrealistic beliefs.

And I think that if the information had been put out, Congress would not have gone along with that war as they did - just as I'm very sorry to say if I'd put out the information in my safe in the Pentagon about our widening war that was projected in 1964, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two senators who voted against that widening - the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - told me, if you'd put that out, there would have been no vote in the committee. It would have not passed the committee. And if they bypassed that to go to the floor of Congress, it would not have passed.

So he's telling me that I had had the power to avert the Vietnam War. I think that's true not only of me. That's a heavy burden to bear. I share it with a thousand others who had that kind of access. You know, when I said that Roger Morris had - did have the access to the nuclear target folders in 1969, and Nixon feared that I had those from Morris, I didn't because he didn't put them out. And later, Roger told me that was the failure of which he is most ashamed and that he most regrets in his life. He said, we should've thrown open the safes and screamed bloody murder because that's exactly what it was.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ELLSBERG: This was a pleasure - very good questions. Thank you.

DAVIES: Daniel Ellsberg's new book is "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews a documentary about foreign policy in the closing months of the Obama presidency. It's called "The Final Year." This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. For his documentary "The Final Year," filmmaker Greg Barker had access to several members of President Obama's foreign policy team as they set about negotiating an arms deal in Iran and a climate accord in Paris and managing a response to the refugee crisis in Syria and parts of Africa. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Greg Barker's quietly devastating behind-the-scenes documentary "The Final Year" tracks the administration of Barack Obama from late 2015 to the early morning of January 20, 2017 with special attention to three figures other than the president - U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Secretary of State John Kerry. This is it, their last chance to cement a foreign policy legacy as the clock ticks down.

But we know something they don't until the last 15 minutes of the film. The next president will be bent on undoing everything they're trying furiously to accomplish. The movie is just under an hour and a half but feels dense, exhausting as Barker skips among his hard-charging protagonists. Now the 72-year-old Kerry is in Vietnam, now traveling by boat amid spectacular, melting Greenland icebergs, now in the U.N., facing off against the Russians over the bombing of a humanitarian convoy in Syria.

The wonkish, hyper-focused Ben Rhodes is often alongside Kerry, but his chief task is the 2016 Iran arms deal which prompted the ire of Republicans as well as a barbed profile in The New York Times magazine in which he mocked the press corps as gullible. His apology to reporters is awkward and a mite unconvincing. But Barker seems principally drawn to Samantha Power. He follows her from her family's apartment to refugee camps in Africa. Although she has no trace of a brogue, she came to the U.S. at age 9 from Ireland. And we see her reduce an audience of new citizens and herself to tears in a paean to immigrants that now seems sadly quaint.

Anyone who reads her exhaustive book "A Problem From Hell: America And The Age Of Genocide" can understand how fiercely determined she is that nothing like Bosnia will happen on this president's watch. In one scene, outside the U.N., Barker cuts back and forth between Power in a VR headset that lets her virtually wander through a refugee camp and her breathless attempt to convince the Saudi ambassador to take the same virtual journey.


SAMANTHA POWER: (As herself) They'll put a pair of glasses on you, and they take you into the Zaatari refugee camp.


POWER: (As herself) Thank you. Thank you. Wow, it's very powerful.

And then they hook you up to talk to a person in the camp.

Wow. This is amazing.

(Foreign language spoken). I'm well.

Brings home the serious stakes.

AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) I'll do it. I'll do it. Thank you.

POWER: (As herself) It's just right there. And I'm going to try to go to the SG and get him to keep it because it's...

AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) Yes.

POWER: (As herself) If we're trying to raise money and, you know, get people to support these people in the camps and, you know...

AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) Excellent. Excellent. Thank you.

POWER: (As herself) Anyway - but otherwise bad day because of what's going on in the...

AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) I know. I know.

POWER: (As herself) It's unbelievable. They hit the Free Syrian Army.

AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) Yes, they did.

POWER: (As herself) Of course they did. Seriously, if you do nothing else I ever ask you to do, just do this thing.

AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself). I'll do it.

POWER: (As herself) Really. Really. OK. It's really amazing. It's right there.

EDELSTEIN: Some reviewers have charged that "The Final Year" is Obama propaganda. But it's hardly misleading to portray Power, Rhodes and Kerry as idealists determined to carry the ball forward on climate change, human rights and arms reduction. And haunting the film is a tragic failure - Power's inability to prevail on the president to intervene forcefully in the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. She's unprepared for his big-picture political calculations and crushed by them.

The Obama Barker shows us is an inspirational figure. He visits Hiroshima and Laos. He tells a group of students in China, sometimes, we think people are only motivated by money, by power. They are also motivated by stories. His example - the United States Declaration of Independence. While Power points to the numbers of people on the ground who are suffering and dying, Obama insists that deaths from war are way down compared to the last century and that, quote, "all trends in democracy are going in the right direction."

In the context of the film, that plays a little abstract. This is an experiential documentary, meaning Barker sticks to what his camera sees. There's nothing about Obama's refusal to make public all that was known about Russian interference in the election. And Donald Trump appears mostly on TV screens. But Ben Rhodes does muse on the agenda of Vladimir Putin, which has less, he says, to do with Russian interests than Putin's own more wayward ones. Putin looms alarmingly large over the last scenes.

It's hard to know how to read Barker's ending, which features footage of Obama at the Parthenon, along with an up-close interview in which he takes the long view. Obama suggests that this election is a mere blip in the positive arc of humankind. Meanwhile, Samantha Power packs up her office, and Barker plays her out with a surprisingly melancholy gospel cover of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the understatement of the millennium.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, is American democracy in trouble? Professor Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say it's threatened by partisan politics and a president who denigrates the media and impugns the integrity of elections.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's hard to think of two institutions that are more fundamental to democracy than our elections and our free press.

DAVIES: Their new book is "How Democracies Die." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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