Daniel Ellsberg: Beyond the Pentagon Papers

Categories: 3 Questions

Daniel Ellsberg gave the White House and world quite a shock in 1971 when he leaked 7,000 classified pages of a Defense Department report outlining the full extent of the U.S. role in Vietnam to The New York Times. The documents revealed that the federal government had been steeped much deeper in battle in Vietnam than the public had been told, and that presidents had acted unconstitutionally to carry out their plans. Ellsberg was charged with espionage, theft, and conspiracy, and the federal government sued to stop newspapers from publishing the leaked documents. Ultimately, the charges were dropped, and the government lost its case in the Supreme Court. Since then, Ellsberg's political activism has gotten him arrested 70 times, as well as earning him several awards.

Tuesday he visits Northrop Auditorium to discuss dissent with U of M professor Larry Jacobs.

City Pages: Does everybody with information that American citizens should have about potential wars or governmental misdeeds have a responsibility to go public, even if it's a great risk to them?


Daniel Ellsberg: Not at all. There are secrets that should be kept certainly. I'll give you an example: the name “Valerie Plame Wilson,” the clandestine CIA operative the White House revealed wrongly in order to undercut Joe Wilson who was a truth teller with respect to Iraq. I would never have put that name out there and I don't know any colleagues that would have been so stupid to undermine an operation that was, after all, aimed at discovering periferation and stopping it. So, should anybody who has secrets put them out? No. That's a secret that should not have been put out and was put out by this administration for political purposes and it's not the only example.

The premise here is that in the case of a war like Iraq, as in Vietnam, there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who are well aware that the documents in their own office safes that would disprove statements the president is making in order to manipulate Congress into an illegal, hopeless, doomed war in which many people will be condemned to death both Americans and others—millions of Vietnamese and perhaps more than a million Iraqis by now. So that means that those people are aware, whether they think of it or not, their boss, that their president is violating the constitution of the United States which puts the decisions of war and peace into the hands of Congress.

By manipulating them falsely into an aggressive war, he's violated his oath of office to uphold the constitution, and when they keep silent about their knowledge of that situation, they are themselves violating their own oath to support and defend the Constitution. Other examples would include not only the Constitution, but domestic law. For example, probably hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more employees of the National Security Agency have been aware that the president was illegally and unconstitutionally violating the FISA in enlisting them to do warrantless wire tap surveillance of people in violation of that law and in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Those who kept silent about that, which are probably numbered in thousands all together, were violating their own oaths. Just as if the Senate proceeds to vote immunity for the telephone companies who were violating not an oath to the Constitution, but violating domestic law, as a number of them do. Giving them immunity from civil suits for those violations, as the Senate may or may not do in the next few days, would involve violating the oath of the office for each member who votes for that.

I say this in recognition--belated recognition--that I myself violated my oath when I was in the Pentagon in 1964 and 65 when I saw similar crimes being conducted without revealing them to Congress of the public. I didn't think of it in those terms, and I'm sure these people aren't thinking of it in these terms. But almost fifty years later, we've had enough experience for people to have gotten that message. I'm doing my best to really put out the message to people in that position: Don't do what I did. Don't wait till bombs are falling in Iran or a new war is started wrongly or thousands more people have died when you know that your bosses are lying the public into a wrongful war or committing other crimes or violating the constitution. I am urging them to do what I wish I had done in 1964, and that is to go before Congress and to the press to reveal truths that would save untold number of lives.

CP: The Republicans don't control either chamber of Congress, and President Bush only has a year left in office. Do you seriously think there is a good chance he will lead us to war in Iran in the next year?

DE: Yes, I do. I know some people think that new National Intelligence Estimate virtually precludes a war with Iran because it takes away the motive of stopping an ongoing nuclear program. But I don't agree with that. It certainly has reduced the probability from a very high probability to something less than that, but I think there is still a very significant likelihood. The president, who is distancing himself from the National Intelligence Estimate, he's saying he doesn't agree with it. He thinks they are still aiming at nuclear weapons despite that 16 intelligence agencies have combined to tell him the opposite. So moreover, he hasn't relied on that single excuse for over a year, from the time he knew over a year ago that they were in the process of taking away that rationale from him in the intelligence community, he and Cheney have been talking up other reasons for going to war with Iran such as alleged involvement in the Iraq war. That one is weak at the moment too, in terms of evidence from Iraq, but he could revive it at any time. We could have an incident such as the one that the Defense Department deliberately hyped up about a month ago of a supposed confrontation in the Persian Gulf, an incident that looked very much like the Tonkin Gulf incident that got us into the Vietnam War. We could have that tomorrow. They could pin up one or deliberately misinterpret this incident in the Persian Gulf. I must say there are elements in Iran in the revolutionary guard that seem to underestimate the risks to Iran of acting and speaking provocatively, and they might be willing to see war occur. I don't think that's true of the leadership in Iran, but it might not be up to them entirely.

So, I think that the risk remains significant, and indeed the fact that the President isn't running again for office may free him in his mind. I think it could happen even after the election in November in the last months of their lame duck administration. And certainly Congress has not done all they could to prevent that. Hilary Clinton signed, inexcusably, to an act calling the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which as Senator James Webb pointed out, gives virtually a green light to the President to go ahead on his own discretion and attack them. She was criticized rightly for that by her campaign rivals. But nevertheless, that act is on the books. She's not the only one to blame of course; it was a senatorial action. Congress has done literally nothing to put obstacles in the way of the President acting unconstitutionally, and in their inaction, it colors him as acting with their consent which is constitutional. So, they've acted very badly on this, and the media have hardly done what they could to expose these risks. So I still believe it's a dangerous situation, yes.

CP: Can America's next military disaster be stopped today if people just come forth with information that they have?

DE: There would be no guarantee of that because we have seen a lot of examples of sufficient proof coming out thanks to people revealing it as whistleblowers with the Congress ignoring it and doing nothing about it. So there is no guarantee that telling the truth will avert these disasters. But there is a pretty good chance that these disasters will occur over time if people don't. I think it's necessary and has a chance to succeed. For example, when the national intelligence analysts a few months ago threatened to resign and go public if the new National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran was not producing nuclear weapons and had not been for some years, was not made public. If they hadn't threatened to resign, that report would not have become public, and I think we'd be closer to than we are to going to war against Iran right now.

Even so, as I said their action doesn't guarantee that the president won't just go ahead on his own terribly misguided belief that he has unlimited power as commander-in-chief, that he's virtually a king, despite the passage of the Constitution two centuries ago. That's his sincere belief, and if we let him act on that, he'll be right; it's true, he's a king. But I do think that there is information in government safes right now that would have a high chance of preventing us from a disastrous war with Iran if people would risk their careers, their clearances, and even risk going to jail by putting out this information. I think they should consider doing that. They might well suffer in their personal lives, but they might have a real chance of saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

CP: In a 2006 piece you wrote for Harper's Magazine you state that Senator Wayne Morse, one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, told you that by not revealing all you knew about America's involvement in Vietnam earlier, you were, in some way, accountable for horrible aspects of the war. All these years later, do you consider yourself to be partly responsible for the thousands of Vietnam War dead?

DE: Certainly, without any question. I'm glad you inserted the word “partly.” Obviously responsibilities differ and it would be grandiose of me to take the whole weight of it on as if I made all the decisions myself, or were anything but a medium-size cog in a very big machine. But yes, I was there, I was a part of it, as were we all who worked for the government, and really all the people allowed themselves to be so easily fooled with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Congress. Morse is one of the few who can say he did everything he could to avert that. And I am not one of those who can say that. I've tried to learn from it. It's not a matter of making amends, but of doing better, and that's what I'm asking of people in the government now. I'm not asking them to be better than I was or better than I am, but to learn from my own bad experience of participating in wrongful war that led to many unnecessary and wrongful deaths. Many people are doing the same now. My interest is not in punishing them or even condemning them, but in making them realize they can do better than that. They can change and do better for their country and for themselves.

CP: How do you live with that?

DE: It would be harder if I felt that I had seen that clearly at the time and for personal reasons or cowardice or careerism to that I shrunk from doing that; that would be significantly harder. As it is, I can tell myself that it didn't occur to me to do that, and no one else did it, it didn't occur to any of us; it had never been done. I think that is extenuating. But I don't see it as letting me off the hook altogether. Why didn't I think more about it? Why didn't I seek more information? No, I haven't lived with a great burden of guilt, nor have I acted out of a sense of guilt. In fact I remember many years ago, my wife commenting that maybe I should feel guiltier than I do. The fact is, I do feel some sense of responsibility for having been one of those in the government who helped us get into the war. That definitely gave me a sense of obligation to do more than what others are doing to get us out of the war, and it has given me an obligation for the rest of my life to share what I've learned, and to keep other people from making the same mistakes.

CP: Is our government fundamentally untrustworthy?

DE: Oh, all governments are untrustworthy. “Trust” is not the appropriate basis for relating in a democracy. That's the very idea of democracy. Our Constitution with its provisions for separate branches for the possibility of impeachment, which is being neglected now very much, for an independent judiciary and for oversight responsibilities by Congress of the executive branch--all of these things bespeak a need for vigilance; not for trust. Or as President Reagan used to say with respect to the Russians, “trust but verify.” And Congress is failing to exercise its responsibilities under the Constitution, to exercise that oversight and to rein back and to counter an executive that is both lying, which all governments do as much as they can get away with, and moving toward executive tyranny, toward abuses. Unfortunately, we've gone so far in that direction in the last seven years, that I've come to start saying that a coup has occurred against constitutional government. The issue is not whether we avert a coup, but whether we roll back and rescind actions like the so-called Protect America Act which supposedly legalizes warrantless wiretaps, I would say that an act of Congress can not repeal the Constitution, but they're acting as if it could and as if they'd want to do that.

So, what I'm saying is not that our government is worse than other government officials, but I agree with the journalist when he says all government officials lie, and nothing they say is to be believed. That doesn't mean they're lying with everything they say, it does mean that nothing they say should be taken as the last word, or as you say, on trust. That's a wholly unwarranted suspension of disbelief. And we should be taking advantage of our constitution and our form of government of which the genius is the processes and institutions that have the chance to protect us from executive tyranny if we act them. But it takes some courage to act on them against an executive branch. And we haven’t seen much of that courage in Congress, and if we don't see more and in the public, we'll have lost our freedoms.

CP: Do you consider yourself to be a political radical?

DE: I believe in democracy. I believe that our Constitution, despite its shortcomings and flaws, which were significant, had some marvelous innovations in it. The idea that forbidding laws to be written that would protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press was an amazing political invention. It was certainly radical in its time. To your question, I'd almost have to say it's radical right now, because clearly Congress and much of the public has gotten tired of these kinds of freedoms and the courage and effort it takes to sustain them. So you could say that I am a radical democrat, small d, in that I really believe in regaining the kinds of protections and tyranny usurpation that were meant to be built into our Constitution. I would not have said there was anything radical about that when I was growing up 60 years ago, but I'm afraid it's radical now in the sense of going back to roots, and our roots are in the concept of democracy.

That's not a system I want to see change. I don't believe in a one-party system no matter what it calls itself. I don't believe in one-branch government whether it calls itself socialist, communist, capitalist, democratic, or whatever else. It's a recipe for tyranny and for wars like Vietnam and Iraq and for torture like what we are shamefully conducting right now in CIA secret prisons and Guantanamo and places that should not exist on the face of the earth, and are being tolerated by our government right now. So if that's radical, make the most of it.

Daniel Ellsberg and political science professor Larry Jacobs will discuss dissent and democracy as part of the U of M's 'Great Conversation Series.' $18.50-$23.50. 7:30 p.m. 84 Church St. SE, Minneapolis; 612.624.2345.

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