Dan Ellsberg on Past, Present, Future
Daniel Ellsberg was the key figure in the Pentagon Papers controversy in the early 1970s – the leaking of the secret history of the Vietnam War – and today is one of the most incisive commentators on a whole variety of current political issues.
Greenwald: I think a lot of people especially younger Americans are familiar with what you did as a citizen to stop the Vietnam War but not familiar with a lot of the details. So could you summarize what your role in that controversy?
Ellsberg: I worked for the RAND Corporation as a consultant to the Defense Department on issues of the command and control of nuclear weapons and nuclear war plans. I moved from that into the government as a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense in 1964 working on the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the secret decisions to get us involved in a big way under President Johnson.
Once that had happened I volunteered to go to Vietnam in the State Department, where I was eventually a special assistant to the Deputy Ambassador. I used my previous training as an infantry officer, I was a company commander in the Marine Corps in peacetime in the 1950s, to walk with troops in combat, and I saw the war up close.
I saw most provinces in Vietnam as part of evaluating pacification programs in the two years I was there, before I came back with hepatitis. I then worked at the RAND Corporation on a study for Secretary of Defense McNamara on Vietnam decision-making that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
Greenwald: During the time when you were working at the Pentagon and you went to Vietnam in the 1960s, is it fair to say that you were on the hawkish side of the political debate, that you were in favor of the war, that you thought it was a good idea, you had worked on escalating it?
Ellsberg: No, well, yes and no. I was certainly a Cold Warrior. That was my profession, trying to defeat communist expansion as I understood it, not very well, at that time. I went to Vietnam having been there very quickly in 1961 and perceived it as a losing proposition, very much, under the dictator we had installed, President Ngo Dinh Diem.
We clearly had no prospect of defeating the Communist-led liberation front, which had the prestige in Vietnam of having defeated the French in the northern part of Vietnam. So I saw it as not the place to plant our Cold War flag, if possible, but when the President did do that I thought it was my duty, responsibility, to get into the war to do the best I could to make something out of it, without much hope.
I think there were a few months when I was first there when I thought that our large-scale involvement should make it possible for us to achieve something there. Within months it was pretty clear that we were not going to achieve any kind of success of any kind, and people were being killed and we were losing Americans to no justifiable purpose or effect.
And that was seen, I think, by most people who went to Vietnam. I can’t speak for them. Three million of them went. I think within months or a year – I was there two years – most people came to realize there was going to be no success and that the war should really be ended. The question really was, what to do about that?
When I came back from Vietnam my efforts for a couple of years, still within the system, now as a consultant again, were to work with Presidential candidates, both Republican and Democrat, trying to convince them that we ought to get out of Vietnam. I also worked with Congress people on that. To no effect.
And eventually, having worked with President Nixon and [his National Security Assistant] Henry Kissinger in the first months of their administration on Vietnam as a consultant, I learned from those contacts in the White House in 1969 that President Nixon was going to walk in the same footsteps as all of his predecessors, footsteps that were very well documented in the Pentagon Papers.
I had full access to the Pentagon Papers as a researcher who was working for the Pentagon on learning “Lessons from Failure in Vietnam.” I was studying those at the RAND Corporation and read them as a record of four presidents’ lies, crimes, breaking treaties, deceiving Congress and the public into war in much the same way as we were deceived into the Iraq War. There’s a very close parallel there.
And I hoped when I learned that Nixon was going to continue the war and even expand it and was making secret threats, including nuclear threats, at that time, that Congress might better resist that or be skeptical of it if they understood the background. So I copied and gave the Senate [Foreign Relations Committee] the 7,000 top-secret pages of the study.
The official name of which was “History of United States Decision-making on Vietnam, 1945-1968.” So it ended before Nixon came in, and unfortunately it didn’t prove the point that I wanted people to get, that President Nixon was pursuing the same kind of course and that the war would continue as it did.
But at least it would show people that maybe they should be skeptical of what they were hearing from the President and exercise their own judgment: and maybe even take a risk of their careers in opposing it.
As far as I was concerned I was totally influenced by the example of some of the young Americans I met who were going to prison not just to protest the war but to refuse to participate in it, knowing that it was wrong. Well, I felt the way that they did and I thought if they can do that--and I thought it was right for them to do that, to be willing to go to prison--then it should be right for me too.
And I expected by giving these top-secret documents even to Congress, as I did, and later to the press that I would be prosecuted and go to prison for the rest of my life.
I had a wrong understanding of the law, which was shared by nearly everybody. We don’t actually have an Official Secrets Act—yet, although I think that might well lie in our future--which criminalizes any unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
Almost nobody knows that we don’t have such a law, so when they pass it I’m not sure they will notice. But in fact I was the first person to ever be prosecuted for leaking unauthorized documents.
Greenwald: You had said the Pentagon Papers ended in terms of the scope in 1968 which was three, almost four years earlier than the time that you were leaking them. What was the very grave concern in the White House on the part of the Nixon administration about what the impact of these papers would be? Why were they so affected by what it was that you were doing?
Ellsberg: Nixon and Kissinger immediately hated the precedent of anybody revealing secrets like that because they were rightly afraid that people would leak their own secrets. So they were anxious to have me prosecuted: even though no one ever had been, which I’m sure they didn’t realize.
Greenwald: You mean prosecuted as a warning or a deterrent to others who might want to expose their wrong-doing?
Ellsberg: That was the reason for their prosecution. In terms of getting the actual material out, as the tapes from the Oval Office have shown, they were actually happy about that. That mainly showed that the Democrats had gotten us in, the Democrats had done the lies.
And although, oddly, Rumsfeld, who was in the White House then, and Haldeman were a little uneasy about the fact that it did reveal that presidents do lie, Nixon was actually not worried about that. He bet on the likelihood that the public would still credit the statements of the incumbent president no matter how much demonstration there was of past lying.
And basically he was right. I didn’t succeed in convincing people that President Nixon was doing the same, until later.
But, though the public and even I didn’t know it at the time, Nixon did understandably become totally worried that I had documents on him beyond the Pentagon Papers. And I did have some. I didn’t have, unfortunately, as much as he feared. But to stop me from putting out documents on his nuclear threats and his plans to escalate he took a number of actions that at that time were clearly illegal.
I was overheard on warrant-less wiretaps. Nixon started a group nicknamed the White House Plumbers, supposedly to stop leaks. But the leaks they were afraid of were leaks that I might yet make, hadn’t done yet. To stop me from doing that, this group burglarized the office of my former psychoanalyst looking for information that I wouldn’t want known, that could blackmail me into being silent about further revelations.
I was already on trial at this point facing twelve felony counts, fifteen with my co-defendant Anthony Russo, including a conspiracy count; I had twelve counts, which added up to a possible sentence of 115 years.
In the midst of that trial he sent people into the doctor’s office; later he sent some of these same people, with a bunch of Cuban, former CIA employees, assets from the Bay of Pigs, in order to “incapacitate me totally,” to kill me-- according to the prosecutor—or, I think, just incapacitate me, to keep me from talking.
These crimes had to be kept secret, so he in effect bribed a number of them to commit perjury about what they knew about earlier crimes in front of the grand jury [after they had been caught in the Watergate offices a few weeks after the attempted assault on me]. That constituted further crimes that had to be kept secret, obstructions of justice, and he was digging himself in further and further, safely he thought, unless somebody talked.
And [John] Dean did talk and that ultimately brought the house of cards down. And it did lead to the ending of my trial, but more importantly it did face him with impeachment and prosecution and got him out of office, and actually had an effect in shortening the war.
Greenwald: So much of what you just said is so fascinating as a historical matter and then also so relevant in so many self-evident ways to our current political crises. The eavesdropping is just one aspect and the deceit about how we got into the Vietnam War and stayed in it is another.
But one of the things I’ve always found most interesting about your story is that you were really someone who was quite embedded in the political establishment. You had extraordinary classified access and top-secret clearance. You had been at high levels of the government for the entire decade. You had graduated from Harvard. You were at the RAND Corporation, the sort of peak of the military-industrial complex in some way.
And for you to take the risk that you did – and as you said, you expected to end up in prison for life – is a really extraordinary decision that we’ve seen very little of over the last years. We’ve seen a little bit of it. But really we’ve seen very little of people risking their own personal interests to expose severe government wrongdoing.
What was the thought process that really led you to take that risk? You said that you were inspired by some of the young people, but the risk that you were taking was of an entirely different magnitude. What pushed you to do that?
Ellsberg: The risks they were taking were, actually… exposed them to a few years of prison, which is long enough to deter most people. But they had very, very little incentive in the sense of any sense that by sitting in the doorway of an induction center or by refusing to send back their change of address to a draft- board--which was enough to send you to prison if it was deliberate-- that it would have any effect on the war.
Now it did have a big effect on me. I felt the power of that on my own life, the example of somebody willing to take that risk. I wouldn’t have thought of doing something that would put me in prison forever without that example.
Why the Pentagon Papers, in turn, have not encouraged people to do [something similar], with its demonstration that it did in the end have some effect, through Nixon’s actions against me and the vulnerabilities that that exposed him to, why more people haven’t done that, [I don’t really know].
I’ve been asking people for several years in the government through every channel I can--which is inadequate; they don’t let me get in front of an audience in the State Department and Defense Department any more, I wish they did--but when I can, as in the Harper’s article I wrote a couple years ago, which is on my website, ellsberg.net--I’ve been saying to such people:
“Don’t do what I did.
“Don’t wait until the new war has started in Iran, or Iraq in the past. Don’t wait till the bombs are falling and more thousands of people have died, before you do what I wish I had done in 1964 or 1965, years before I did do it: go to Congress, go to the press—both, by the way, not just Congress or they won’t act, as I found—go with documents and tell the truth.
“And do it at risk to your own clearances, your careers. These are not light risks. But there’s a war’s worth of lives at stake.”
I frankly don’t have an answer as to why more people, or actually any others, have not done that. You’re asking what my own thought process was on that. It was really quite simple at the time.
I had been willing as a Marine and I actually did in Vietnam as a civilian take the kind of risks of my life that hundreds of thousands of people took in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands have taken now in Iraq, risks to my body, risks to my life. That was regarded as very normal in the service of your country, not pathological, just ordinary patriotism.
Why people who have risked their lives and their bodies – in many case the same people, in the government or Congress– why they are not willing to take any risk at all, as far as I can see, of their clearances, their jobs, their office, I don’t understand. It’s easy to see why a lot don’t do it, the costs are great. But why nobody?
I think we should demand more of people in terms of their willingness and their obligation to carry out their oath of office.
You know, I took that oath as a Marine Corps officer and as a Defense Department official and as a State Department official, over and over, and it’s the same oath that every officer takes and every member of Congress. And that’s not an oath to the President. We don’t have a Fuehrer, that we swear a blood oath to. And it’s not an oath to secrecy.
The oath of office is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Now I would say that every member of Congress who recently voted for this FISA Amendment Act--I would say very frankly--violated that oath, just as innumerable members of the Administration have violated that oath of office. And…they should stop doing that.
Greenwald: You talked earlier how one of the things that Nixon or at least Haldeman and Kissinger feared was that the release of the Pentagon Papers would undermine this sense of Presidential infallibility, that was the real harm of it, but that if…
Ellsberg: Nixon disagreed. Nixon knew that that sense of Presidential infallibility is so strong, people desire to believe the President or at least not get into a public confrontation with him. Nixon thought even the Pentagon Papers wouldn’t affect it, and he was basically right.
Greenwald: Although certainly the Watergate abuses and the things the Church Committee uncovered eventually led to things like the FISA bill which was based on the premise that we don’t trust the President to eavesdrop without judicial supervision because it had been abused.
And yet what we just saw again is a complete abandonment of that realization by once again vesting with the President the power to spy on Americans and our conversations without warrants, to cover up the crimes that have been committed over the past five years when we know that the President has been spying on our communications without warrants.
We don’t bother to find out how he spied or to what end that power was used and don’t bother hold him accountable in a court of law.
As somebody who was actually subjected to surveillance of that kind, whose psychiatrist’s office was broken into by the federal government in order to obtain damaging information on you and keep you in check or blackmail you or otherwise render you incapable of challenging the government and our political leaders in some way-- exactly the kind of abuses that FISÅ was intended to prevent and that Congress just once again enabled--how did you react, kind of, as a citizen?
Ellsberg: Well, I couldn’t help noticing as far back as 2001, when the so-called PATRIOT Act was passed, that acts that had been taken against me which were crimes had suddenly been legalized.
The break-in to my psychoanalyst’s office, even without a warrant, is as I understand it, covered by the “sneak and peak” provisions of the PATRIOT Act. The use of the CIA against me in a psychological profile, which was illegal then, against their charter, was now legalized.
The CIA has now been “freed” to cooperate directly with the FBI and with law enforcement to be part of a kind of secret police, a political police. The overhearing by warrant-less wiretapping is of course something that they had been doing all this time [and is now legalized by the FISA Amendment Act].
So acts that confronted Nixon with impeachment and were clearly repudiated when they were discovered back in the 1970s and led to the ending of my trial but more importantly later consequences for the President, those acts in the wake of 9/11 have been legalized.
There’s a contrast here. If the President had done these various things for a day or a week or a month in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I think very few people would have bothered or felt like criticizing that in an emergency, of necessity, when they didn’t know what was happening. But to keep these things going secretly for six or seven years is a different matter.
And worst of all, as you point out, Congress when actually called on moved to legalize these things now. I’m not a lawyer -- I’m a defendant -- but it’s a question in my mind whether you can simply amend the Constitution by majority votes like this, whether they can really make these things legal against the Fourth Amendment and other amendments of the Constitution.
But at least Congress did what they could with the amendments to the FISA act to legalize these things when the President called on them to do it.
So here’s the difference in the situation. As I say, I thought it was ominous even in 2001. I think it’s worse than ominous now. There has been a kind of fait accompli. I call it a coup; and with the complicity of Congress.
Namely: there was a theory that President Nixon espoused, when he told David Frost after he was out of office: “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.” That was a philosophy that he acted on; but it was rejected then, as clearly incompatible with our form of government, with our Constitution, with democracy, with freedom as we understood it and practiced it.
This President has done the same acts, maybe on a larger scale but pretty much the same (and for that matter even Johnson had done it). He’s done it with a clear-cut philosophy that Nixon shared, “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.”
As you put it there’s a two-tier system here, “laws that apply to the rest of us don’t apply to the President, he is beyond the law.” And Congress has with this vote essentially ratified that and confirmed it.
So it seems to me it’s not a straw in the wind anymore; the government has changed, as I see it, with the complicity of Congress. The Supreme Court isn’t fully aboard yet on some five-four decisions, but one more Supreme Court Justice under McCain would switch that.
Let me refer back to Benjamin Franklin’s comment about our government when he was coming out of our Constitutional Convention. And he was coming out and a woman asked him — because the proceedings having been secret up until then – “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” And he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Well, as of now, as of July 2008, I would say we haven’t kept it. We don’t have a republic in the sense of the constitutionally-limited kinds of powers that the Constitution required.
When people go to the polls in November…and especially in light of the fact that even Barack Obama – who I support, and I think it’s essential, necessary that he be elected – but with his support of this FISA amendment he’s indicated very clearly that it is not his intention to roll back this usurpation of presidential powers, he’s accepting the powers that Congress and this President are going to bequeath him.
So I think [in November] the people will be choosing between two…what?… not presidents in the sense of the Constitution…but two kings, two people with dictatorial powers.
Greenwald: Two emperors.
Ellsberg: Am I going overboard when I say that? What is your opinion?
Greenwald: I think it always seems that hard-core indictments of one’s own time and one’s own political system are exaggerated because people only see the extremism of their time retrospectively. I think it strikes people as hyperbole because they just think we don’t have a king, we don’t have an emperor, just instinctively believe that.
But if you just look at the very definition of what an empire is, of what a monarchy is, and the sort of defining attributes of what those systems of government are, certainly we’re a lot closer to that in terms of how we now function practice than we are to the constitutional republic that we began as.
Ellsberg: The republic has been threatened by these actions and by the complicity of Congress over these seven years, but I think a turning point, a tipping point, has been reached here.
You know, “republic” isn’t a definitely defined thing. There was the Union of Soviet Socialist “Republics,” there was the German Democratic Republic, the East German satellite dominated by the Stasi, the secret police. Well, I’d say that the National Security Agency has just been set free of legal restraints to do a kind of surveillance that the Stasi couldn’t technically dream of at that time.
And that means that the ability of this government to blackmail anybody – the way, for example, that Nixon precisely hoped to blackmail me, by illegally gaining information about my private life, that’s exactly what he had in mind – they could do that against every Congressperson, every journalist and source, every political activist. I question whether you can long preserve a real democracy with that kind of capability, that unlimited knowledge of private affairs, in the hands of the government.
Greenwald: And of course we don’t know the extent to which they’ve been doing that, if they’ve done it at all because it has been kept behind a wall of secrecy.
One of the reasons why I think you’re such a relevant person on these issues and why I was so anxious to talk to you including as the debut guest for what we’re doing is because one of the things that happened in the 1950s and the 1960s and into the early1970s was there was this accumulation of executive power where we believed in the presidency as this infallible office and there was very little oversight.
And it was only this political turmoil of Nixon’s impending impeachment and high political officials going to prison and true oversight and investigation by the Church Committee and other Congressional investigations and real political dissatisfaction did we at least reverse at least a little bit of that and start to impose some restraints on presidential power and restraints on what the President can do.
One of the reasons that I’ve been so disturbed and concerned about this bipartisan attitude among Obama supporters and certainly among all the McCain supporters is that whoever the next President is you should just let all this go or write it off as just a good faith error or just something that we don’t want to spend time investigating is because if you do that you lose what historically has been the only real mechanism for reversing some of these really bad trends and for creating some remedies.
If we just decide that when Barack Obama is inaugurated or John McCain is that we are just going to forget about everything that has happened these last seven years which is what a lot of people are suggesting, how will it even be remotely possible to reverse some of those trends over the last seven years?
Won’t we essentially then just be buying into this form of government that you call a kingdom or a monarchy or an empire more or less irrevocably? What mechanisms exist for reversing some of it if we just decide that we’re going to overlook it all and not apply to the rule of law and just sort of let it go?
Ellsberg: Unfortunately, as of right now, the prospects for changing that – for upholding the rule of law – in terms of what has been happening and the powers that the President will continue to have in the next administration, are not too promising.
It’s not that I think, I have no reason to believe that Obama is against the Constitution and against the rule of law, in the sense, by the way, that David Addington – the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, who has been the chief architect of many of these policies – and Cheney and Bush themselves, are, I think, enemies of the Constitution, in the sense that the oath of office refers to when one swears to “uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
I think that in that sense Cheney and Bush have been and are domestic enemies of our actual Constitution, as written. And I don’t say that rhetorically.
I’m not saying that they’re traitors or disloyal in their feelings toward this country, or that they don’t want the best for this country. I think they want the best for this country, but what they think is best is something other than our Constitution of the last two hundred years. It is something like an elected dictatorship.
They have a right to believe that. But they don’t have a right to act on that as they have [after taking that oath]. The question here is, as you’ve raised, how can we change that if we don’t hold them to account somehow?
Well, I think we have to be very creative here in finding ways to repudiate that point of view and roll it back and restore our Constitution. Perhaps some way other than impeachment: which is the straightforward way, but which by every indication the Democrats are simply determined not to give us and are not going to do it now this year, unfortunately.
And Obama has indicated as of now … we have to assume that Obama, who also wants to bring people together and to reach across the aisle and to look towards the future, none of those indicate he will be interested in pursuing these issues.
It does give us a strong incentive to try in the remaining months to get Congress to at least assert in some way or other the kind of investigation that Conyers has not yet made in the Judiciary Committee, and that none of the committees have, that define these things as illegal and unconstitutional and to educate people as to what the Constitution requires.
Greenwald: Just on that point, I certainly think that if you were to sit down with Obama and in an academic setting or conversational way and ask him about his views on many of these constitutional issues, that he would say many of the right things and believe them. I don’t think that he’s an advocate of or a believer in this monarchical Article II perversion that has governed our country for the last seven years.
The problem though is that if you look at some of those investigations – the Church Committee and the Watergate Committee and things of that sort – what you had was a very aggressive action on the part of the Congress, at least ultimately, and Democrats and Republicans alike because it was really an investigation of things Nixon and the White House had done.
What you have here by contrast and I think critical contrast is something that the Bush administration did but that it purposely involved many of the top Democrats in Congress by briefing them, by getting their tacit or explicit approval and so the appetite for really uncovering what happened I think is greatly diminished if not eliminated completely by the fact that the people who are running the Congress on behalf of the Democrats feel to some extent or another feel implicated in some of those actions.
Ellsberg: I had come to that suspicion earlier. I actually heard John Conyers, head of the Judiciary Committee, say in a meeting that he was open to the idea and that he would propose to Speaker Nancy Pelosi a Select Committee like the Ervin Committee which looked into the Watergate abuses or the Church Committee that looked into the abuses of the intelligence community in the 1970s – both of them, by the way, prior to impeachment investigations, they were just investigations of crimes by whoever, not necessarily the President.
Of course they enlightened us very much and they did lead to legislation that was useful in their time.
There should have been and there should now be a Select Committee – the point of a Select Committee being that it crosses jurisdictional lines, it doesn’t just keep things in the Intelligence Committees: which, I would say, deserve investigations themselves, possibly by a prosecutor.
Hard to get, but that’s what you need. It’s clear now that these Committees were made aware of clear-cut blatant crimes that were proposed and were ongoing. I’m talking about torture, rendition and the illegal surveillance.
The leaders were made aware of that. They not only didn’t expose it, they approved it. They didn’t even tell, as the law required, their colleagues on the committees.
What other crimes have we not yet learned that they have approved, that are going on?
So they are totally complicit. So at least the Judiciary Committee – which I understand was not brought in on the negotiations about this FISA deal though it clearly had been in their purview – they should be brought in across committee lines.
They should have a special staff, with better lawyers then the committees now have by the way – I would love to see you in on such an investigation, like a Watergate investigation – with good budgeting and enough time to look into this.
We can’t count on Obama – not because he’s complicit himself, he wasn’t, and like you he’s a constitutional lawyer – but what President has ever eschewed and cut back powers that were bequeathed to him?
It seems engraved on the desk in the Oval Office, “You must leave this office at least as powerful as when you entered it.” They all seem to sign on to that, though it’s not, in fact, their oath of office.
So we just can’t count on any President to do that by himself, or we can’t count on the present Democratic leadership in Congress. We do need a Democratic Congress rather than Republican because the Republicans are even worse, as in the case of presidential candidates.
But that’s not enough. We have to change the attitude of the Democratic leaders in Congress, to bring them more in line with their oath of office and with the Progressive Caucus and away from these Blue Dog Lieberman Democrats that have dominated what they’re doing. …
We haven’t talked about how to fix it, that’s important. But just to define the situation we’re in, I’d like to sum up what I’ve been saying, by saying, unhappily, that when I pledge allegiance as of now, after that recent [FISA Amendments] vote, I will be pledging it “to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stood.”
And that’s a situation I want to change.
Greenwald: And, hopefully, “can stand again.” “Can stand again,” I think, is the aspiration, to be able to add on to that phrase.
Ellsberg: We’ve got to get it back. As Langston Hughes said, “O, let America be America again--/ The land that never has been yet--/ And yet must be—”…
He said… “O yes,/ I say it plain,/ America never was America to me,” (as a black man) “And yet I swear this oath--/America will be!”
Greenwald: Well it’s a very eloquent and inspiring note to end on.
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