Busted: Daniel Ellsberg
One of the most important whistle-blowers of the 20th century urges current Pentagon employees not to make the same mistakes he did.
He was a Harvard-educated PhD whose star was on the rise in Washington, a trusted adviser to several administrations with access to highly confidential information. All of that changed on June 13, 1971 when the New York Times published the first installment of a classified 7000-page document dealing with the war in Vietnam that later became known as “The Pentagon Papers.”
Daniel Ellsberg was the source of the leak that exposed the deliberate deception that several presidents had engaged in regarding our involvement in Vietnam. President Nixon was so incensed by the revelation that he blocked publication of the document until the Supreme Court intervened and ruled against him.
Ellsberg’s actions made him a target of Nixon’s “plumbers” whose later arrest for breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel set President Nixon’s demise in motion.
Thirty-five years later Ellsberg is now encouraging others with access to sensitive information to blow the whistle on the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iran.
Ellsberg spoke to BustedHalo last week from his home in Northern California.
BustedHalo: You recently published an essay in Harper’s called “The Next War” that posits that—much like you experienced at the Pentagon in the ‘60’s regarding Vietnam—there are people at the Pentagon who are aware of very serious plans for an invasion of Iran and you suggest that they should perhaps blow the whistle on these plans now. Is this much different than….
Daniel Ellsberg: Let’s take out the “perhaps.” Somebody should blow the whistle now. I don’t point to any particular person nor do I know who it would be. But among the sources who have contributed anonymously to writings by Seymour Hersh and Time magazine and others about the existence of these plans for attacking Iran, they should all consider taking the personal risks of putting out documents that would prove unequivocally the existence of such thinking, such planning, and intentions by the White House. In particular, they should bring out the internal critiques so that the criticisms of this are not limited to people who can be said to have no access to classified information, no inside knowledge, and no responsibility, but rather to show the belief that this attack would be appallingly illegal, dangerous, ineffective for any purpose. They should bring it out so that it can be debated and considered by congress and the public including in time for these [upcoming] elections.
BH: You’ve been encouraging people within government to speak out especially before the Iraq war as well so this is not a new thing for you.
DE: That’s true. Really, many years went by before I focused on encouraging whistle blowing because the people I was talking to, the audiences, were not officials and didn’t have opportunity for that. And also I didn’t like to be in the position of just saying, ‘do what I did.’ And then I realized that at first, it was important that people put out documents before the Iraq war and second, that there was a way to say it that didn’t seem self serving and that was to focus on the fact that I too failed to do that when I could have in the government in ’64 and ’65 and I have been saying ‘Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the war has started and the bombs are falling before you tell the truth.’
BH: What’s the reaction been among people within the government?
DE: I haven’t had contact with these people and they are not likely to want to be in contact with me while they are still in the government so I really don’t know what the reaction is. We have had more leaks than before but still not what I am emphasizing here which is documents and before the war. We’ve had a lot of warning tentatively from people inside who have done this, as I said, without attribution. That hasn’t seemed to alert the public to the extent needed. It’s not even really a matter of discussion. Even after a cover story in Time magazine just 2 weeks ago, I don’t see this as a major factor in the elections for example or in public discussion and it’s my hope that putting out the actual documents, not the operational plans but the internal critiques of those plans, the instruments of the costs and the dangers, that it could make a difference. There’s no guarantee that it would. But a chance of averting that war is worth a great deal of personal risk.
BH: Do you have any sense as to why there hasn’t been an uproar among the American public with regard to this news?
DE: One factor is that I think a lot of people that I speak to who are in fact well informed can see the costs and the dangers of that attack so clearly that they cannot bring themselves to believe that as they put it ‘even this team would be so crazy as to do that.’ And yet, I have to point out, it is the same team that was just that crazy in Iraq, which was basically a very, very ill-founded use of aggression. It’s not like attacking Grenada for example, which was pretty evident that it was within our grasp. They just can’t believe it’s going to happen. They would like to believe that this group has learned from their experience in Iraq and they wouldn’t do it again. I don’t think that’s the way it works. For them to learn from a mistake in Iraq, they would have to acknowledge that they have made a
mistake. Clearly they are not willing to do that in public. From all indications, they don’t do it in private. They manage to tell themselves that they didn’t make a mistake and all that’s needed is to plunge forward and go to the root of the problem, which they see as Iran—which is absurd and is not the root of any of the problems they’re looking at or we’re experiencing. But it sure will be the root to a lot of problems if we attack it.
BH: In some of the interviews you’ve done you’ve stated that presidential lying is simply a fact of life. Is this administration any different qualitatively or quantitatively in that regard?
DE: Well, John Dean, who exposed the Nixon administration as their White House counsel, does feel that this administration is not only more secretive but more devious and more dangerous than the Nixon administration, which is saying a lot. I am not convinced necessarily that it is more secretive. It is very, very secretive and nobody’s been more secretive than they are but it’s hard to say if they have been more secretive than Nixon or even Johnson for that matter.
In the question, however, of attacking the foundations of our constitutional democracy, I haven’t ever seen anything like this. I think all the administrations in the executive branch have a good deal of contempt for congress and for the public to a certain degree. They think of themselves as the only people with the information and the sense of vision to guide the public, guide the country in national security matters. But, I would not have said that any of them had the thought of setting out to revise the very nature of our government, to keep congress and the courts out of the picture, and to have no restraint on the degree of lying. I come back to that. I think all administrations lie. I’m not even sure if one lies more than the other but in terms of really, not just contempt but feeling that the Bill of Rights are wrong, the wrong way to govern the country and that the president has to be in a state of constant war like this, [President Bush] is virtually a dictator.
BH: You are encouraging people within the government to release secretive documents, can you take people through your own thinking? I imagine that’s a huge journey in your own mind from being a company man so to speak, a close advisor to the president, to making that leap to exposing the president.
DE: The career costs are very great and its very hard to reduce those. Whistleblower legislation hardly operates in this field of national security with classified information. So, they would have to face being identified, and I’m talking about releases on a scale like the Pentagon Papers so it would probably make their identification inevitable, they will face the loss of their clearance, the loss of their jobs, and access or their ability to help policy which has perhaps led them forward for a long time and kept them in their jobs. It would also affect their financial situation very seriously. It may well put them in prison for quite a while. So these are very serious costs and they are not really to be considered except in cases of life and death, war and peace, or real threat to our Constitutional liberties and processes and all of those are involved in matters like conducting our illegal war in Iraq or in Iran or in the measures that have actually been legislated just recently.
Where these highest stakes are involved, I am urging people to remember that their highest loyalty and obligation comes from their oath to uphold the Constitution, not from any secrecy or nondisclosure agreement that they have ever signed, and they probably signed dozens of those. In effect, most officials including myself for years feel that their promise to keep secrets for the president is their highest obligation and that really their status as keepers of the presidents secrets are the most prized aspect of their identity as officials. And they just don’t think of the implications of what they often know to be true which is that the president himself is ignoring the constitution and bypassing congress and taking us to war or lying to congress or undertaking illegal or unconstitutional activities like warrant-less wiretaps which President Bush has been pursuing for five years.
It’s very obvious to many lawyers, not to all of them, but to very many lawyers and other officials to the national security agency that this is an illegal and unconstitutional operation. And what they don’t consider, and I can say this from my own experience, is that that implicates them in violation to their own oath to uphold the Constitution. That isn’t abdicated just when the president starts violating his oath. That doesn’t free everyone else from their oath to follow it. On the contrary, they are violating it everyday they are keeping those secrets from congress and from the public. So I’d like them to really focus more on their identity as servants of the sovereign public and upholders of the Constitution than on their loyalty to a particular boss or agency or president.
BH: Clearly the risks, as you laid them out, are enormous. It can ruin people’s lives. It certainly sent your life spinning in a far different direction. I can’t help but look and see what appears to be a conversion story in your own life. Not necessarily a religious conversion story but certainly a conversion in your own life that led you from one end of the spectrum to the other? Is that fair to say?
DE: It’s fair to say there was a conversion experience. Part of it was just learning from experience, from observation that our war in Vietnam was hopeless and stalemated and should not continue. From that point of view, as someone who was very loyal to the theory of just war and just means in war, I came to see that pursuing that war was not just. It had no hope of any successful or beneficial outcome. That didn’t involve any great conversion. I think that most people who went to Vietnam came to recognize that reality but the question was what you did about it. And second, for a couple of years then, I pursued that within channels as an insider, lobbying and writing memos to my bosses or former bosses and even pursuing politics. But that wasn’t enough. And what did change me really was coming in contact with Gandhi’s thought in the writings of Martin Luther King, the story of Rosa Parks in Montgomery Alabama, and the writings of Gandhi himself. Books like Barbara Deming’s, Revolution and Equilibrium, which had a very strong impact on me, and Martin Luther King’s, Stride Toward Freedom. There was a conversion to Gandhian thinking, nonviolence thinking, with its emphasis on truth-telling. Personal sacrifice as being something one should be ready to undertake rather than to take part in violent processes that were wrongful.
BH: How did a former US Marine come to Gandhian thought?
DE: It was the luck and the ease of meeting people who were well-versed in that point of view and committed to it and were actually living those lives. There was an Indian woman in particular who introduced me to Gandhian thought which she participated in India with her family, to Martin Luther King’s work, and to the Joan Baez Institute for the study of nonviolence. Through that, I didn’t meet Joan Baez herself at that time but I met people at her institute. I attended seminars there. And all that had great influence on me. So it was kind of people like Dave Delinger, David McReynolds and a number of others.
BH: You did an interview recently with Salon where you talk about conscience in which you said ‘As I get older, I realize that people act according to their conscience most of the time and it isn’t always the right way to act.’ Can you elaborate on that a little?
DE: I think our conscience, or thinking about conscience in both the aspects of guilt and shame, is very much shaped by our parents and peers and society in general. And the message that is instilled in that very often puts it at the very top of the virtues, being obedient to authority…social authority or church authorities in some cases. But going along in effect, doing what you’re told by ‘constituted or legitimated authority.’ And that can very often lead you astray.
The idea that the influence there is to very much favor keeping promises of silence far more than defying or disobeying authority of a particular organization or even a country. And informing people, warning people of a danger and a wrongful activity, to do that against the will of an authority structure really offends most peoples’ conscience. It makes them feel guilty and to question whether they have a right to be doing what they are doing much more than to question whether they have the right to be obeying the authorities or conforming. So conscience isn’t the last word either. When President Bush says that he listens to God more than to his earthly father and that God, in so many words, told him to attack first Osama Bin Laden and then to attack Iraq and to invade Iraq. My own feeling very strongly is first, I can’t believe that his conscience—or what he took to be the word of God—told him that in his mind. But I think that wasn’t God. God would not tell him to invade Iraq. Whoever that voice was, I would say, he should have gotten a second opinion. (laughter)
BustedHalo: In religious circles, they talk a lot about formation of conscience and it sounds like your adding a nettlesome knot to that whole formation in that we must at some levels ask a different sort of question.
Daniel Ellsberg: Well they say that people’s conscience often tell them to take part in a wrongful war because that is what their leader has decided to do. Their conscience tells them to keep that promise of silence even when that dooms other people to death wrongly. When your conscience or anybody else, any other authority, tells you either to lie to the public on such matters or to kill or to torture, then you should distrust that source of instruction whether it parades as your conscience or not. I’d like peoples’ consciences to be re-thought and reshaped as much as possible to adopt new norms of nonviolence and truthfulness and that’s a fairly revolutionary change in awareness and specifically in conscience for many people.
BH: And how do we do that? Through education? That sounds like a tall order.
DE: Learning from people who have already had that conversion is very helpful. In my case, it was crucial for me to meet people who were of that mind and who were going to prison rather than to take part at all in what they saw as a wrongful war. They were actually accepting prison sentences—two and three years—which provided an example that I think was crucial. I think without that example the reading that I had done would not have come alive for me and have been so compelling for me. But it’s also important to do the reading. What I had read about Martin Luther King’s own conversion to Gandhian way of life was very impressive. He had read Gandhi, but he also read critiques of pacifism and had some doubts on both sides. But then when he encountered in his life Rosa Parks, who was acting in a Gandhian way and going to jail rather than acquiesce silently to a wrongful order, laws which by the way had been upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court, the laws requiring the Blacks to sit in the back of the bus. And she saw those as wrongful even if they were constitutional and refused to take part nonviolently. And that example impelled Martin Luther King. So I think that courage is contagious and coming into contact or exposing yourself to people who are taking those risks is very helpful and a first step toward doing it yourself. And doing the reading, readings like Joan Valerie Bondurant’s Conquest of Violence, for example, on Gandhian theory, Gandhi himself or Barbara Deming.
BH: I have to imagine your world fell apart in the early 1970s. You were a Harvard PhD on a very ambitious career path…how difficult has that been over the past 35, 40 years in your life to pick up? Was there enormous guilt over your previous life? It seems like a stark contrast between the first half and the second half.
DE: In my case, I didn’t suffer the cost that Nixon had in mind for me which involved 115 years in prison and with good behavior, I’d be getting out in 2008 if I didn’t dissent or rebel at all in prison.
BH: The Nixon administration also apparently had wanted to incapacitate you physically as well. Is that true?
DE: It wasn’t enough because Nixon wasn’t sure I would get that sentence for legal reasons, which are too complicated to go on here, He wanted to be sure I didn’t put out documents that were more current on his own administration and to keep me from doing that, he took domestic crimes, or things that were then still domestic crimes, some of them are legal under the Patriot Act now, like warrant-less searches of my former psychoanalyst’s office or warrant-less wiretapping on which I was overheard. The latter of course Bush has been taking part in, he’s been pursuing for the last four years and the searches are allowed under the Patriot Act. But [Nixon] also set out to have me beaten up or possibly killed on the steps of the Capitol May 3, 1972. When these crimes became known—which wasn’t certain at all what would happen—and they became known largely through John Dean, [Nixon] himself then was faced with prosecution or first impeachment and that led to his resignation. So on the one hand, the most important effect of that was it made the war endable with Nixon out of power. I think he would have defied the congressional cut-off of funding. President Ford did obey and I think Nixon would not have obeyed. Just like Reagan, he would have just ignored it.
BH: Has there ever been any reconciliation with the people on the other side of that issue like John Dean or any others after such a bitter disagreement.
DE: Dean and I have become good friends and we talk together quite a bit.
BH: That must be an interesting experience to be on the other side, to be with somebody who was perhaps part of your demise or plotting your demise to now become somehow reconciled with that person. It must be a powerful experience.
DE: Part of it was that he definitely changed a lot in his thinking as did Egil Krogh who was actually in charge of the plumbers that went out to neutralize me. He did go to prison for a while but he had real change of heart even before he went to prison and again we’re good friends. We don’t see a lot of each other but we respect each other a lot now so that’s been good.
I lost a lot of old friends, in fact, virtually all of them because all the men had clearances and it just didn’t pay for them to have any association with me after that at all. So basically I was cut off from all of my colleagues, many of whom were close friends. And that pretty much lasted with a couple of exceptions. That was a severe cost, but not as much as going to prison would have been. The other aspect of this personally was that because of the egregious and public nature of the crimes he took against me, that gave me a kind of notoriety, let’s say, that enabled me to make a living as a lecturer, in a way that most whistleblowers don’t have. Their acts are just as risk-taking and right as what I did but they don’t get the publicity that enables them really to make a living in that way. And a lot of them have had a lot of trouble making a living. The cost is very great, greater than I had to bear. So I was lucky in that respect.
BH: And I know you have also been involved in starting whistleblower organizations. I would imagine that at some levels, there is a support network there for people who able to do this?
DE: I’ve been working closely with Sibel Edmonds, the former F.B.I. whistleblower. She’s a person of very great energy and commitment. She has founded a group called The National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, which has brought forth more than 60 former national security whistleblowers and they lobby. Of course, it does give them a network of support, something that didn’t really exist before. They also lobby effectively for whistleblower legislation that will protect future whistleblowers.
BH: I was under the impression that there was a Buddhist element in your current spiritual practice.
DE: First, I’ve been very interested in Buddhism as a reader of it theoretically. I was very attracted to it as a religion that is very anti-violence with much more of an absolute prohibition against participating in violence than Biblical religions have as a matter of fact. That attracted me and I’ve studied it quite a bit. Now my wife is much more of a practitioner of it. She meditates a great deal and has taken part in dedicated practitioner courses at Spirit Rock here and elsewhere. So a lot of our friends are in fact practicing Buddhists. So I’m very impressed by many of the aspects of Buddhism but centering in particular on the nonviolence.
BH: You have a son who is in his late 20’s now. What advice do you give to people in that age group setting out on their lives. Is there any good advice you can give in hindsight?
DE: Yes. I do think that it would be very worthwhile for young people and people of every age to expose themselves to the literature of nonviolence and of Gandhian thinking in particular. You know, the difference that I see between Gandhi and Gandhi’s thought in Buddhism is that there is a very explicit activist theme to Gandhi in which the idea of organized nonviolent civil disobedience in particular but withdrawal of support and even obstruction of wrongful activities are a major factor. And there is a strain of what is called Engaged Buddhism that Joanna Macy and Gary Snyder and others have been prominent in and my wife is attracted to. But that is just one way of being Buddhist and in general, the teachings didn’t point toward organized activity, mass activity, dedicated to changing processes in society or wrongdoing in society. It had more of an emphasis on inward transformation rather than transformation of a society.
BH: Your son Robert has carved out a niche for himself writing about the saints, All Saints and The Saints Guide to Happiness and Blessed Among Women. He is a convert to Catholicism and you were raised Jewish. Is there any overlap you see between what your son Robert has done and the work you have been doing over the past 40 years or so?
DE: First of all, I’m a Jew and my parents were Jews. But I was raised a Christian, a Christian Scientist. They had converted to Christian Science. And of course, Christian Science isn’t regarded as mainstream Christianity by a lot of groups. But we always thought of ourselves as Christians very much and that was the upbringing I had. My first wife was Episcopalian and we had an Episcopalian wedding and my two older children from that marriage were raised after our divorce in that way.
So Robert thought of himself as Episcopalian. When he was working for Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, he converted to Catholicism I think particularly under the influence of Thomas Merton. I do take some credit though for bringing him specifically into contact with Dorothy Day and with Dan Berrigan and with others from the anti-war movement and I think there, of course, the Catholic Worker is Catholic but very much in the tradition of Gandhian thinking of nonviolence and truthfulness and of civil disobedience. That was caring for the poor and living a life of voluntary poverty.
My Robert’s book, All Saints, is a book very close to my heart. I give that away to a lot of people and of course a lot of the saints he includes in that are either secular like Cesar Chavez or even Schindler. And like Schindler, they are flawed people in many aspects of their lives, people he includes in that list. And a lot of them are Catholics but non-canonized. I think people should read that book for examples of moral courage and civil courage that I’ve been calling for and that I think we need a lot more of whether it’s inspired by a strictly religious theme or not.
BH: So do you think Daniel Ellsberg might make it into an edition of All Saints someday?
DE: Well, first I’d have to be dead. Second, I think family members are probably excluded from his book. (laughter)