February 20, 2003
Daniel Ellsberg, Author of "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" -- Part 1 of 2
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
As the United States stands on the verge of an ill-conceived war, led by a secretive cartel that has commandeered our democracy, it is easy to abandon hope that individual activism can make a difference. Those who protested for peace are no doubt disheartened that America's First Chicken Hawk, George W. Bush, dismissed the millions who marched on February 15th as a focus group.
But Daniel Ellsberg, a man not known to many persons under 40, is living testament to the proposition that one person can make a difference. His act of heroism in distributing the Pentagon Papers to the media in the early '70s was a defining moment that played a key role in achieving two goals: one intentional and one unintentional. He purposefully sought to help end the ill-conceived Vietnam War, but his action also, inadvertently, led to the eventual unraveling of the Nixon administration.
As we note in the BuzzFlash recommendation for Ellsberg's book: "In the age of a shadow government created by an unelected president, BuzzFlash laments that we have no one of the stature of Daniel Ellsberg to expose the dark underside of the Bush cartel secrecy. Against all odds -- just over 30 years ago -- Ellsberg leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to expose an orchestrated campaign to mislead the American people about Vietnam. His act of courage was the single most important expose that helped end a war that took the lives of thousands of Americans, in pursuit of a mission that the Pentagon knew from the beginning was probably doomed."
BuzzFlash.Com was honored to recently interview Ellsberg, to discuss his memoir: "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers."
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BUZZFLASH: What are the lessons that you learned from your experience with the Pentagon Papers and what they contained, as compared to the official government version or account of what was going on in Vietnam, and how might that apply to today's quote-unquote war on terror and the pending war on Iraq?
ELLSBERG: As in Vietnam, we are being lied to by our administration into a reckless, dangerous, unnecessary war -- in this case, a war that is much more clearly illegal if it's conducted unilaterally and in the absence of a U.N. organization than was the case in Vietnam.
The Pentagon Papers revealed that the American public had been told almost nothing truthful about the real reasons we were going to war, the real scale or costs of the war that the administration foresaw -- and the prospects for victory or success of any kind. All of these things had been concealed and lied about as we entered or as we were about to enter the phase of a major war in 1964 and '65, and at every step thereafter. The Nixon administration was never truthful about the President's real aims in Vietnam, or the prospects for the war continuing and enlarging.
In this case, the public and the Congress do know that the President intends a war, a large-scale war. In this case, our preparations are very public. But why we're going to war is being lied about or skewered as much as before.
Another similarity is that Congress has been just as irresponsible as it was in 1964 in letting the President decide whether and how we go to war. I think the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, and what we could call the Tonkin Gulf Two resolution last year (2002) -– which is virtually the same as the first one, except for the changes in the names of places -– those resolutions are essentially unconstitutional. Congress does not have the power of the Constitution to delegate its own authority to the Executive Branch to decide whether to go to war to. The founders of our Constitution clearly intended to reserve that power exclusively to the Congress, except in cases of immediate reaction to armed attack, which is clearly not the case here.
And the reasons the President has given for the necessity of going to war don't hold up to any critical examination here. They're invalid in many cases, even absurd.
BUZZFLASH: On page 442 of your book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and The Pentagon Papers," there's a point that seemed very crucial. This is during your trial and the revelation that the office of your psychiatrist had been burglarized –- the Nixon administration attempting to perhaps blackmail your psychiatrist or you into not revealing more secrets of the Nixon administration and of prior administrations. And Egil "Bud" Krogh, a Nixon loyalist, says that the White House saw the very "essence of national security [as] the freedom of the president to pursue his chosen foreign policy," and that you posed a threat to that. National security, in the mind of the White House then, and it seems now, is equated with presidential prerogative. To question the President's direction is, in essence, a threat to national security.
ELLSBERG: You're right to point to the significance of that particular quotation. I think no reviewer of the book actually picked that up. It not only implies that the President has the almost unlimited freedom to pursue his chosen foreign policy, but that any threat to that -– anything that would obstruct or limit it, such as free public discussion or revelation from the inside of what his policy actually is, or any opposition to it in Congress or in the courts -– is a direct threat to national security.
Now, the new so-called Patriot Act very severely limits civil liberties for Americans and goes far toward limiting or eroding Bill of Rights freedoms and guarantees. The President's ability to name anybody as a national security threat gives him considerable power to detain, to investigate, to deprive such a designated person of various legal rights. And many of the things that Nixon did against me, which were illegal at that time and always have been up until now, would be legal under this new Act.
For example, sending burglars hired by the White House, CIA assets from Miami, to burglarize the office of my former psychoanalyst to get information with which to blackmail me –-
BUZZFLASH: Or blackmail your psychoanalyst.
ELLSBERG: Or him, yes. The intent of blackmailing him would have been to get him to reveal information about me that he might not have written down or otherwise reveal, and, in turn, to use that to blackmail me. Going into the office surreptitiously to get that information would seem to be legal under this Act in the interest of national security. And to question the President's policy, as I'm certainly doing on every possible occasion here, or to question that it's going to reduce the risk of terrorism, or that it's even intended to do that, very much opens me and others to the charge that we are helping terrorism, as the President sees it.
Once again, though, we come back to the basic notion that the President alone has the right and the ability to define for us our national security, and that he's virtually without any legal limits domestically or internationally. The fact is I do believe that the pending war against Iraq will reduce our national security very sharply, and it will increase the danger of terrorism against Americans and others. In fact, it amounts to a hoax to pretend that this war against Iraq is part of our effort against terrorism. I think war in Iraq would strengthen the capabilities of terrorist networks against us and weaken the efforts to oppose it.
And I think that a war will inevitably cause the deaths of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi innocent civilians. We'll understandably enrage a Muslim world beyond the Middle East, extending, say, to Indonesia and other places. It will greatly swell the ranks of people who are willing to die to punish Americans, the British, and their allies. And at the same time, we'll bind the hands of regimes that might otherwise want or be willing to cooperate with us in pursuing those terrorists.
Like the burglary in the psychoanalyst's office, the wiretaps would now be almost surely regarded as legal under this Patriot Act. Therefore, a new President would not have the need to conceal criminal acts of bribery and obstruction of justice, which are among the acts that brought Richard Nixon down. The new President would be able to do such things against American citizens without fear of being exposed because the Patriot Act would make them legal.
BUZZFLASH: And so we wouldn't have the kind of situation that is amazing to read about in your book, "Secrets." You were responsible for two blows: one to the war and one to the Nixon administration. The first one was the release of the Pentagon Papers. But the second one was the trial itself. The revelations that came out as a result of your trial led to the unraveling of the Nixon administration. Due to disclosure laws, the prosecution -– in this case, the United States of America -– had to reveal anything they knew about information that had been garnered about you by the federal government, the Executive Branch and the Department of Justice, and also through the so-called White House plumbers' unit. And as a result, through the result of resignations and so forth, the Nixon administration just started to fall apart.
ELLSBERG: Well, that's right. The President was himself under shadow of potential criminal prosecution and of impeachment. And to avoid that, he had to resign –- with apparently a promise by Ford that he would not prosecute him. If that promise had not been made, Nixon would not have resigned and would have fought the case through impeachment and through the Senate, which would have taken some time. And during that time, if it had lasted long enough, I think he would have met any new North Vietnamese offensive with bombing, even if Congress had forbidden it. So getting him out of office did serve the public interest very significantly.
BUZZFLASH: Let's go back to this issue of the essence of national security being freedom of the President to pursue his chosen foreign policy.
ELLSBERG: I do want to say I did threaten that freedom, precisely because I posed a threat of exposing what the policy really was. And Nixon was pursuing a policy of threatening massive escalation, including nuclear weapons, just as is happening right now -– another similarity. But he was pursuing, in that case, secret threats of nuclear weapons and other escalation he knew would certainly be controversial and might well be blocked if they were public. The public and Congress would simply not go along with it.
BUZZFLASH: So this theme of secrecy reemerges because we once again have an administration and a President who defines national security as his freedom to pursue policy as he sees it. And if you recall, after 9/11, when some senators on the Judiciary Committee dared to raise some questions about government policy in terms of its violation of civil liberties, Ashcroft defined criticism of the Executive Branch and the Department of Justice as aiding and abetting terrorists.
ELLSBERG: He used the words, I think, "giving aid and comfort to the adversaries," which is the definition of treason. And he was regarding this criticism by the senators –- which, by the way, was just the voice of reason -– as an almost crazily reckless policy. I remember reading once that George III said, "I desire what is right. Therefore anyone who disagrees with me is a traitor." And that was the exact attitude and attribute of kingship that our founders wanted to get away from and sought to do so by the way they designed the Constitution. And we're moving away from their concept back to that of George III. In fact, when I look at George Bush -– would that be George IV or V?
It's really up to us to decide whether we prefer to be an empire or a democratic republic. The citizens of this country, if they really look at the risks of trying to run the world unilaterally and imperially, arrogantly and brutally, and the risks of retaliation and of terrorist response, and of failing to deal with worldwide problems that require collaboration and cooperation from many states, they're likely to oppose those policies. And if the policies are going to be proposed, they will have to be kept secret, which means the abrogation of democracy. And dissent will have to be put down and repressed in ways that our Bill of Rights makes difficult, so the Bill of Rights will have to go.
And that's what's happening right now. The Bill of Rights is in the process of being quietly repealed. And it's up to us to decide whether the people 250 years ago were right, or 225 years ago were right in struggling to gain those freedoms, or whether those freedoms are over now.
BUZZFLASH: So we've essentially gotten ourselves, through the passage of the Patriot Act and some subsequent legislation, into dismantling democracy as we knew it. The Bush administration has set up the paradigm that barely articulating any criticism whatsoever of their actions against terrorism, even if it's to say they are taking a course that's going to increase our risk, is potentially prosecutable because it is treason against the President's prerogative to exercise his plan.
ELLSBERG: Exactly. That's what we've been saying, and I agree with that entirely. Of course, we're not there yet. And that gives us the responsibility, I think, to resist that course of events. Right now, the rights of residents in our country who are not citizens have been very sharply limited, and that's a first step. The idea of limiting their rights, especially after 9/11, is seen as acceptable by the majority of the people. The truth is that the society at large is threatened very much by these dangers; not very far down the road, what is done to Middle Easterners -– rounding them up, arresting and detaining them, in some cases without lawyers –- will happen to other parts of the population.
BUZZFLASH: We've had two cases of American citizens who have been arrested and held without legal counsel. Now if you had released the Pentagon Papers today, would it be possible under the Patriot Act and subsequent legislation for you to be held without legal counsel?
ELLSBERG: I'm not a lawyer, but my reading of the Patriot Act does suggest, as I was saying, that the invasions of my privacy involving wiretaps and going in my doctor's office for information looks as though they would be legal under the Patriot Act. If the Patriot Act had been enforced at that time, I might well have been convicted.
There's another side to that I'll come back to in a moment, but, in any case, it wouldn't have ended as it did, and I wouldn't be free to testify against the Patriot Act in various town meetings and councils as I am about to do this evening. I'm going to Sacramento in a couple of hours to address a town forum there, which is looking at a resolution of the kind that's passed, I understand, in some 60 cities now, which not only denounces the Patriot Act, but directs local officials, police and attorneys not to enforce aspects of that Act that violate the Constitution.
I did testify to a council in Fairfax here [in California] about a month ago and had the satisfaction of seeing them adopt that resolution a little after I talked. And I think it was the action of the local communities at the time around our revolution that demanded that the Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution as a condition of ratifying the Constitution. So we're in the process of trying to regain those liberties in the same way that we got them. It's very inspiring.
End of Part 1 | Part 2 of the Ellsberg Interview
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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For Daniel Ellsberg's latest thoughts on Iraq and more material related to his new book, visit www.ellsberg.net.
Ellsberg's book is available as a BuzzFlash premium at http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/Secrets.html
otherwise noted, all original