In a October 2006 article in Harper's magazine, Daniel Ellsberg said he holds himself partially responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and more than a million Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. He was among numerous U.S. government officials in possession of documents in 1964 that most certainly would have turned public opinion against a policy of military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Ellsberg, a Harvard-educated economist and former Marine who worked as a military analyst in the Pentagon and the State Department, eventually concluded that the Vietnam War was not winnable and leaked the documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, to The New York Times in 1971. But he could have done it earlier. “Any one of a hundred officials-some of whom foresaw the whole catastrophe-could have told the hidden truth to Congress, with documents,” he wrote. “Instead, our silence made us all accomplices in the ensuing slaughter.”
Ellsberg, now an active critic of the Bush administration, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, in Hillcrest. The following is an interview he did with CityBeat on Jan. 18.
CityBeat: What will you be talking about in San Diego on Jan. 27?
Daniel Ellsberg: What I'll be talking about, in general, is, of course, the crisis we're facing right now, which has several dimensions-one of them a constitutional crisis which is getting clearer and clearer. [We have] a president who really claims to be beyond any restraint of the Constitution, of law, of the U.N., of anything Congress can do or the courts can do. The administration backed away just today-just before [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales was to testify on the subject-from warrantless wiretaps, which they've been doing for five years now, which are clearly violations of the law, plus a violation of [President Bush's] oath of office to faithfully execute the laws, and of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. It's a very fundamental matter. And they've suddenly, thanks to the new chairmen and the new investigations that are coming along in Congress, they've backed away from their notion that the president is not bound by that law.
But that's only one example. Of course, there's his concentration camp in Guantanamo, which has many unconstitutional aspects to it; and, in general, the militarization of surveillance by the Army, by the CIA, in what amounts to domestic police affairs; the general contempt for Congress that this administration has shown up till now, up till this week, you might say, is something that really threatens an overthrow of our Constitution and a change in our form of government to an, essentially, executive form of government, something very close to a dictatorship.
And do you think that because the Democrats are now in charge of these committees, much of the things you're talking about will be mitigated?
Mitigated, yes. There's, in a way, a very hopeful sign just this week. I would have said after the election, based on the statements of the Democratic leadership, that they were not intending to be very spine-y, or generally very confrontational on these issues, that they were going to shy away from them a good deal and not speak up for the Constitution or for their own responsibilities.
But it seems to me that grassroots pressure... especially in the last couple of weeks, has changed them, and there's now much more talk of de-funding either the escalation to the war [or] perhaps the presence in Iraq altogether, which was regarded as off the table and unthinkable even a month ago. But now I think the pressure from people who were saying that they were elected to a different job-namely, to get us out of Iraq-is actually being reflected in what they're saying and what they're doing.
This is the second dimension of the crisis I was talking about: If their action on the war were limited to this nonbinding resolution [to oppose the president's policy to send more troops to Iraq]... then it really wouldn't accomplish very much. And that's what I expected, frankly. The only achievement of that would be to relieve them of blame for the disaster that lies ahead with this escalation. They would have been on record as having criticized it, but they would have done nothing effective to stop it.
And now, they're really taking more seriously calls by people like Edward Kennedy and, in the House, Lynn Woolsey and others-Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich-to actually cut off funding, first for this new escalation. And that may be difficult to do. They can make a move in that direction, and they should, but it may prove hard to manage how the president uses his money, to that extent, by Congress.
But, on the other hand, they certainly have the power to limit the length of time that we stay in Iraq, by their funding. In other words, they definitely can say, as Lynn Woolsey is calling for, that funding will not be available after six months for anything but redeployment of the troops out of Iraq. They should be getting them out now. Congress certainly has the authority to do that, even if they can't tell the president, in detail, how he should use his troops. And that's what they clearly should do.
You mentioned “militarization of surveillance.” What are you talking about?
It's coming out more and more, from leaks... and some answers to Freedom of Information Act requests and so forth, that both the CIA and, in particular, the military have been collecting a lot of files and a lot of surveillance of meetings-and mosques-anti-war meetings of various kinds. When each one is discovered, they say, “Oh, that was an aberration; we shouldn't have done that. We'll take that out of our records”-which they may or may not do. Past experience says that when they talk about expunging files, that's very questionable as to whether they actually carry it out; it's hard to check on it. Meanwhile, they're listening in to conversations and, especially, going to meetings, infiltrating groups, and a lot of this has turned out to have no connection with terrorism in the remotest sense, except in Bush's sense that it involves criticism of his policy.
Now, unfortunately, he and Cheney do have a tendency to regard criticism of his policy as something close to treason, which is the standard monarchical attitude we supposedly overthrew in the Revolutionary War. But clearly he represents perhaps a fairly large number of Americans who believe now, as many Americans did then, that this country ought to have a king. That wasn't a tiny minority back in 1775; it was perhaps a third of the country. And I don't think it's that much less now. So, the people who really do want a republic and want checks and balances, seriously and not just indifferent on the issue, may always have been a minority of the people... which is why we don't see more majority sentiment against torture, against indefinite detention, against surveillance than we do.
Back to Iraq, it seems the only way to go is to either send overwhelming force-maybe 200,000 or 300,000 troops more-to really occupy that country, or pull out.
I agree. However, what they're doing is not just too little-they have in mind for that small force a task that is part of a disastrous policy.... I think they intend to attack the Mahdi Army. Every indication points to that. ... The mainstream media have not nearly addressed what is really being talked about here. And they do have a plan, and the plan is to attack the Mahdi Militia, which is the mainstay of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki. So it's actually a mockery to talk about Maliki reining in or disarming the militia. First of all, Maliki doesn't have a chance in the world; he doesn't have any way to disarm the Mahdi-perhaps 60,000 to 100,000 armed men. But the big thing there is [that attacking the Mahdi Army has] every likelihood of raising up the Shia... against us, along with the Sunni. The idea that now all we need to do is attack the Shia-we've done so well against the Sunni-doesn't seem, let's say, right.
If you're really thinking cynically about this government, is that a way of drawing Iran into a wider regional war?
Well, yes and no. I think there is a synergy there, but I was going to say that part of the larger policy that I see is a policy of attacking Iran. I think they will want Iran to launch an attack of some kind on a ship or some of our forces, obviously in response to some provocation by us. So I think we're very likely to do cross-border operations or “reconnaissance flights,” so called.
But you don't think attacking the Mahdi Army is such a provocation?
Here's where I think they are connected: I think those troops are there, to a large extent, to hold our own-for instance, guard the Green Zone-and do the best we can to contain a Mahdi Army response to an attack on Iran. [Shiite cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr has said repeatedly [that] if we attack Iran, we will bring the Mahdi Army into action against the U.S. Up till now, as I understand it, they've done various death-squad and ethic-cleansing things against Sunni, to move them out of neighborhoods in Baghdad, but... they've done very little against the U.S. or against other Shiite groups. That could change overnight. I think if the president wants to attack Iran, which I feel sure he does, then he does have to look ahead as to how he deals with the Shia response to that in Iraq and with Iranian support to that response.
So I think [the new troops] in Baghdad are intended, in part, first to start disorganizing the Mahdi Army, making them go underground or lie low, even before we attack Iran, and to be able to deal with them when we do attack Iran. Notice that were doing things that are more focused on Iran-for instance, there's these two raids on Iranian representatives, one in December and one just now, and those are almost surely meant to be provocations.
What would be so wrong with attacking Iran?
[Laughs.] That's a rhetorical question, I presume. I would expect that to be a genuine catastrophe-if anything, worse than we've seen so far in Iraq because, first, there's the real capability of the Iranians to respond very strongly to that. Of course, with our new carriers-two, maybe it'll eventually be three, carrier groups in the Gulf-I don't know, their ability to deal with mining or hurting the Strait of Hormuz, we may be able to overpower that militarily, or we may not; they may have tactics that we really couldn't cope with that much.
I don't know that much about it, but certainly they have the basic ability to attack oil terminals, pipelines and shipping, and they can attack our own ships, and they can definitely call up a great deal of support in Iraq; they can make Iraq virtually untenable for us. The Shia in Iraq may rise up spontaneously when we attack the Shia in Iran, so strongly that we're now fighting the whole country, not just a fraction of 20 percent of the country, but most of most of the country. And third, I don't know their capability for doing attacks in the U.S., but it certainly hasn't been exploited yet at all, and it's not zero. Nobody says it's negligible; in fact, they have the greatest capability probably of any state for organizing foreign terrorist activities.
Then the final nail in the coffin of U.S.-Islamic relations around the world I think would be laid by that-as far away as Indonesia or Malaysia or even India, with 100 million Muslims, a minority but not a small minority.
It would not cause regime change in Iran. Quite the opposite of what they seem madly to expect.... It is exactly the same as their mad belief that we would be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers in Iraq. They're just off the planet on this one. ... But it may now that he is content just to go down in history as the man who, with the Israelis, took care of the Iranian nuclear capability. But I'll be surprised if he limits himself to strictly military targets-that is, limited military targets like the nuclear system-and [not] go after, say, the Revolutionary Guards, command-and-control places and everything else. It'll be a very big attack, killing a lot people, and cause uprisings very possibly throughout the Middle East against the... pro-U.S. dictatorships that we've been backing all this time-you could lose [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf-even though most of these places are Sunni.
With an attack on Iran, experts on the region, which I'm not, say that this could result in an [alliance] between the Sunni and the Shia against the U.S., and that anybody... who was friendly to the U.S., would be in great danger politically. Specifically, that could mean that then Musharraf right away [could give way], putting an Islamic bomb into the hands of a Taliban-like group, like his [Inter-Services Intelligence], that could lead to an Indian reaction immediately, and we could have a South Asian nuclear war coming out of that.
Not to mention Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Egypt, Jordan, all these other places. And, by the way, an attack on Syria by the U.S. is likely to be part of this policy, by the way he's been talking. ... Meanwhile, oil flows could be disrupted throughout the region. That's why we're sending Patriot missiles and various stuff over there. It's very clearly not having anything to do with Iraq, and it's not having anything to do with an Iranian first strike-they have no incentive to do that-but rather to deal with an Iranian missile response to an American attack or an Israeli attack, and might involve nuclear weapons, by the way.
I think that if we go after the nuclear sites, the likelihood that there will be nuclear attacks eventually and before long, by either the U.S. or the Israelis is very high. That, of course, is the precedence that will have the greatest consequences for humanity and all other species. It wouldn't lead to blowing up the world immediately, the kind of threat we worried about at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. What it would mean is immediate proliferation around the world, as people prepared a deterrent against being attacked like that.... So, you get proliferation, and I think you get an era of small nuclear wars, small in the sense that they kill millions rather than hundreds of millions.
So let's talk about avoiding all this. You have put out a call for people in the administration who are in possession of information about what the plans are....
What I'm asking for is for them not to put out operational plans but to put out internal evaluations of those plans... and to see that in written form, to see the kind of calculations and criticisms and estimates of these so-called options that actually go to the president. Make it clear what people with access to the president think of these plans.... Most of them are not as foolish as the statements we hear from the president or Cheney. There are plenty of experts inside the government, and we should be hearing from them now, with documents-not in their memoirs 20 years from now, or even three years from now. when it's too late.
What would compel them to do such a thing?
Only two things: the oath that they took to uphold and defend the Constitution, which is... being totally overthrown and flouted again for the second time by aggression against Iran and without approval either by the U.N. Security Council, which is called for in these cases, by the U.N. Charter that we've ratified, or by Congress. Congress did give approval for this war in Iraq, but on the basis of very clearly manipulated and falsified [intelligence], which is not what the Constitution called for.
I mentioned the Constitution first because that's the oath they take. They don't take an oath to avoid disasters, bad judgments. ... The only oath they take is to uphold and defend the Constitution, not to obey a president....
Second, this is their responsibility... to forestall, by democratic action, what they themselves see as a disastrous course of action. And if they have to suffer for that-and they may well, if they don't just leak anonymously; if they put out documents that can be traced to them, as I did, or which they acknowledge, as I did-the price can be very high. It can mean a life in prison. It's not likely to [mean prison], by the way-when they're putting out truth and they're showing presidential lies and manipulation, the likelihood of going to prison is actually not great. But the likelihood of their being prosecuted is great, and that's a heavy prospect.
But compare it to what we ask of Americans-let alone what we impose on the Iraqis, who have no voice in the matter-but what we ask of Americans every hour of the day and night in Iraq. Why is it possible for a military man, say, to accept very easily the notion of being blown in half by an IED in Iraq every time he steps out of the Green Zone or another base, and yet find it unthinkable that a civilian, or a military man, could face a loss of his career, or her career, or go to prison in order to save the lives of many people?
It seems to me self-evident that the incentive to save a vast number of lives and to protect the Constitution is enough, or should be enough, to make people consider very seriously paying a personal price-that seems obvious to me. It seemed obvious to me at the time of the Pentagon Papers, and still does.
But these documents would have to be absolutely explosive for the whistleblower to avoid conviction. You don't want it to be left up to interpretation.
Yes, you know what I'd really like is for them to release 1,000 pages out of one of the drawers of their files-1,000 pages that will show a comprehensive picture... the overall pattern showing the pros and cons and showing how clearly the president's flouting [the law]. That could make a big difference. The big thing with the change in government is that they now have a place to do that. They can do it in congressional investigations. If the public presses for real investigations-not just calling Henry Kissinger or George Schultz to testify-but will call on people from the inside who want to tell the truth, then they have a place to go with the truth and the documents, and somewhat less chance of prosecution. They'll be fired but they won't be prosecuted. That didn't exist six months ago.
Daniel Ellsberg will speak at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, 4190 Front St. in Hillcrest. The suggested donation is $10, but no one will be turned away. Contact PeaceDemTF@aol.com or 858-459-4690.