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Whistleblowing and Activism

Long reluctant to urge the personal risks of whistleblowing on fellow Americans, Daniel Ellsberg in September 2004 broke a self-imposed silence and issued, with 10 others (including Sibel Edmonds and Ray McGovern), a Call to Patriotic Whistleblowing, both a plea and something of a "how to" guide for those in government contemplating leaking pertinent information to Congress and the public. Out of this letter came the Truth-Telling Project, an organization founded to help encourage whistleblowers on a long-term basis. Ellsberg is also a member of Sibel Edmonds' National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, which was founded to support whistleblowers directly involved in national security issues.

Among other issues discussed below, Ellsberg points to Katharine Gun's leak of the plan to eavesdrop on UN delegates in the run-up to the Iraq war as the ideal of effective whistleblowing: current information disclosed about an issue in which lives are at stake and/or freedoms are threatened.

This is the fourth of a six-part series of conversations with Ellsberg that were conducted earlier this month. My questions are in boldface, Ellsberg's responses are in lightface. Topics and dates of future and past postings can be found at the end of this interview.

If you're thinking of blowing a whistle, I'd think that the first thing that you would have to go through in your mind is: Are you willing to risk your career, at least at the place you're working now?

For my part, what I'm concentrating on is to try to encourage people to take risks in face of the fact that the risks are always going to be significant. No matter how much you do in the way of whistleblower protection, it isn't going to protect you all that much administratively from punishment in any organization. If you put out the dirty laundry, if you speak out of turn about things that your boss doesn't want out, they'll find ways of punishing you. And what I want to do is to make people aware of the fact that that isn't necessarily a conclusive reason not to do it, that there are circumstances in which it's worth taking a large personal risk.

And there would be times when it wouldn't be worth it?

I would say it isn't reasonable to expect people to do it, or even ask them to do it when the stakes are not terribly high, when there isn't going to be possibly a lot gained - if it's just a question of, say, punishing someone for malfeasance that isn't a general pattern, or exposing say a cost overrun. On the whole, I wouldn't push anyone to do it. The likelihood is you're going to pay a very great price and you're not going to be saving lives in the course of that.

It seems like the bottom line should be: Is it going to stop a policy and a pattern -

That costs lives.

I would sympathize with someone who did not whistleblow even where there were enormous amounts of money at stake. There are so many cases where there are two other more vital things at stake: one, when there are a lot of lives at stake. That, I think, does raise the issue of whether you should not be prepared to take a risk of your own career.

The other thing being raised right now is the situation in which very fundamental freedoms and a form of government is at stake. We're not talking now about just ordinary corruption. We're talking about averting right now a change in our form of government to a police state. Even if you don't measure that in lives lost, that is worth, I think, people's lives.  That's what you're taught, you're raised to think.

That's certainly what our soldiers are told they're fighting for.

Many of them are, yes. And what is this way of life that they're really fighting for? Is it really just apple pie and cheap gasoline?

I'm sure they don't believe that.

No, they don't. But a lot of the folks back home, if it were really put to them: It's either a lot of other people's sons and daughters have to die or you're going to have long gas lines.

I think a lot of people - if they were being honest and not being worried about what other people would think of them - their choice would be that their economic survival is more important than other people's lives. I don't think they'd say that in public.

No, and they don't even want to think it. They don't want to face that.

But the people who do whistleblow: Are they extraordinary people in any way? Or is it extraordinary circumstances that seem to bring out something in ordinary people?

This is a hard one to answer. I'll tell you why. I really have known quite a few of these people and there's no question that their behavior is extraordinary. And at a first and second and third glance at their history, they do like ordinary officeholders. The kind of people who have access to this stuff do not usually stand out as being unusual or easy to predict to do this.

I have a feeling that they do have personality characteristics or things in their background that somehow do open them to this possibility of breaking from the group and paying a cost for principles. It's not just their behavior. I don't know.

I can say for the people involved in nearly every case, they think of what they're doing as something they should have done earlier and that it's a very natural thing to do, it's what people should do They tend to think that most people in that situation, if they knew what this person knew, would have acted the same. They're clearly wrong about that. Their behavior in some respects is much more unusual than they tend to think at the beginning. They learn better. They very often assume that other people will follow their example quickly. And they discover they're all alone.

It seems like if you could do a psychological study of them, you'd find something. Maybe a loner background a little bit, that they don't mind being separated from the herd. Or a moral or religious factor.

It has to be there as a possibility. By the way, a lot of them - not all of them, but a lot of them - especially in corporate areas, when they come across safety violations and various things, they don't expect to be dumped on the way they are. They think they'll even be thanked for revealing this dangerous situation or what's going on. Invariably, they're very disappointed. They don't go into it expecting they're going to be punished as much as they actually are.

But before they go very long, and well before they become public revealers and whistleblowers, they realize that they are going uphill on this one and that they're pretty much alone, yet they go ahead. The ones who don't go ahead, you don't hear about. They don't finish the job. But the ones who do have all learned what a hard road it is well before they're finished with it. There's a kind of stubbornness or clinging to principle that makes them willing to separate from the group, from their team, from their organization, that may or may not have shown itself at all earlier.

It could be the first incident of their lives when it really takes hold, I would think, Even they were unaware they had that capability. I also wonder how many people, instead of whistleblowing, get so morally upset at something that they quit, but they don't necessarily blow the whistle.

That's a much larger group. Either they quit or they move into some other line within the organization. That's very common.

What I'm focusing on in particular is people who understand that what the organization is doing is very, very wrong. It's either against the organization's goals, against the laws of the country, or deadly to other humans. The people, for example, who know that to let the Pinto explode X number of times, how Ford thinks it's cheaper to deal with the lawsuits than to modify the gas tank. The people who know that tobacco is killing people, or asbestos. Or the war. Just dealing with those people who know that, which is usually a large fraction of the people in the organization - of those people, a lot of them live with it very well. They go home at the end of the day and they don't worry about it.

But the number who take some action to distance themselves from it is very, very much larger than the number who act to expose it.

I'd think people's first intention usually is to try to handle the problem internally, thinking if they bring this to somebody's attention, people will say: Oh, my gosh, this is horrible. We must stop it.

That's right. And it doesn't happen. The real question is what happens then.

Of course, there is a problem. If you start that way, you have now put your superiors on notice that you're somebody who knows this and thinks that it's a problem and thinks something should be done about it. If there's a later leak, by you or anybody else, you're going to be a suspect right away. So it's not entirely advantageous, if you're going to ring the bell, to go to your superiors first if you have reason to think by some kind of experience that it's going to be bottled up.

What is it reasonable to hope that people will do in way of whistleblowing?

Well, certainly you will not get everybody who knows something to pay a personal price of losing clearance, access, career, job, friends, income, to expose that. You will not get a majority to do it. You will not get a very large proportion to do it, unfortunately.

Keep in mind that the number of whistleblowers you get on some things where the public needs desperately to know this information is extremely small. You're talking about handfuls of people in a given subject.

I believe it would very helpful if you doubled that, tripled that, made that ten times more. You're still talking still very small numbers, a hundred instead of five. That could make a vast difference in a lot of different areas, especially if they did it - and this is important - in a timely way, which is even rarer, much rarer. Doesn't apply to me, by the way.

And that's one of the regrets you express in your book.

Right. Katharine Gun is one of the very few examples of somebody who actually put something out in time for it to make a big difference, even though it didn't.

She worked at the British equivalent of NSA, GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters. She gave to a journalist friend who gave it to the Observer, the text of an NSA message to Britain asking them to cooperate in the bugging and wiretapping of all members of the UN Security Council. She, of course, was violating the British Official Secrets Act.

It was an NSA operational message talking about who they're tapping and who is to do the tapping. It's an operational list. As soon as I saw that, I knew, having had various clearances, that takes a clearance that even I didn't have. Very high classification, much higher than top secret and higher than most compartmented clearances. So I knew on the one hand, that's a major leak. Second, it's on a very, very critical matter. As she put it, they were using illegal means to pursue an illegal war. Specifically, they were trying to make the war look legal by getting a vote in the UN that would support it. The reason they had to listen in on people and to try to intimidate them or extort from them, blackmail them, was that obviously the war did not deserve to be made legal.

Her revelation was, I believe, a significant factor in the failure of the UN to support it. The U.S. had to withdraw its proposal to vote on that. And she had reason to believe that that might stop Britain from participating, if you couldn't get a UN vote, because Blair had repeatedly said he wouldn't go without a UN vote, it was essential. Or at least very desirable, let's put it that way.

If the UK didn't go, it was reasonable to hope that the US might not go. So she had a chance of preventing that war and certainly in preventing UK participation, for which she expected to go to prison.

I would think it takes a long time to work yourself up to the act of whistleblowing.

Unfortunately. I think it's very common for people who do that to feel that they have failed to do it on earlier occasions. That doesn't seem to be always true. Katharine Gun amazes me, she's an enigma to me. She was 28 when she did this. She'd been around for a couple years so she wasn't a total novice at GCHQ, but she says that the thought of leaking anything had just never occurred to her, any more than it had occurred to me before 1968.

And there might be people right now that are at this stage, where they knew something is wrong and they've kept a record of it.

The thing I would like to get out to people is what is really rare is to put out a document on a current administration while it is still very timely and can affect an ongoing process or to prevent a decision that hasn't yet been made.

The price you pay is going to be very significant in career terms, whether or not the stakes are very high.

Even if the number is proportionately still very small, a very significantly more number of people are capable of doing this if they face how much difference that it can make. And if they oppose an obligation to do this to the obligations they recognize to be loyal to their boss, loyal to their team, to keep their promises, to stand by and do right by their families and their children, their college, all that. All these things are in play, things they feel as matters of principle to some extent, not just careerism, ambition - their identity as somebody who can be trusted with secrets. And to jump out of that is like jumping out of their skin. I know it was for me.

I think also your appeal is tempered by your emphasis on "only do it when there are these vital things at stake."

Well, if the costs weren't so great, I'd encourage people to tell the truth. It is rather broadly believed that of course people ought to tell the truth to Congress or whatever and they're shocked when they don't. The fact is, they don't. And you - the generic you here - wouldn't do it. That's not what people do. The costs are great and people don't want to pay those costs.

But the message I'm trying to get out is that a lot more people than do it are capable of paying that price. And people need to stop regarding the government as the highest authority on these matters. It's a tremendous change for somebody who thinks of himself, for example, as a president's man.

Well, the timing of the NSA leak right before the Patriot Act fits somewhat into your "timeliness" criteria.

The timing was good, and by the way, before the election would have been better. Every time something like that comes out, I would love to see both newspapers and the people involved say: Should I have done that and should I have done it earlier? And what should I be putting out now, like that?

For a long time I didn't appeal to people to be whistleblowers or leakers because it seemed to me that I would be heard as being defensive about myself or apologetic or self-congratulatory. You know, do what I did. What I did was right and you should do it. And I didn't want to be heard that way.

And then I realized it really was important to encourage people to do this. For 30 years I've encouraged people to do civil disobedience in general. Yet I didn't talk much to audiences about whistleblowing on the assumption that really they weren't in a position to do what I'd done anyway.

If I'd been talking to State Department people or the Defense Department - but that's a reason they're damned careful not to let me speak there - if I could talk to such an audience, I would have talked about doing what I did.

So I didn't bother to talk about whistleblowing to outsiders. And then I realized, you know, whistleblowing really is very important. I should be talking about it, I've been wrong not to talk about it. I realized that a way of talking about it which didn't have this "do what I did" aspect was to say, "Don't do what I did. Don't wait years like I did. Do it currently." You know, make it clear that I'm not saying that I acted absolutely rightly or that I didn't delay longer than I should have. But that it can be done better than I did. It really has to be done better than I did.

Don't wait until the bombs are falling. Don't wait until thousands more have died, years into the war, before going to Congress and the press with documents that you know would reveal lies to the public, threats to the Constitution and to our democracy, information that could avert a war or shorten a war, which is being wrongly withheld.

Now I know that this can't be done lightly. I certainly don't criticize people for leaking anonymously. Quite the contrary.

And I would say that documents generally do make a very big difference. The Abu Ghraib scandal certainly has not led to a clear-cut stopping of the practice even after the president signed that bill. But it has gotten a lot of attention and activity, which would not have happened without two types of documents. They needed both. They needed the photos to make the thing concrete and dramatic and they needed the Taguba Report which was leaked to Sy Hersh to show that it wasn't just a practice of a few people but it was a widespread, systematic practice, authorized at some higher level which they managed to cover up pretty effectively.

But both those documents were essential and they were timely. That's an example of the kind of stuff we need.

And like the NSA leaks.

Yes, I would like the public to see that these were people - as James Risen has reported - who were doing this conscientiously, that this was the right thing for them to do, they did it because the public needed it. I would like their example to be followed. Now obviously, if they're all put in prison for life or one year or for ten years, the example will discourage a lot of people as well as still encouraging some. It could have a cooling effect.

Above all, ideally I'd like to see them come out, take responsibility for it, even if they're outed. But a number of these people, according to Risen - he said I've never in my years as a reporter seen such clear-cut examples of conscientious behavior.

I want that example to be out there. There has to be more of it. I think there are dozens of people who could have prevented this Iraq catastrophe if they had chosen to risk their career and probably paid for it. If Richard Clarke had put out documents, I think he might well have gone to prison for that. And saved how many Iraqi and American lives? And it would have been worth it for him, I believe. But there were dozens of other people. Not only Powell, but people who worked for Powell, people like Wilkerson, or Wilkerson's secretary. There are so many people who could do this.

You think Clarke could have prevented the war?

I wish Clarke had told us - and the press and Congress - in 2001 or in any month of 2002, what he did tell us in his book in 2004, with the documents in his safe. Had there been a study of that like the Pentagon Papers? No. What he had in his safe was the kind of stuff I had in my safe in 1964. All the raw material. But not just raw cables and memos, I'm sure, but studies, briefs, here's where we are, here's what's going to happen. Summaries, in other words. He could have prevented the war.

This is a guy who deserves great credit for telling us in 2004, but at the same time, faces the challenge that it was too late to stop the war at that point. Sorry to say, it didn't even affect the election that much. But he was talking about things three years old, and he wasn't doing it with documents.

But how about the ones who know that it's not only unconstitutional and illegal, but dangerous, disastrous, catastrophic, which is what Clarke saw? Undoubtedly, Wilkerson saw that and his boss, Powell.

I would say, hundreds and hundreds of people, in the joint staff, in the services, in intelligence, in the State Department - it could easily be thousands of people who thought this was illegal and disastrous. But none of them put out a document.

Putting out documents is of primary importance, then?

In many ways, yes. One of the effects you can really look for - it may destroy you in the process personally - but one of the effects you can begin to anticipate when you do something like that is that they will take action that put them at some legal risk. And they lose. That's what happened in my case. They took illegal actions to intimidate me, to blackmail me, from putting out more stuff. If I had only copied the Pentagon Papers, or if I'd copied more but they didn't know it, Nixon would have stayed in office, in my opinion.

But knowing that I had stuff on him and that I was not to be intimidated just by the threat of prison I was already facing, they had to find other ways, and there were no legal ways to try to stop me. They had to try illegal ways to stop me, just as they were doing with Joseph Wilson.

Yes, if they'd totally ignored his op-ed, I doubt anything would have come of it.

I'll make a speculation. Now, these guys are very good at PR.

I'm sure they knew - although they claim they didn't - that that they were breaking the law. They were taking a chance with this Valerie Plame stuff. I am led by the analogy to my case to guess that they had worries about Wilson that went far beyond what he had yet revealed. If he was just saying I went over there and this is what I found - it's too easy to answer that. You say, oh, big deal, so what? I'm guessing that they had the same kind of worry about him that they had about me. And that was that he might have other cards up his sleeve here that we haven't seen yet. And he's obviously willing to talk and it's not easy to intimidate him. So I think they had a Wilson problem there and it was much more specific and bigger than we've learned. It was not just to silence this gnat who was buzzing about that particular thing.

They brought out the big guns by outing his wife.

You know, various false analogies are often made between Wilson and me in terms of what they did, the two plumber's operations, on the grounds that they thought they were just trying to discredit me and they were trying to discredit Wilson. I'm saying, that was certainly not true in my case. They had put me on trial already, they called me a traitor, they'd done what they could to discredit me. As far as the Pentagon Papers were concerned, my credibility wasn't an issue. It was a document.

In his case, his credibility was at issue to some extent because he didn't have documents, he was speaking on his own. To discredit him did serve a purpose more than in my case. But I still question, without knowing, whether their sole impulse through this whole thing was either to discredit him or to punish him. I don't think others would be that intimidated by the fact, this very peculiar fact, that they put out Valerie Plame's name. It's an odd punishment, you know, to out the guy's wife.

The CIA and the U.S. interest pays a price. I don't think punishment was the deal here. That was his first guess, that they were punishing him. I think he may have missed what I missed at the time, which was: How much are these guys worried about how much else I knew? Remember, I didn't know how much else there was to know. They knew.

They didn't know what I had. I think the situation is very similar there. He doesn't know all their secrets, but they have to worry about it, they have to worry that he knows more than he does. You know, he might know a lot. With Wilson, I think these guys again are smart enough not to take risks like that for no reason or just to punish or just out of pique, which is what people say: "They were mad." People still think to this day that Nixon did what he did against me because of his impetuous pique, rage, revenge. No. The putting on trial, yes. But the plumbers, no. That was for the very instrumental reason, to protect the lies that protected his plans on the war, which were to keep the war going and to expand it. They wanted information to blackmail me into silence about what else I might have on their own administration.

In Wilson's case, it's almost as if they've fired the biggest shot you could fire. I can't imagine what else they could do, once they outed Plame.

Oh, you can be sure there's more they can do.

It didn't shut him up and if he did have more information, the way he won't shut up, it seems you would be even more worried now. What do you have left to bludgeon him with?

Well, remember, when it really came to the point with me, of bombing Haiphong and they were thinking of nuclear threats, they brought people to stop me from talking, to kill me. Or to put me in the hospital, to shut me up. You say they've done everything they could do? No.

You touched on in your book something I've rarely seen when you discussed making your decision to join a peace march and doing your first leafleting. You discussed the fear of feeling absurd:

Something very important had happened to me. I felt liberated. I doubt I could have explained that at the time. But by now I have seen his exhilaration often enough in others, in particular people who have just gone through their first action of civil disobedience, whether or not they have been taken to jail. This simple vigil, my first public action, had freed me from a nearly universal fear whose inhibiting force, I think is very widely underestimated. I had become free of the fear of appearing absurd, of looking foolish, for stepping out of line.

How do you help people to get over that fear of looking foolish?

Well, what does foolish mean? It means behaving in a way very differently, oddly, strangely. And it would appear, ineffectively. After all, most people don't flatter themselves that what they're doing is extremely important or effective, but they're usually working within a structure - government or a corporation or university that's very powerful and prestigious and important, even if they're individual employees.

If you step out alone, if you stand on a sidewalk naked of any institutional affiliation, just saying, "I think this, here's what I think we should do," or "I'm against that," you're all out there alone, meaning you're acting very differently from everybody else. And that in itself looks odd and threatening; it looks crazy while you're doing it. How could acting all by yourself, little you, or with a few other losers, possibly have any effect on anything? Whatever you know of your own rationality, you know you're going to face a question that you don't ordinarily face: Is this person crazy? Are they a homeless psychopath of some kind? Have they lost their marbles? People asked that about me all the time, my old RAND colleagues, Has Dan gone crazy?

And there's the fear of being laughed at.

Being laughed at, yes. It's very important to get over that if you can. That's a major reason for doing civil disobedience: It frees you, you suddenly discover that you're not made of sugar, you don't just melt if you're faced with questioning and even contempt.

When I read that passage, I thought about Cindy Sheehan, how she did something that has been ridiculed, standing in that ditch, but it was such a powerful statement.

She didn't just in that case come out of nowhere. For at least a year she had been doing things which were worthwhile but they were much more dignified.

It's that willingness to stand out from a crowd so that you are noticed and dramatic. Everything she'd been doing earlier was right for her to do and was worth doing, but it didn't threaten her dignity. And this, standing out there, really did threaten the possibility that she would just be seen as having become unbalanced. Yet here is one of those cases where it just worked.

Since I've been activist and very rarely with even the remotest hint of effect, I've felt for a long time you have to push on every door. It's very hard to predict when these very long-shot things in fighting the government will work. It depends on chance or things beyond your control very often, timing and what else is going on.

For example, I don't think that she or anyone had really thought it through, the circumstances that taking an action like that in Crawford had the peculiar effect that you had a lot of press there with nothing to do and no news except that the president had cut some brush today. And that they therefore would have time and interest in going over and taking a look at what was going on.

What I hear you saying is that because you don't know beforehand what will work, you just keep trying different things.

Yeah, that's what I'm saying. What I did during Vietnam was what people should be doing now, and that is: Everything they can think of that may contribute to ending one of three extreme dangers: one, a more or less endless prolongation of the Iraq war. That's going to be very hard to change, but obviously we should be working on it.

Two, averting an attack on Iran, and especially the use of nuclear weapons on Iran.

Three, trying to avert the institution of a police state here under George Bush as dictator.

All of these things are in a crisis phase, although frankly Iraq is going to be with us for a long time. It's appropriate for a lot of people to be doing an awful lot more than they are doing to avert those.

The message to be heard is: This is a situation that justifies risking your career and your associations and your freedom and your life. It justifies the kind of courageous action that we are asking of every person in Iraq every hour of the day and night. There's nobody over there - unlike Vietnam - who's safe in their beds from a mortar attack. It's certainly not safe when they go outside the Green Zone. And we're regarding that as being a routine thing to be asking of them. Oh, they're our brave soldiers and we're very grateful for it, but we're not surprised they're being so brave. And they are very ordinary people, that's for sure, all these terribly brave people. They did not sign up because they were terribly brave, the situation demands that they be brave and they're living up to it, they're being very brave physically.

It's time for people in this country, civilians, to start looking into themselves for the ability to be brave like that. And not physically, but to have what the Germans term "civil courage." Bismarck said at one point, courage on the battlefield is not rare, but civil courage is rare. We need that concept over here. People talk of moral courage but it's rarely defined what that means exactly.

Civil courage means standing up for principle in the face of the state, risking career, risking the good opinion of other people for the good of the community and the society.

This notion of civil courage seems separate from that of physical courage to me.

Right. Physical courage doesn't do it. I always felt that I would be very calm under fire, I thought I would be when I was a Marine. And when I was in Vietnam I was interested to see if that turned out to be true, and it was true. But that was true of everybody around me. That's very common in the field, as Bismarck said.

But people who are physically courageous, it's not a tip-off as to whether they'll really be able to have civil courage. They're doing that under orders or to fulfill the mission. To risk doing what you think you should against the will of your superiors or your team, that seems to take some other kind of characteristic and I don't know what it is.

What can ordinary citizens do, people who don't have access to documents?

One suggestion I would make right now about what's called for in the way of action is that there should be now a major public debate, in effect town hall meetings. Or teach-ins, a very neglected happening. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, teach-ins were a very good institution. At the beginning they encouraged administration spokesman to come and represent the government point of view. And at the beginning the government was stupid enough to do that. They got wise in about six months and no longer provided anybody. But for that time, that was good because people got a real debate, adversarial proceedings. The upshot of that was that within a year of the start of teach-ins, that generation of college students knew more about the history of Vietnam and the illegitimacy of our role than anyone in the government except a handful of people who'd been around for 30 years. People like me, who were new to the subject, didn't know nearly as much as somebody who'd sat in a college gym or auditorium for several hours and really heard about this history.

This is a very good time for that. Why is the Constitution written as it is? We should be discussing the separation of powers, which the president obviously has contempt for. It's time to educate ourselves and administration officials on what we gain out of that. Other issues are the dangers of the secrecy system, and the question of surveillance. The question of empire should really be looked at and debated now as well.

Schedule of Ellsberg Interviews at Daily Kos

Part I, January 20, 2006 - The Pentagon Papers and the Overlooked 1968 Leaks: Covers Ellsberg feeling that the Pentagon Papers ultimately proved ineffective in what he was trying to accomplish, but that leaks he did prior to them in 1968 were much more effective.

Part 2, January 21, 2006 - Judith Miller, the New York Times and Government-Controlled Press: Ellsberg speculates that Miller was "on the team" for the CIA - something he witnessed of several reporters during Vietnam - and that to a greater or lesser extent than the public realizes, we are dealing with a controlled press in this country.

Part 3, January 22, 2006 - The Cult of Secrecy in Government and Its Undermining of Democracy: Ellsberg discusses the undermining effects of government secrecy on the working of a practicing democracy, overclassification and the problems of signing oaths of secrecy to get clearances, which routinely leads to lying to Congress and courts during the course of investigations.

Part 4, January 27, 2006 - Whistleblowing and Effective Activism: Ellsberg talks about the hows and whys of whistleblowing - and importantly, when it's NOT worth the personal price - as well as what average American citizens can do to effectively put pressure on the government for change.

Part 5, January 28, 2006 - Iraq/Vietnam Parallels and Other Foreign Policy Fiascos: Ellsberg analyzes the obvious parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, as well as the two major differences - oil and strategic geographical importance - which he believes will keep us in Iraq for as long as 50 years.

Part 6, January 29, 2006 - Bush, the Next 9/11 and the Approaching Police State: Ellsberg discusses ... well, the title says it all.

Daniel Ellsberg's website.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 08:40 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  As always in this wonderful ... (4.00)
    ...interview with one of my heroes, there is so much grist for discussion that it seems almost mean to simply focus on one.

    However, the whistleblower aspect is dear to my heart as an old journalist. Half of the best investigative pieces I did - ages ago - would have been impossible if someone had not taken a risk that their identity would be revealed. As for those who publicly expose illegalities or legal but reprehensible behavior, dozens of laws supposedly protect them from retaliation. But if you take a look at what happens to a hefty proportion of such folks, it's obvious no law can provide full protection. More than one whistleblower has had her career, sometimes her life, ruined because of her courageous willingness to speak out. Hail to them all.

    •  identity (none)
      Having been in this situation, I'm confused about how identity is protected. The press initially didn't identify me. However, the company I was whistleblowing against just named me in their PR and filed a nuisance suit to make my name a public record. Then reporters told me that they were free to use my name because it was on the public record.

      It seems relatively easy to get around whatever safeguards there are. It's not like anyone rallied to protest about what happened to me, so no one seems to care unless the whistleblower is some celebrity.

  •  This is a fabulous (none)
    set of interviews.  By providing such a wide-ranging and in-depth set of interviews with such a fascinating subject as Ellsberg -- a set of interviews that not only wouldn't be published in most news magazines or media outlets, but in many cases couldm't be published because of format and length restrictions -- Susan is showing just what real journalistic blogs can do, how they can transcend the traditional medium to give us something we couldn't have from the traditional press.  Congratulations for pushing the envelope, Susan, and I'm eager to see the final sections.
  •  Different People Same Event Different Results (none)
    When the Mai Lai massacre occured the helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. was there to prevent any more of the murderous rampage. Then Colin Powell came along to muddie the waters and distract the American public from this attrocity long enough for Nixion to be elected. Bonhoffer challanged Hitler's Reichchurch and was arrested, then hung. Pope Benedict joned the Hitler youth and fought for the Luftwaffe. Whistleblower vs. sycophantic "yes man", see the checkbook of these four men.
    Though Mr. Ellsberg's earlier work, "Risk Ambiguity and the Savage Axioms" is an absolutely wonderful tool for understanding Republican electoral success.

    "Like Mohammad it's the truth." Pearl Jam

    by realalaric on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 09:08:11 AM PST

  •  Thank you so much (none)
    ...both of you.  There's really a lot of food for thought, here.  There really is.

    How can we get over it when people died for the right to vote? -- John Lewis

    by furryjester on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 09:09:25 AM PST

  •  A tool for you and me to fight govt wrongdoing (none)
    At the beginning of January, I heard Ann Fagan Ginger of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute speak. Ginger provided information on an often ignored tool for Americans to use to fight federal government abuse and corruption.

    Individuals like you and me can use The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to file complaints about abuse and corruption that are required to be investigated ending with a report issued to Congress about their findings.

    Why should we do all the hard work when our taxpayer dollars have people who will do it for us?

    Here's a link to describe how I filed a complaint against possible:-) wrongdoing by DeLay, Pombo, and Doolittle with the FDIC's Office of Inspector General.

  •  It's time for the Dems in Congress to (4.00)
    risk ridicule and to become whistleblowers themselves: to blow the whistle on all they know about the deep corruption at the heart of government. Ellsberg says:
    I had become free of the fear of appearing absurd, of looking foolish, for stepping out of line.

    Leveymg's diary shows that the DCCC already knows enough to file a RICO suit against Tom DeLay. Why don't they release documents? Why do they cower?

    A few whistleblowing government bureaucrats can't do it without a special prosecutor and/or Congressional hearings. IMO.

  •  That is the question (none)
    To be or not to be, that is the question?  You will have to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  It's an age old thing.  As one who knows only too well, I'd have to say if you have a family, a career that matters and you value your life, don't do it unless you can find a way to be totally anonymous. GAP worked on this during the 90's.  I'm not sure there is ever a way to never be found out as deep throat was not typical.  He did know the dangers and found a way to be protected.  Average people don't know how to do it.  The rub, as in my case, you become a whistle-blower and don't even know it.  I thought I was just doing my job.  Also, a DOD lawyer told me to do it, so I really thought I was doing my job.  A dozen years of my life and $100,000 in legal fees, not to mention all that comes with the territory like having phone conversations monitored, a federal judge ruled that I was a whistle-blower and was forced out of my job for being one.  As a good Republican Bush appointee, he said the government had sovereign immunity and it was my tough luck.  Congress was very clear that I should have recourse under the law I went to court with, but the higher courts all rubber stamped the lower court ruling.  The trial judge didn't cite one case in his decision.  No case law was used in his decision, not one.  There was a split in the circuit courst on this issue and the Supremes clerks club that decides which cases get heard threw it out the window, cert denied. The R's now have all the branches of government, so even telling one of them probably won't make a lick of difference.  

    Winning without Delay.

    by ljm on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 10:14:57 AM PST

    •  Brilliant (none)
      First, for Susan G, Excellent work - as always.

      Second, for ljm, I think we'll be seeing people selected on ideological grounds to be primed as "whistle-blowers," those people will be institutionally massaged or instructed to pre-release negative information about programs and policies which the government is prepared to combat with a gigantic PR blitz. The media will eat up the government's POV, because they have no incentive to do otherwise anymore. American democracy becomes even more remote and much, much harder to recapture. Meanwhile, the whistle-blowers will lose everything, like they were supposed to from the outset.

      The cynicism of these people knows no bounds. They'll find a way to ferret out the ideologically impure and use something as profoundly important as whistle-blowing to bolster the strength of their hold on our government and us.

      I don't have a real good feeling about our ability to self-correct here.

      The soul that is within me no man can degrade. - Frederick Douglass

      by Kimberley on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 10:43:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is a great series! (none)
    Thanks so much Georgia10 and Dan.  The idea of teach-ins is a great one, as there seems to be so much ignorance abroad in the land.
  •  I remember asking Daniel Ellsberg (none)
    at the Nuclear Freeze convention in St. Louis in 1983 if he thought that enough Freeze supporters refusing to pay for a nuclear Armageddon could turn events around.  (A tax refusal stand that Noam Chomsky and other well-knowns had taken during the Vietnam War.)

    He replied that it was a good idea for individuals who felt that way, but he didn't think enough people would do it to have an effect.

    I replied that that was the exact point of me talking to him at that moment.  That, if I was only betting on the outcome, of course I agreed with his outlook.  (As if Daniel Ellsberg had been merely betting on the chances of stopping the Vietnam War.  Not!)

    But I wasn't betting.  I was just trying to keep the world from blowing up, and I figured he was a lot more influential person than me.  (I mean, look at what he had already accomplished!)

    So, we all "moved along".  And where are we now?

    Some things -- you just need to put a stop to them...

    If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State...

    by HenryDavid on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 10:54:18 AM PST

  •  The power of social coercion... (none)
    Ellsberg is exploring in very concrete terms the power of the network of social and economic forces.

    People he seems to say (I agree) love the low energy low risk path, and obedience to authority is usually the way to keep your risks low.

    We do want people to be constrained to behave in orderly ways (everyone should drive on the right, or there would be chaos, everyone should follow the routine rules of life at work)....

    ... and yet tyrrany is the art of using our instincts of routine social compliance to enforce discipline and allegiance to ideas that our moral and physical instincts would otherwise rebel against (violence, lawbreaking, domination).

    Ellsberg is asking exactly the right questions... how can ordinary people extract themselves from the oh so comfortable habbits of compliance?  How can they recognize when the routine rules of the road have been twisted to a purpose that no longer serves the public good?

    It would be easy if we adopted the anarchists credo of obeying no authority but our own inner moral voice.  But the real challenge is how to enable people to both be routine rule followers (please don't run stop signs, please use form XYZ when filling out an expense report), and yet enable them to have the power to recognize when those habbits have led them to untennable moral situation.  

    That's tough.

    This is a great interview about a great subject.  Thanks Susan.

  •  curious irony (none)
    (Nice job as always, SusanG!)

    I followed the link to Mr. Ellsberg's Truth-Telling Project, and while puttering around there ran into an interesting editorial by him called Truths Worth Telling.  Well worth reading in its own right, but what really struck me was where and when it was first published -- the New York Times, September 28, 2004.

    Alas, if only the editors of that paper had read what they printed, and decided not to muffle the whistles of those trying to expose the law-breaking of the President.

    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

    by Bearpaw on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 11:04:10 AM PST

  •  talk is cheap (none)
    As long as people just sit around talking about the obstacles to whistleblowing in general, then we can expect the lies to prevail. It's not enough to commiserate over the suffering. When whistleblowers are left to fend for themselves against enormous corporations and/or the State, they're suffering sets the precedent for how all others will be treated. I don't think anyone gets yet that the State does not apologize for illegal activity if no lawyer or media-driven public protest gets in their way. The abuse of whistleblowers just stands, and the only take-away lesson is that's what "troublemakers" get.

    The only people who should attempt whistleblowing are celebrities with massive media connections and the money for their own legal team.

    Now imagine a world where only this elite can get away with speaking the truth. To quote The West Wing, we live in a world we construct. No one is doing anything about the construction that leaves whistleblowers of little financial means totally unprotected.

    •  Even with lawyers (none)
      to help you fight in court, the deck is stacked against whistle-blowers with the judges on the bench.  In my case, I got 23 pages of gobbldy-gook for a decision and not one citation from case law.  It was stranger than fiction, that decision, but not unexpected from the judge I had who was a Bush I appointee.  The circuit court and SCOTUS then became rubberstamps.  I agree about the celebrity whistle-blowers being the only ones with a chance of prevailing.  

      Winning without Delay.

      by ljm on Fri Jan 27, 2006 at 03:55:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  stranger than fiction (none)
        May I high-five you?

        Thanks so much for bringing up the Judge issue. People who have never been through litigation just assume we have a functioning legal system.

        In my case, the corporation didn't have to resort to case law to make their point, either. They only brought up case law to deny that I was a public figure (in reply to my SLAPP complaint). For the actual litigation, they brought nothing. The case law is actually on my side, but because I have no legal training I couldn't deliver this in a way the Judge would have to acknowledge it. The Judge just used technicalities to keep from hearing me so he could go with his own "gut feeling". And the Judge wanted to make some sort of statement against hackers. What actually happened (no hacking involved) is irrelevant to everybody's agenda.

        It's been nothing but stunning to me that people with a vast amount of power (like Judges) are willing to abuse their power at the expense of the weakest members of society. Actually, everyone should be treated equally, but it seems like there's extra virtue involved in giving a little extra consideration to a person with huge disadvantages - just in the name of leveling the playing field a little.

        Another source of disappointment is how difficult it has been to mobilize people over issues as big as corporations taking direct action to frame someone and State agencies getting away with illegal actions. People often write me to tell me that they've been abused in various ways. They seem desperate for help, but when I try to get them together to share resources and combine forces to fight back, people can't be bothered to join a YahooGroup. Nothing will ever change unless people stop filtering out other people's problems and start looking for ways to trade assistance.

        Sorry for the ramble. I thought I was going to get slapped down for being a grouch, and it's delightful to find instead someone who knows what I'm talking about.

    •  Don't say no one is working on whistleblowers (none)
      I work every day to protect conscientious public sector employees from becoming whistleblowers, and to protect those that do become whistleblowers.

      I am whisteblower myself who was pushed out of a government career, so I understand your plight, frustration, and bitternesss.

  •  Exceptional Report (none)
    Thank you for this incredible interview.  I have long been thinking about what allows people to show "civil courage".  What can we do to help promote that type of courage?  What an amazing man Mr. Ellsberg was during the dark days of Vietnam, and his influence can be even more profound as he helps us understand what can be done to help encourage others to follow his example.  Thank you both.

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