One thing the Pentagon Papers should have shown people but really haven't, are the limitations of our ability to know what's going on inside the national security apparatus from the outside. The notion that we really know who's on which side and who's saying what and what they're really saying to each other is very, very unreliable.
It's worth prying on things right now and really trying to get in. I think journalists should be trying to find people who are genuinely willing to talk about what's going on in this administration. It isn't easy, but it's possible. There's always a lot more dissent inside than ever gets to the outside. A major aspect of secrecy is to conceal the fact that there's authoritative dissenting opinion within. There are people who have access to the same information that the president has who totally disagree with the course of action that he's taking. And every president is extremely concerned to hide that fact and to lie about it.
To know that there are authorities inside who see the situation as reckless or as dangerous or wrong-headed as critics outside ... If that were to come out, it would have several effects. One, if it came out before the actions were taken, it exposes the whole thing to controversy. You can't stop the controversy by saying, Look, you guys just don't know ... if you knew what we knew, you'd be with us. But inside leaks tell the public right away there are people who know what they know and they don't agree with them, so you get a controversy.
At the very least, even if the president gets his way, he has to make bargains with other people. He has to concede things and make compromises and he'd have to pay a higher price for it, in effect. If you go along with this, I'll give you that. So it might even prevent him from carrying out the policy.
But there's another aspect, that if you can't say it was unanimous in favor of this, you can't plead ignorance if it goes bad. When a thing goes bad, as it has in Iraq, he would like to be able to say, no one could have foreseen this, no one did foresee this, no one gave me contrary advice.
You spent a lot of your life - obviously before the release of the Pentagon Papers - dealing with secret material. Tell me a little bit about the culture that develops around that experience.
I think the phenomenon and significance of secrecy in a society - who does it, what purpose it's used for, what functions it serves - is not nearly as much studied as it deserves to be.
Top secret is almost like toilet paper in the Pentagon. I literally just did not have time in my 12-hour days to read very much that was less than top secret. I was reading, reading, reading, and it was all top secret. That means if you live on that stuff, you really look down on the New York Times readers, along with the rest of the country. If you look at the New York Times, you look at it very rarely for information, just to see what the rubes and the yokels are thinking about and what they think is going on and what they think the policy is, which has very little to do with what's going on to an insider.
Imagine losing that access and just having to rely on the New York Times again, knowing for the rest of your life that you're just reading fantasies basically, something that isn't really related to what the insider knows. It's a very great loss.
Can that explain why people like Colin Powell and other former officials often don't criticize the administration?
All these people always want to be available, almost to be channeled from the other world; that's a slight exaggeration, but it's the way they act. They do want to be available to be brought into that room for a consultation when they're 93, in the afternoon. "We know you know about this document, we want your advice on this point."
You want to be trusted to be silent about what you heard or what you're told, if it's in any way embarrassing to the president. Otherwise, if you once made that mistake, you know you will not be consulted again. You will not be made to feel you're one of the team and can be trusted with new information and you won't have the thrill of knowing what's really going on.
Yet I'd think there's also the feeling when you walk away from it, like you had to, like any whistleblower does ... there's still the knowledge that because you saw how things worked, you can interpret events that you do read in the New York Times with a little more savvy than somebody who's never had access.
Except that it may separate you from everybody else you know because you can't say you know what's going on - in fact, you know you don't know in a real sense. But there is the fact that you can guess certain things about what might be going on, and to other people it sounds crazy or paranoid or un-American. How could you suspect such a thing?
How exactly did secrecy affect this country during Vietnam?
One of the lessons of Vietnam would certainly be the danger of the secrecy system, an aspect of which is its very great effectiveness. The truth is there was what amounted a very wide conspiracy within the government that was extremely effective to get us into an enlarged war, a real war, in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965. The joint chiefs had been pressing for that since 1961 and every year. But in 1964 it was understood in the Pentagon, which I entered in mid-1964, that they were going to get their way soon after the election. And it was not to be revealed before the election that the Goldwater open campaigning program of enlarged war in Vietnam was basically under planning and underway inside the Pentagon and that whoever the voters actually voted for, they were going to get an enlarged war.
Now under Goldwater, the war would have been even larger than it was, so there was a difference. But the difference was not between the status quo in which we had some 16,000 advisors, and war with hundreds of thousands of troops. That was not a real choice for the voters even though it was the number one issue of the campaign, with Johnson claiming falsely that "we seek no wider war." All of his subordinates, all of his subordinates, were planning for and expected him to direct a wider war soon after the election, which is what he did.
Indeed, Goldwater's slogan was "A Choice, Not an Echo," and many people chose in an unprecedented landslide against Goldwater without realizing that in reality they were not being offered a choice of status quo in Vietnam or possibly an exit. They were going to get an expanded war.
The number of people in the government who knew that must have been numbered in hundreds at least, and I would say thousands when you consider all the military people, possibly many thousands. There are 30,000 employees in the Pentagon. Obviously, they didn't all know this, but an awful lot of them did. And everyone I dealt with did and I was easily in the level of a hundred people.
Given the predictable attitudes of the public toward the idea of extended war in Vietnam, which hardly any voter could have found on a map ... They really weren't anxious to follow Goldwater into a big war in Vietnam or Laos. And that's why it was kept so secret and kept the voters from knowing.
That brings up the question of the role of secrecy in a democracy itself.
It seems totally inimical to democracy to expect people to vote - and that's the perfect election to choose, Goldwater-Johnson -
As the archetype of a "real choice." Exactly. The people inside of this weren't seriously believers in democracy, at least in foreign policy. They accepted the dogma that Bush is presenting right now - that it's for the president to decide foreign policy, whatever lip service they may have given to anybody. Whatever importance Johnson may have given to Congress in rhetoric or even in his consciousness, the impact has been seen very well. He was totally deceiving Congress and the public and the voters in an election year. In his behavior, he wasn't paying any respect to the merits or the necessity or the obligation to have public sovereignty.
The secrecy system, which was rationalized then as now as a protection against external enemies was, in fact, negating democratic influence even on the policy.
So what would a real democracy look like that was operating with the least level of secrecy?
There would undoubtedly be some secrets. There will always be justifiable secrets. One measure of how far the present system deviates from a minimal essential secrecy, which hasn't really been dwelt on ever, was the release of the Pentagon Papers.
In that case, I chose not to put out full writing of the negotiation process for various reasons. But I did put out over 4,000 pages, all the rest of it. I didn't select any of it because I didn't want to be open to the charge in the slightest that I had censored, that I had in effect expurgated them to my own bias.
One of the major lessons of the whole document of the Pentagon Papers was that nowhere in them was there a convincing or compelling reason for us to be involved in Vietnam And I felt if I'd taken out as much as a paragraph or a line, people would say, "Well, how do we know what he took out? Maybe that was the good reason." No, here it is, all of it, now look at it and see what you can find. And people did look at it from that point of view and no one came up with a good rationale.
But the other question would be how many of these lines or pages deserved to be secret in 1971, or in 1968 when some of them were written, let alone those from 1945. Very little was made of that, really. I made the judgment that of these more than 4,000 top secret pages I was releasing, none of that would be found convincingly to endanger national security.
Now someone could have come up with something that would convince even me that I'd missed something, but that didn't happen. A whole slew of judges looked at this and were not convinced. And really, it's been 30 years since and no one has ever come up with anything that actually harmed or had a good chance of harming our national security. People have focused just on the case, how it bore on the case, that it shouldn't have been banned by injunction or even criminal. But the larger question is, take that as what amounts to a random or representative sample of top secret material.
So there's clearly a problem with overclassification in the system.
Literally everyone will agree that there is overclassification, more stuff classified than should be. A couple of years ago, somebody during hearings on classification gave a figure that people found very shocking, that as much as 50 percent might be overclassified. People go, wow, 50 percent.
Well, let me start from the other end. A better figure would be 98 percent. I didn't pull that one out myself; that's from a classification expert, William Florence, who testified at my trial that something like 2 percent is necessary at the time of classification - any classification, not just top secret, but any classification - maybe 2 percent. But that's very timebound. Another question is how much is this classification justified one year later or two years later. Remember that nothing in the Pentagon Papers that was classified had ever been declassified, and a lot of it went back 20 years.
The extent of overclassification is vastly more than anybody who's not familiar with the system can guess. Florence said that something like half of 1 percent deserved classification a few years later.
How much of that half a percent does the public really need to know in order to make informed decisions, in order to cast an informed vote?
Most of this stuff that's overclassified is not very relevant for the public one way or the other. It's just classified routinely or for bureaucratic disputes. The public doesn't need it very much, if at all. But that's much less important an issue than the use of classification to keep from the public stuff that they really do need to know to make decisions, to avoid wars, to end wars, to determine whether the laws are being obeyed.
Again, you look at the Pentagon Papers and you say, this is not a random selection. This is the selection by the 30 or so authors of the papers of what they considered the most significant classified items. They didn't put them in because they were classified, but because they were important in understanding the policy and knowing what the policy was and in judging them. Anybody inside would say, Yes, this is, of course, what we classify, these are joint chiefs directives and recommendations, intelligence reports of various kinds, presidential decisions. Of course, there is no question, this has to be classified. That's their tradition, their ethos. It wasn't classified by mistake.
You couldn't find a page of that stuff that could be justified in democratic terms as requiring secrecy a year or two later, after it was written, even if at the time. Nothing. Nothing. We're not talking one half of 1 percent here now, we're saying 7,000 pages of selected crucial documents, and none of it looks properly withheld from the public at the time I had them published.
That should give a pretty good measurement. How big an experiment do you need here?
What legitimate secrets should be kept classified?
To start with, it's a tiny percentage of what is actually classified. You're down in the level of 2 percent or 1 percent.
Now ironically, if somebody would ask me, Are there leaks that should not have been made? Yeah, examples come to mind and they are rather ironic.
Just after 9/11 a senator revealed that we were listening to Osama bin Laden's cell phone transmissions. Here's an example of something I would say that anybody in the system would know that you shouldn't tell. I can't imagine anybody that I know, any of my whistleblower friends certainly, who would have revealed that. Certainly I would not. And if you want to say somebody should be punished for that one way or another, I'd say, yeah ... well, you know. The man who did that was Senator Shelby of Alabama. Ironically, he's the guy who a year earlier who pushed for an Official Secrets Act, a broad Official Secrets Act. He pushed for it very much in 2000. He made that leak, probably just to show how much he was in the know.
Condoleezza Rice then confirmed it, and also later revealed that we had turned a high-level agent in Al Queda, that now there's a double agent working for us.
However it came out initially, Rice confirmed that gratuitously, again to show how much on the ball they were: Yes, we are achieving things, well, we have this mole. Again, one would say, come on. You don't have to be an expert on secrecy to know that that is a very damaging thing. The report that came out later said that of course the guy's usefulness was instantly ended.
These are examples of things that I and my whistleblower friends would immediately agree should be secret, and yet when a slight political advantage is served domestically for one of these officials for revealing it, they allow themselves to do it. It's ironic that it happened to be Rice and Shelby. It would be bad if it were anybody, but it is striking.
And the third case, obviously, is Valerie Plame. Now I wouldn't say every clandestine agent actually deserves total anonymity. The people who arranged for the overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Chile ... well, let's just say it wouldn't offend me for somebody to reveal them. I would bring them up for testimony. Other examples can follow from that.
But in Plame we have a woman who, from all we know, was pursuing something very much in our national interests of investigating proliferation of nuclear materials in other countries, someone genuinely serving our national security and which clearly requires secrecy. Again, who revealed that? Certainly it's at the Rove/Libby level and there's every reason to believe that the president and Cheney were directly involved.
These are leaks, these are secrets, that should be kept. The fact is, we do have the equivalent of an official secrets act that is narrowly defined for three types of information and they happen to involve these cases. First, for nuclear weapons design and stockpiles, locations, restricted data, original data, there is a provision that covers that under the Atomic Energy Act; it's a criminal offense to leak that information that's classified, if you know it's classified, regardless of your intentions. You don't have to go into your intent that it's to help a foreign power. It's just unlawful to reveal that. I personally really go along with that.
Second, the design of code-breaking or code-making systems or machines, cipher stuff and code-breaking stuff, and to a somewhat vague extent, the information, the intercepts, that we get from our communications intelligence.
Third, you have this 1982 law, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. That comes up in the Valerie Plame case, and that one is very new.
But we don't have anything like the British Official Secrets Act for releasing it to the public. Now if you took something and gave it to an enemy -
That would be espionage. But that's giving to a foreign power, doesn't even have to be an enemy -- essentially where you're giving information to a foreign power but you're not giving it to either our public at the same time or letting our government know that it has gone. In other words, there's no way for our government to take into account the other government's knowledge of this because the transmission has been secret, the government is not aware that the information has been given. That's espionage. That makes a very big practical difference. Obviously, if you print something in the paper, you are revealing it to other foreign powers and our own government at the same time.
It seemed like after your case, that would have been the ideal time if they really thought what you had revealed was problematic, they would passed a law at that time.
What they did so was charge me under three different laws, but primarily under what's called the Espionage Act, but not charging me with espionage. It's 18 USC 793, part of what's generally called the Espionage Act - that's not its official name. They charged me with violations of several paragraphs under that law without charging me with espionage. And in effect, they set out to use those portions of the Espionage Act as if they were an official secrets act that criminalized leaking stuff to the newspapers.
The legislative history of that showed that it was Congress' intention not to pass an official secrets act and to limit it to espionage. How do we know that? Because the Wilson administration back in 1917 proposed language that amounted to an official secrets act, any giving of classified or secret information. Congress rejected that. It was put out several times. And it was proposed by other administrations later a number of times and never really got out of committee after that.
Why? Why didn't they adopt it?
In effect, they didn't want to appeal the First Amendment. Now why not?
Two things: In part to have freedom of speech. And second, you want to be a democracy and you want to have a sovereign public, not a king. And it's essential to that, as Madison put it, to have an informed public. Thomas Paine in his argument against monarchy makes a quite extreme statement - maybe a little too extreme, but it gives you the right idea - he says nations should have no secrets, for the secrets of courts, like those of individuals are their defects. Now if you want a democracy, if you want a republic without a king, the defects are what you want to know. You can change the behavior and you can change the people and make them your servants rather than your masters.
Most of the secrets are their defects, but you can't say they should have no secrets. Most of it is their embarrassment for their defects, just the sort of thing citizens need to know. So to give them the power and then to put criminal penalties on anybody who tells something embarrassing to them makes it impossible to have a democracy and deprives the public of the freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of association, that are values in themselves.
Now here's where I have a real uncertainty about the application of the law in the case of the NSA wiretapping - if they were revealing how the NSA was intercepting this stuff or was decoding it in particular, certainly if it had to do with the process, they would certainly be violating that law.
How about just saying that the NSA is listening without revealing methods?
I'm not sure. There might be an argument as to whether that was covered.
I would think that isn't. Don't you think everybody knows that they cover foreign communications?
Yes, but they let that go by as a precedent there. It's been regarded as super-secret, but it's now been written about so much by people like James Bamford that they'd have trouble sort of retroactively prosecuting - saying, we're prosecuting you for something that's been public for a long time.
Here in this country, if you had a British official secrets act, then the treatment of Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper would be absolutely standard for every leak. And of course, some of them would go to jail like Judith Miller, although her one example shows - maybe not for too long.
Some will resist. I suspect Neil Sheehan would have resisted a lot longer, or Earl Caldwell, Sy Hersh. But not everybody. And the example of a few people with long periods in jail is going to cool off a lot of the others very quickly. From then on, it's government by handout. You only make authorized disclosures, things that are really authorized at high level.
And then what's the difference between our press and any state press?
There would be no difference then. That is a kind of usual thing in the world. Most newspapers could live with that very well. What's the disadvantage, after all, of that?
Well, to the public it's a grave disadvantage.
You don't have a democracy. But you could say, well, you know, so most people live without that. But it's worth having. And if you want to be very practical about it, you have the effect of secrecy even without an official secrets act. Even without having an official secrets act, most people think you do, so you get the effect of it.
What's the solution?
For years, with no real effect, I have proposed in various forms, to Congress and to Senator Moynihan and to various people, a concrete piece of legislation by Congress. Here's the problem: every secrecy oath, every secrecy agreement, every nondisclosure agreement that is passed in the government, every time you get a new clearance at a new agency - people are always reading these agreements which misleading or falsely warn them that if they break the agreements, they're not subject to so much a contract violation as to prosecution and they will be prosecuted under 18 USC 793. So they get that piece of propaganda many times in their head and they never question it.
As a piece of legislation, we should say that there should be a paragraph added to that secrecy oath that says: I understand that signing this agreement neither obliges me or permits me to testify falsely to a body of Congress or in court.
Now why would there be resistance to that?
That would destroy the secrecy system. They would never, never allow that.
This seems like a good time, with the wiretapping and all.
Well, I think you'd get the resolution passed, but to get it signed? No way. I won't say it's literally impossible and under crisis circumstances ... well, maybe now would not be a bad time.
Right, because people are really looking at the whole issue of secrecy right now.
The proposal, of course, if it were on the paper would put in people's minds that this is not license for them to commit perjury, it is not a license to protect them from perjury prosecution, however unlikely that might be. Look for a paper called "Are Secrecy Oaths a License to Lie?". I wrote this years ago and sent it to a lot of people in Congress.
People signing these oaths don't think of it as a license to lie or a license to commit perjury. But in practice, when the issue arises, they act as if it were. When Eliot Abrams, now in the government, was charged with deceiving Congress, he said exactly what Richard Helms said in the same situation: He said: I had a secrecy oath and I understood that as obliging me to conceal this from Congress. Now I'm sure that was said in good faith. People who sign that, if they're put in front of Congress, do believe that they have agreed to keep a secret from Congress and keeping a secret effectively commonly means to lie. They don't think about that until they face the choice. And then it's clear it's not a dilemma, it seems obvious to them.
What if Congress said, well, no, we do need secrecy, secrets are necessary. But you are not authorized by us to lie to us, under oath especially. You want to make it a little narrower? You say "lie under oath," perjury. And if you want to make it a little broader, you just say it does not oblige me or permit me to deceive Congress or a court. Notice I haven't said the public or the press. That would be too much. You couldn't conduct government at all if you said that.
But how about under oath? Do we really require a system of perjury to Congress? That's what we have. It happens every time an official testifies under oath, I'd say you're probably going to get certainly misleading statements and usually lies. And no one, to my knowledge, has ever gone to a day in jail for a lie to Congress that was essentially authorized by his superiors - in other words, where they wanted him to lie. It would be very good for the democracy, for the republic, if some people went to jail for having perjured themselves.
Would that prevent all perjury? No, because if your job depends on doing what your boss wants, which is keeping his secret, many, many people will still go in there and do what their boss wants. But with my proposal, they would no longer do it under the false belief that they had made a contractual agreement to do that which can be enforced by prosecution. And if they did otherwise, they could be prosecuted for that.
There's a broader sense right now that that's going to come up very much in the NSA things we're looking. What is the legal liability of these people in NSA who knew perfectly well they were obeying an illegal order and keeping it secret?
That's covered in the military, isn't it?
The benefit of the doubt is very much given to your superior, but if it's blatantly an illegal order, you're not supposed to obey it. That's the Nuremberg principle, honored only in the breach. It's rarely obeyed.
What if the information being protected by that secrecy is blatantly illegal?
My little oath there would say, no. Well, I didn't say illegal. That would be a slightly expanded form of the oath. The oath does not oblige you to keep secret something that is blatantly illegal. I'd add that to it - it doesn't exonerate you from your obligation to tell of blatantly illegal actions. Each one of these extensions would be fought to the death, by the way.
Well, yes, but the public is probably going around assuming that of course secrecy doesn't cover illegal acts.
They do, yeah. But the people inside think otherwise.
And it seems secrecy - especially overclassification of historical documents - almost dooms you from the get-go to repeat mistakes.
When it comes to drawing lessons from Vietnam, to this day most people have been deceived by the secrecy system into not knowing enough of the reality about policy to be able to draw proper lessons, although they did learn quite a bit, thanks in part to the Pentagon Papers and some other leaks.
But we don't have the Pentagon Papers on the Nixon era, only on the previous administrations. Okay, so the price is Vietnam. Another price: Iraq. And that's a price that's going to go on being paid for a long time.
In the case of Iraq and in the case of Vietnam, and for the Soviets in Afghanistan,(another tribute to secrecy), it would have been very unlikely to be able to get into those operations if the internal dissent and knowledge, information about the situation, had been available to the public. That had to be suppressed in those cases to get us in. And it was done so effectively.
Our lack of an official secrets act and our democracy did not protect us or the Vietnamese or the Iraqis from those wars. But the anti-war movement, in particular in Vietnam, served in a way that most people don't understand: To prevent a very much larger war from occurring that would have been just as hopeless and extremely more destructive. What people don't understand is the pressure by the joint chiefs from the beginning, which Johnson to his credit did resist. It's not to his credit that he got into the war and kept going, but he did resist blowing North Vietnam to pieces and getting into a war with China, which would probably have involved nuclear weapons.
In fact, he resisted the extension into Laos and Cambodia, which Nixon did not resist. He had every intention, I think, of pursuing those aims by threatening nuclear war directly, and definitely threatening the overall destruction of North Vietnam. What kept him from doing that was the fear that the American anti-war movement would just go wild on that and keep him from going.
Very few people knew they were having this effect because they really didn't how extreme the strategy was of the joint chiefs and of Nixon, the joint chiefs under both Johnson and Kennedy. But Nixon sympathized totally and had he been in office earlier, I have no doubt he would have carried that out.
The Pentagon Papers contributed to that mood that would not allow this much escalation of the war. And right now I am - to bring it right up to the present - I am not very optimistic, although I'll work toward getting us out of Iraq. I'm honestly not very optimistic about the chances of doing that.
When it comes, however, to doing the next Iraq, namely in Iran (and I think the odds favor that happening under Bush), I think we have a real chance of making democracy work - a chance to prevent that.
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.