Monday, February 7, 2011

ArtsPaper Interview: Daniel Ellsberg, on whistleblowing, leaks and secrecy

‬Daniel Ellsberg.‭
(‬Illustration by Pat Crowley‭)


By John Thomason


Daniel Ellsberg was an anonymous military analyst working for a conservative think tank until‭ ‬1971,‭ ‬when he ignited a national firestorm by releasing the Pentagon Papers,‭ ‬a top-secret expose of government decision-making about the Vietnam War.‭ ‬The epic document,‭ ‬detailing some‭ ‬22‭ ‬years worth of sensitive information,‭ ‬established a precedent for conscientious whistleblowers that‭ ‬resounds today,‭ ‬in the form of Pfc.‭ ‬Bradley Manning,‭ ‬Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks controversy.

Ellsberg,‭ ‬who will turn‭ ‬80‭ ‬in April,‭ ‬remains as politically active and engaged as ever,‭ ‬his popularity renewed by the‭ ‬2009‭ ‬Oscar-nominated documentary‭ ‬The Most Dangerous Man in America:‭ ‬Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.‭ ‬In commemoration of the‭ ‬40th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers‭’‬ release,‭ ‬Florida Atlantic University will‭ ‬host Ellsberg for a lecture at‭ ‬3‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬16‭ ‬at the Kaye Auditorium on the Boca Raton campus.‭ ‬Admission is‭ ‬$12.‭

John Thomason,‭ ‬who reviews film and DVDs for‭ ‬Palm Beach ArtsPaper,‭ ‬talked to Ellsberg‭ ‬by phone late last month:

‭Thomason:‭ ‬How‭’‬s your afternoon going‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬The afternoon is OK.‭ ‬I just finished an interview with a Swedish television program for next week on WikiLeaks and what‭’‬s happening in the Middle East.

Thomason:‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬you‭’‬ve been in demand a lot lately.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬because of WikiLeaks,‭ ‬the analogy to the Pentagon Papers period is so strong that it‭’‬s mentioned all the time,‭ ‬so people have been turning to me in a way they haven‭’‬t for quite a while.

Thomason:‭ ‬Do you find it‭’‬s an accurate comparison‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬I think basically so.‭ ‬It‭’‬s inevitable.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬there‭’‬s major differences,‭ ‬but there are fundamental similarities.‭ ‬It‭’‬s the first large-scale release of classified information from inside the government by an official whistleblower since the Pentagon Papers‭ ‬40‭ ‬years ago.‭ ‬There really hasn‭’‬t been anything like it in between.‭ ‬So the comparison is inevitable,‭ ‬even though the content of what‭’‬s released has some significant differences.‭ ‬The Pentagon Papers were‭ ‬top-secret,‭ ‬very sensitive,‭ ‬high-level decision-making papers by the Joint Chiefs and the top officials of the government on policy-making‭; ‬these are field-level reports,‭ ‬largely,‭ ‬or in the case of the State Department cables,‭ ‬relatively low-level secret,‭ ‬rather than‭ ‬top secret,‭ ‬documents,‭ ‬so they don‭’‬t reveal as much about decision-making as the Pentagon Papers did.

On the other hand,‭ ‬the current ones have the advantage of being,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬more current than the Pentagon Papers were.‭ ‬The most recent of those were at least three years old,‭ ‬and in this case,‭ ‬the documents go right up to last year,‭ ‬which means the new Obama Administration.‭ ‬And one of the secrets,‭ ‬you might say,‭ ‬that‭’‬s‭ ‬revealed in these papers,‭ ‬is the same as in the Pentagon Papers,‭ ‬and that is how great a degree of continuity there is in policy,‭ ‬even between administrations that claim to be very different.‭ ‬There‭’‬s not a lot of difference in what we can read in the State Department cables of‭ ‬2009‭ ‬from‭ ‬2008,‭ ‬and the policies and general approach seem very similar,‭ ‬including the persistence of practices of torture and a failure on our part to do anything to resist that.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬this is an administration that promised to end torture,‭ ‬and we have not done that,‭ ‬as was made clear in the cables.‭ ‬We‭’‬re turning prisoners or suspects over to Iraqis knowing that they‭’‬ll be tortured,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s as illegal under both international and domestic law as if we were torturing them ourselves.

Thomason:‭ ‬Would you support a‭ ‬2012‭ ‬primary challenge from the left against the Obama Administration,‭ ‬by a candidate who might stand up for these issues‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Yes.‭ ‬That‭’‬s the first time I‭’‬ve been asked that,‭ ‬by the way.‭ ‬That‭’‬s interesting‭; ‬what prompted you to bring that up‭?

Thomason:‭ ‬It‭’‬s been on my mind lately.‭ ‬I just don‭’‬t know if it‭’‬s very viable.‭ ‬It seems like something that might be more symbolic.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬If we had a plausible candidate at all‭ ‬– we‭’‬re talking about a very expensive effort here,‭ ‬a big-scale effort and one that isn‭’‬t worth doing without some candidate that would get attention‭ ‬– I could indeed support such an effort,‭ ‬even though I think the chance of it succeeding and actually giving us‭ ‬a new candidate is close to zero.‭ ‬So the question would be,‭ ‬is it worth doing without any real prospect of‭ ‬actually changing the candidacy‭?‬ I think it might be and might not be.‭ ‬It would depend on circumstances that develop over the next year.‭ ‬But I can‭’‬t imagine it couldn‭’‬t be worth doing in order to establish the point that‭ ‬what‭ ‬President Obama is pursuing any many respects in Afghanistan and Iraq is just intolerable.‭ ‬It‭’‬s intolerably costly and risky,‭ ‬especially in terms of his policy in Pakistan‭ ‬– a covert war in Pakistan is an extremely risky policy.‭ ‬And we have no justification for the killing we‭’‬re doing in Afghanistan.‭ ‬It has no prospect of achieving any legitimate interests or benefits for us,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s costing‭ ‬$100‭ ‬billion a year or more that we obviously cannot afford,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s being taken out of programs that we do need.‭ ‬So it‭’‬s a disastrous policy.

Now,‭ ‬there‭’‬s no question in my mind that what the Republicans offer now and I‭’‬m sure two years from now is significantly worse,‭ ‬so I would have no interest at all in some kind of third-party run that would increase the chances of a Republican victory.‭ ‬And I would oppose that just as I felt that Nader‭’‬s campaign in‭ ‬2000‭ ‬was run in a way that was very costly to our country,‭ ‬that it helped give us eight years of‭ ‬[George W.‭] ‬Bush,‭ ‬and I certainly would not want to be‭ ‬a‭ ‬part of that.‭ ‬But in terms of a strong,‭ ‬principled statement of opposition to the policies Obama is actually pursuing,‭ ‬I would want to be part of that,‭ ‬and I am part of that.

Thomason:‭ ‬Half the country,‭ ‬it‭ ‬seems,‭ ‬already seems to think‭ ‬Obama is headed toward some kind of European socialism.‭ ‬So I‭’‬d hate to know what they thought of a‭ ‬really‭ ‬left-wing candidate.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬that‭’‬s simply absurd.‭ ‬Remember,‭ ‬after all,‭ ‬that most of the country believed,‭ ‬I‭’‬m sorry to say,‭ ‬that Saddam Hussein was behind‭ ‬9-11‭ ‬and was tied in with al-Qaida.‭ ‬In fact,‭ ‬a very large fraction believes that today.‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬I would put it to a member to the press,‭ ‬yourself let‭’‬s say,‭ ‬do you feel any responsibility for this‭? ‬Not that you‭’‬re‭ ‬responsible for it directly,‭ ‬I‭’‬m sure,‭ ‬but being part of a profession that has failed so badly,‭ ‬this institution to educate the American people of simple realities‭? ‬In other words,‭ ‬with all our free press,‭ ‬which is,‭ ‬for a large nation,‭ ‬one of the freest in the world,‭ ‬how can the public‭ ‬be entirely misled‭? ‬How about the belief in WMD in Iraq and so forth‭? ‬The government‭’‬s ability to fool the people is quite spectacular.‭ ‬Lincoln said,‭ “‬You can‭’‬t fool all the people all the time.‭”‬ Well,‭ ‬you don‭’‬t need to.‭ ‬You‭ ‬just need to fool enough of the people enough of the time.‭ ‬And our government and other interests in our country,‭ ‬such as corporations,‭ ‬seem to have that pretty well in hand.

Daniel Ellsberg in‭ ‬1971.

Thomason:‭ ‬It seems to be a combination of deliberate misinformation campaigns and people who,‭ ‬no matter how many times they hear the truth,‭ ‬they just don‭’‬t believe it‭ ‬– like the birthers,‭ ‬for instance.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Right,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬they are a minority,‭ ‬but this point that you mention regarding Obama as a leftist is just bizarre.‭ ‬But these days,‭ ‬a lot of Republicans believe that.‭ ‬I mention that not just because it‭’‬s wrong but because it‭’‬s so extremely wrong as to be almost laughable.‭ ‬Merely by saying it,‭ ‬they can get a lot of people to believe it.

Thomason:‭ ‬Whom did you initially support in‭ ‬2008‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬It was more or less symbolic,‭ ‬but I agreed with‭ ‬[U.S.‭ ‬Rep.‭ ‬Dennis‭] ‬Kucinich‭’‬s platform in the primaries,‭ ‬and I stuck with him to help him get a voice for his proposals.‭ ‬I thought his positions were very good.‭ ‬But then,‭ ‬once the nomination was made,‭ ‬I certainly supported Obama.‭ ‬And as I said,‭ ‬I would again,‭ ‬with all my reservations about him,‭ ‬in opposition to his opponent.

I don‭’‬t expect my talks in Florida to focus on domestic politics‭; ‬they never have throughout my career,‭ ‬and I don‭’‬t purport to be any kind of authority or leader on such matters.‭ ‬If people ask me,‭ ‬I answer the questions,‭ ‬but this isn‭’‬t the subject of the lectures.

Thomason:‭ ‬What‭ ‬is this upcoming lecture appearance about‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬I‭’‬m asked to talk about the implications of secrecy in our society,‭ ‬and WikiLeaks,‭ ‬and the analogies‭ ‬to the Pentagon Papers,‭ ‬and my attitude toward whistleblowing,‭ ‬which is something I do want to encourage.‭ ‬I think we have too little of it,‭ ‬not too much,‭ ‬and that the extreme mess we‭’‬re in,‭ ‬in the wars in the Middle East and also matters like climate and the economy,‭ ‬do not reflect too‭ ‬much truth-telling or leaking,‭ ‬and too‭ ‬little secrecy,‭ ‬but quite the contrary.‭ ‬Even the bank meltdown is an example of something where insiders telling the truth about deception within their own‭ ‬organizations and illegality by their organizations could have prevented much of the catastrophe that overtook us.‭ ‬And that‭’‬s also true on climate,‭ ‬where several administrations collaborated,‭ ‬one after the other,‭ ‬in denying the import of climate warnings we were getting.

I do think that for people on the inside to reveal that the knowledge of these matters are known inside and that the public denials are consciously false is a very useful activity,‭ ‬even when it has great personal costs.‭ ‬Part of my message,‭ ‬why I‭’‬m trying to encourage such whistleblowing,‭ ‬is that it‭’‬s not‭ ‬guaranteed to help at all,‭ ‬and that it usually carries very heavy personal costs,‭ ‬in the corporate world or in the government.‭ ‬And whether it results in prosecution or not,‭ ‬the effects on careers are very great.

Thomason:‭ ‬Your life was famously threatened in the years following the release of the Pentagon Papers.‭ ‬In some ways,‭ ‬the threats resemble plots from‭ ‬Mafia movies.‭ ‬Do you still feel threatened today‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Interesting question‭ …‬ I think that surveillance today is enormously greater than it was in those days,‭ ‬whereas it took a White House operation to institute a lot of illegal surveillance on me at that time,‭ ‬including a burglary of my former psychoanalyst‭’‬s office.‭ ‬That was then‭ ‬a covert operation,‭ ‬and when it was exposed,‭ ‬it threatened Nixon with prosecution or impeachment,‭ ‬and he had to resign.‭ ‬Now,‭ ‬such burglaries of my private information,‭ ‬let‭’‬s say,‭ ‬are regarded as legal under the Patriot Act.‭ ‬The use of CIA against me would now be legal.

And even‭ ‬--‭ ‬you talk about Mafia movies‭ ‬--‭ ‬but the effort made to‭ “‬incapacitate me‭”‬ by Bay of Pigs veterans working for the CIA,‭ ‬was a covert operation,‭ ‬clearly illegal.‭ ‬Nowadays the president makes no secret of the fact that he has put American citizens like Anwar Al-Awlaki on a hit list of assassination abroad,‭ ‬and that could happen in this country,‭ ‬too.‭ ‬So I would say the risks for everyone who is dissenting or protesting or criticizing or exposing are greater,‭ ‬and that includes risks of illegal action.

So to answer your question directly,‭ ‬I would now put it much higher than I am under‭ ‬more surveillance simply as a supporter of WikiLeaks than I was‭ ‬30‭ ‬or‭ ‬40‭ ‬years ago,‭ ‬and even more than I would have been a few years ago.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve been a protester of U.S.‭ ‬policies for a long time,‭ ‬but I didn‭’‬t think that the government would regard me as important enough to be surveilling my telephone calls and e-mail and what-not.‭ ‬And when I say surveillance I don‭’‬t mean real-time,‭ ‬in that someone is listening at every moment,‭ ‬but that everything is being recorded.‭ ‬I don‭’‬t think you have to be important anymore to get that.‭ ‬I think the NSA routinely records a vast amount of internal communication,‭ ‬and I expect to be included in that.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬since you‭’‬ve asked,‭ ‬I would‭ ‬assume this very call is being recorded.

Daniel Ellsberg today.

Thomason:‭ ‬I appreciate that you‭’‬ll be giving this talk at a college,‭ ‬because it doesn‭’‬t seem like college campuses are ground zero for activism like they were when you released the Pentagon Papers.‭ ‬Do you feel like my generation could use a lesson on how it‭’‬s done‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Tell me what your generation is‭ …‬ how old are you‭?

Thomason:‭ ‬I‭’‬m‭ ‬28.‭ ‬I went to school when the war in Iraq was at its bloodiest,‭ ‬and it seems my generation fit the cliché of caring more about‭ ‬American Idol than their country engaging in‭ ‬an unjust war.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Yeah,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬it seems to be true of the older people as well,‭ ‬when you come down to it.‭ ‬It isn‭’‬t just that the youth are less interested than their parents.‭ ‬It‭’‬s just that nobody is.‭ ‬The difference in the‭ ‬‘60s and‭ ‬‘70s is that there was a youth movement.‭ ‬It wasn‭’‬t a general population movement of dissent.‭ ‬It was youth.‭ ‬And we haven‭’‬t seen that for a long time now.‭ ‬I‭’‬m not entirely clear why‭; ‬maybe you know better.‭ ‬I think it‭’‬s partly economic‭ ‬differences.‭ ‬People are more concerned with finishing education and getting ahead.‭ ‬But I don‭’‬t know why we haven‭’‬t seen that.‭ ‬Interestingly,‭ ‬in what we‭’‬re seeing now in Tunisia and Egypt seems to be youth rising up in a way that they haven‭’‬t seen there for a generation,‭ ‬and that does reflect the Internet,‭ ‬which didn‭’‬t exist before.‭ ‬Our young people now are much more involved in the Internet than their elders,‭ ‬and conceivably that will make some difference here,‭ ‬though it hasn‭’‬t yet.

Thomason:‭ ‬You‭’‬ve mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan probably more times in our conversation than I‭’‬ve heard on the news in months.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Ha-ha.‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬of course WikiLeaks brought both of those in the news for a while at least,‭ ‬so I contradict you there in the sense that the Afghan‭ ‬war logs were released and then the Iraq‭ ‬war logs were released‭; ‬that was a flurry,‭ ‬and it was in the last few months.‭ ‬But you‭’‬re right:‭ ‬We‭’‬re acting as if there‭’‬s no war going on in Iraq,‭ ‬which there is.‭ ‬It‭’‬s not totally peaceful there.‭ ‬And of course in Afghanistan,‭ ‬the war is getting bigger thanks to our involvement.‭ ‬American casualties just aren‭’‬t at the level to attract much attention.‭ ‬For the Afghans,‭ ‬the war is disastrous,‭ ‬but for America it‭’‬s a huge money cost,‭ ‬the acceptance of that is rather striking.‭ ‬Why is there this degree of acceptance‭?

It seems the only people are‭ ‬[U.S.‭ ‬Rep.‭]‬ Ron Paul and‭ ‬[U.S.‭ ‬Sen.‭] ‬Rand Paul,‭ ‬of all people,‭ ‬who are pointing to the costs of those‭ ‬wars as something we shouldn‭’‬t accept.‭ ‬But that might change.‭ ‬Here‭’‬s a case where at least part of the Tea Party may actually target‭ ‬the military budget and the wars‭ ‬– that may be a change that we didn‭’‬t see under the Democrats.

Thomason:‭ ‬You were arrested‭ ‬in Washington‭ ‬recently,‭ ‬in December,‭ ‬for protesting these wars.‭ ‬I thought that would have been news,‭ ‬but I only heard about it when listening to a far-left radio show,‭ ‬The Mike Malloy Show.

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Actually,‭ ‬on the Internet it got more attention than usual.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve gotten arrested a lot,‭ ‬and what I‭’‬m used to is no attention at all‭!‬ So the fact that there was‭ ‬a picture of me in the‭ ‬Washington Post was a first.‭ ‬Other people were struck by how little there was‭; ‬if anything,‭ ‬I was struck by how much there was,‭ ‬because I have to tell you,‭ ‬protestors usually don‭’‬t get much attention.

Thomason:‭ ‬Do you take your arrests as a badge of pride‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬I think it was the right thing to do.‭ ‬I always enjoy being with the people who have decided to get arrested,‭ ‬many for the first time.‭ ‬I always find that they are people I like to talk to and be with and generally admire.‭ ‬So arrests have a very warm light for me because of the people involved.‭ ‬I think it‭’‬s something that citizens should regard as a part of their responsibilities part of the time,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s a small minority view,‭ ‬but I like being with the minority that feels that way.

Thomason:‭ ‬Do you consider yourself a controversial figure‭?

Ellsberg:‭ ‬That‭’‬s a fact.‭ ‬If controversy means varying views on me,‭ ‬and some very negative ones and some very positive ones,‭ ‬that‭’‬s the way it is.

‭[‬The Most Dangerous Man in America‭ ‬will be screened‭ ‬at‭ ‬3:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬15, at FAU‭’‬s University Theatre,‭ ‬followed by a talk by noted Vietnam War historian George Herring.‭ ‬Admission is free.‭]‬

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