Daniel Ellsberg’s Exclusive Interview with Past@Present
Daniel Ellsberg, one of the foremost political activists and whistleblowers in the U.S., is coming to the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Wednesday, October 30 to speak at the Campus Center Auditorium. UMass Amherst Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) has recently acquired his invaluable private archive which spans the late 1940s to the 2010s and includes a wealth of material providing insight into the top-secret Pentagon Papers that he leaked to the press in 1971, as well as materials on the Vietnam War more broadly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, his criminal trial, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, and more.
The collection promises to be a watershed for historians – as well as for SCUA. “This has potential to be transformational for the archive,” remarked SCUA head Rob Cox. The acquisition emerges out of the archive’s longstanding commitment to collecting interconnected histories of social justice work “in the [W.E.B.] Du Boisian fashion of thinking about how social change actually happens,” says Cox, and from the its particular strengths in the areas of work that Ellsberg is engaged in. “There’s been a lot of excitement from researchers already,” he notes.
In an exclusive interview with the UMass History Department’s blog Past@Present, the 88-year-old Ellsberg explains why he donated his documents to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and what they will offer to researchers and historians. “I would like people to come to realize,” he tells Past@Present, “how much is concealed, even after long periods of time, from scholars, historians, journalists, and the public, and even Congress of what our foreign policy or our so-called defense policy and arms policy really is.”
Past@Present: You donated your papers to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to become available to scholars and the public, both in person and digitally, through Special Collections and University Archives at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. This collection, according to UMass News and Media Relations, “is so rich in material that it will take the equivalent of two years of a full-time archivist’s time to fully process and catalogue”. These documents are related to your involvement in important chapters of the U.S. history, including the Vietnam War and Watergate. Please tell us about this extraordinary collection of papers and photographs you gave UMass.
Ellsberg: Well, I’ll tell you something I haven’t had occasion to mention before. At one point, through a complicated process, the FBI got its hands on a large trove of my papers, especially sensitive ones. One of them, who was a security expert, said that “Daniel Ellsberg is what I call in our trade a pack rat”, meaning that I kept hold of notes and documents that passed under my hands in the course of my work.
My goal was to understand how the government works and to improve its performance. This was after seeing a performance during the Cuban Missile Crisis in which I was a high-level staff person. They came very close to ending most human life on Earth actually, to a nuclear war that would have destroyed civilization. I was trying to see how that came about and how it could be avoided in the future–how we could learn how the government really operates in ways that could improve our performance. And to that end, I have always thought it was essential to compare the organization working over a large sequence or a collection of incidents and not just looking very closely at one particular episode, like the Cuban missile crisis. A comparative study would enable us to see what common factors showed up there and how the systematic performance could be improved.
For example, in 1964-65 I proposed, and it was supported by the government, a study of nuclear crises. One of those, for example, that I’d participated in as a Marine lieutenant in Alexandria harbor during the Suez Crisis of 1956, turned out to be a nuclear crisis. [former Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev made threats during that time of his ability to wipe out London or Paris if he chose, and he thought that his threats had a major effect on the crisis, which may or may not have been the case. That was just an incident where I had personal involvement and that led me to study that one particularly. I was given access to the State Department library shelves inside what amounted to be a backdoor, like correspondence between [the former U.S. president Dwight D.] Eisenhower and [the former Soviet Premier, Nikolai A.] Bulganin, Eisenhower and Khrushchev, and [the former U.S. president John F.] Kennedy and Khrushchev. I read a great deal of telephone conversation transcripts from that incident, which gave me a very different perspective on what had happened during the Suez Crisis. In any case, I looked at a number of cases, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and others.
After that, I went to Vietnam and saw, as a high-level participant staff, that escalation phase in 1964-65. I was there for two years and saw the horrible human impact of the very bad decision making that had gone on in the previous two years, when I was in Washington. And again, I wanted to take part in a study that would cover a long period of time and not just the period I was in, but all of it from 1945 to 1968. Again, my role, as I saw it, was to look at all the various of the forty-seven volumes of the McNamara study [the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara’s forty-seven-volume study of U.S. decision-making during the Vietnam War], which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, so as to see what patterns of behavior arose. I’m going to be speaking about those in one of my talks for PERI [the Political Economy Research Institute].
In my professional work, I participated in two moral catastrophes: one is the nuclear arms race and the other is the Vietnam War. Of course, the latter has great relevance to the wars we’re seeing now, like the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, which is very similar to Vietnam in many ways. So, I was really a participant observer. My purpose in all of my participation was to take notes and record my reflections and my speculations and my conclusions, as we went along for the purpose of learning lessons. Initially, I did this for the executive branch as I saw classified lessons that would help bureaucrats and officials. But then by the time I released the forty-seven volume Pentagon Papers, of course I felt I was working for the public and the Congress to reveal to them the necessity to rein in the executive branch, to use their constitutional powers as a check on the executive’s extremely bad decisions made in secret which they were badly informed about.
And so here we have not just a collection of historical notes from the period, but more than a half a century of reflections and analysis that I have done.
Past@Present: Why did you give these documents to UMass and why is archiving them important for researchers and historians?
Ellsberg: I wanted the information to be available and UMass offered the chance to do that much faster on a much larger scale. A particular attraction of UMass over a couple of other possibilities was their capacity to digitize this material and make it widely available, so that someone would not actually have to come to UMass Amherst and delve in into boxes, but could access it through the Internet. That was a very great attraction to me. I had already begun to digitize my files with another institution, but the pace was slower than I had hoped.
Past@Present: Your collection covers many important aspects of the U.S. internal and external policies. How will scholars and especially historians benefit from the collection that you donated to UMass Amherst?
Ellsberg: A good deal of this information, nearly all of it, was classified at the time I worked with it 50 years ago. A lot of it has been declassified since. One aspect that does not generally get declassified or put out are drafts and preliminary versions of reports that show significant differences from the published in many ways from the finished classified reports. There are many objectives and considerations that are really deliberately concealed in the later report. So that’s of interest.
But in particular, I would like people to come to realize how much is concealed, even after long periods of time, from scholars, historians, journalists, and the public, and even Congress of what our foreign policy or our so-called defense policy and arms policy really is. Yes, in many ways it’s more of an offensive policy than defensive policy.
As I look in histories, in the areas that I know about and I observed or participated in, I’m so struck by how little the historians ever really came to realize about what the ultimate objectives were and how the policy was shaped to that end. So, in a way, not only the public, but even historians live with a kind of child’s version of history that they are permitted to know about, which conceals very important aspects of it.
I would like the secrecy system to be subject to a real investigation and criticism hearings, which have never been held as far as I know in Congress. The secrecy system needs investigation and drastic change to enable us to be more of a democracy in which the government is accountable to the public and the public is in a real sense sovereign. That’s not the case now. So much of this is secret. And what is striking in a lot of the decision making, as is apparent in the Pentagon Papers, is that it looks actually terrible. It is hard to imagine that definitely intelligent men could make judgments that in retrospect are so ill advised and unsound.
That is the reason we need to know more about that [the secrecy system], so Congress and the public can have more of a monitoring and checking effect on policy. It simply is not the case that we can afford to leave these decisions policies in the hands of these relatively small number of people making the decisions in secret. It’s not the case that they are taking good care of us at all. Disasters like our Vietnam policy have been mirrored in the Middle East in the last 20 years–really terrible decision-making. It is evident in my papers that I was part of that for a long time.
A key point I’ve been trying to make since I left the government, especially with my recent book, The Doomsday Machine, is to bring out that the decision-making in the area of nuclear weapons and policy is as bad as any decision-making that has ever been made. Let’s look back at the decisions that got us and various empires into World War I and resulted in the destruction of virtually all of those other empires along with 13 million humans. That decision-making does not look good. Well, the decision-making we’re doing now, which threatens not 13 million people but 7 billion people–nearly all life on Earth–is not better than what was made by statesmen who led us into World War I. This nuclear decision-making has been among the most secretive policies of the government–secrecy comparable, let’s say, to covert operations involving assassination. But the nuclear policies, which do not threaten one or ten or a handful of men but all humans, are also super-secret, which conceals extremely bad, unsound, unwise decision-making which threatens us all.
My life is almost coincident with the nuclear era. I was born in 1931. Two years after I was born, Leo Szilard patented the concept of a chain reaction in London. I was a fourteen-year-old when the Hiroshima bombs went off. They made a very strong impression on me of danger to humanity, which I described in my book. Nevertheless, in 1958, when I was 27, I started working directly on nuclear war planning and nuclear command and control at the RAND Corporation. Four years later, I drafted the secretary of defense guidance for the annual operational nuclear war plan. The options include the general framework of a strategy which has been pretty much the framework, ever since. It was a very radical change from the Eisenhower plan.
So that’s when I was 30 in 1961. The next year I was a high-level staff participant in the Cuban missile crisis and I followed that for the next couple of years with very intense study of that crisis. And I have a great deal of documentation from that period, including my own notes and interviews. Then in 1964, I was invited into the government, as an employee on Vietnam, precisely in order to study the government from inside, in the midst of what was called an ongoing crisis in Vietnam. At the time we didn’t think of it as a nuclear crisis. It turned out to be a nuclear crisis at several points. For the last forty-four years, since the Vietnam war ended, I have been involved in anti-nuclear activism. So I have an enormous collection of material on various anti-nuclear (and anti-war) movements, as part of my overall archive.
Past@Present: All of this is very relevant to the current situation. It seems that a new era of global arms race has started under President Trump, between the U.S., Russia and possibly China. President Trump has also pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite warnings from many experts and former national security officials. Many questions have been raised about the decisions made by the Trump Administration about these critical nuclear issues. How do you see the importance of whistleblowers and their role in revealing the process of decision-making by the president and his officials about these issues?
Ellsberg: Well, only whistleblowers can reveal to Congress, analysts, and the public vital information that is being wrongly withheld from them, while the information is still timely and urgent. Because if you wait 40 or 30 or 20 years for this information to come out through Freedom of Information Act or trust what the government chooses to reveal then, it’s long past the time when most of that material can still illuminate current events.
Now, that’s not entirely true because these misadventures do occur so frequently in such similar ways that even 50-year old material, like the Pentagon Papers, can be very illuminating and relevant. Still, it’s very important that people make unauthorized disclosures—and that’s really the definition of a whistleblower—particularly revealing wrongdoing that will not be authorized to reveal for decades, if ever. But if it’s revealed without authorization, there is a chance to change the events while they are happening. I think my own life and the papers do bring out the essential reality of the need for whistleblowers and the need, by the way, for a change in legislation that will protect them from prosecution.
What we’re going through right now, for example, about the anonymous whistleblower and the impeachment, the way it was handled shows what happens to information that would reveal wrongdoing. Namely it gets highly classified. And of course, this information did not involve national security. [The content of President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president] should not have been classified at all according to the regulations or the criteria for classification. But in fact, it was then locked down in the most protected classification system, the so-called code word classification system, for things like what I said earlier were the most sensitive: assassinations, covert actions, overhearing of foreign leaders, and others. Why was it concealed like that? Well, obviously, because revealing it might lead to impeachment and or prosecution of the president. So, he doesn’t want that.
Is this an abuse of the classification system? Some would say so, but what I know and what my records reveal is that it is a normal use of the classification system. It’s not an aberration. It is the system itself, which is very largely for keeping from Americans Congress, courts, prosecutors, and voters information that might lead to the public’s replacing leadership with either another party or another person. Thus, the person who is the president and has control over information generally does not want that information out.
To a major extent that is what the classification system is for, especially for the overwhelming amount of classified material that is more than several years old. Almost none of it can yet be said after that point to affect national security. But it’s kept classified for decades and more, because it might prove embarrassing. And since you don’t know which parts are incriminating in context and since you can’t know in advance which details will look worst, which promises will not be kept, which predictions will prove stupid, which projects will turn out to be disasters, you classify everything to keep it all secret.
In fact, criminality will be classified. If you’re a whistleblower exposing criminality, you can only do it at a risk or cost of prison. That’s absurd. And that’s the situation now.
Past@Present: In reference to the whistleblower who revealed Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s leader, President Trump said, “Why are we protecting a person that tells things that weren’t true?” When you released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, you knew that you would face major consequences and risks. You were accused of theft and conspiracy. Has anything changed since then in terms of protecting whistleblowers in the U.S.?
Ellsberg: Not much, but something on the bad side. President Obama indicted three times as many people for leaking or whistleblowing as all previous presidents put together. So that was a very bad development. And the law itself has evolved since my time in a way that’s unfavorable to leaking. But there has been some extension of the Whistleblower Protection Act for intelligence operatives, which the current whistleblower is using. That did not exist in my day. So that is a change for the better.
But people have not generally observed the following point. The president and the White House were successfully locking down that complaint [about President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president], keeping it from Congress even though the law demanded that it go to Congress. The White House was successfully claiming, in effect, executive privilege in withholding it, in violation of the Act. It would not have gotten out without unauthorized disclosures, leaks to Congress telling them that the complaint existed, by whistleblowers who were not protected by the Act. In other words, even in this case where the original whistleblower was protected by the Act, it took unprotected leaks to get the information to Congress, which then demanded the information that the Act supposedly guaranteed them.
On the whole I would have to say things have gotten worse, because with the indictment of Julian Assange, who is a journalist, for the first time the Espionage Act is being used as an Official Secrets Act, like the British one, which incriminates journalists. That is a very ominous development. Whatever people think of Assange or what he did, he is in fact a publisher or a journalist. He is the first ever to be indicted as such for his journalism. And if he were extradited and tried here, I think he would be convicted. That would be an extremely ominous precedent for free speech and freedom of the press in this country.
Let me wrap this up. I think a tremendous amount of the material in my archive should have been available to Congress and the public decades ago. When it came across my desk or out of my typewriter, I should have revealed it. And others should have revealed it. Some of it was very little known, but a lot of it was really available to about a thousand other staffers in the Pentagon and in the field. And it did reveal illegal activity and, beyond that, extremely bad and deceptive decisions and lies. So, what my archive demonstrates is to what extent our actual foreign policy is unknown to Congress and the public, which gets a fairy tale account of what our foreign policy actually is. For example, something that’s going on today, who are our allies in the Middle East or in Syria? It’s impossible to know what the meaning of all that is unless you know what our actual covert connections to the Kurds and other combatant factions in the area have been over the last generation.
Past@Present: I have a question about the classification system in the U.S. Do you think that the Congress and the politicians in both parties are ready to change this classification system?
Ellsberg: That’s a good question. First of all, it is certainly the case that they have not made any real effort to do that, even though there have been some resolutions in the past that would affect it. But they haven’t gotten anywhere and they were not passed. There have not been real serious hearings on the subject for at least 50 years. I don’t think they think much about it or know it as a problem. They take it for granted. They are not aware of how abusive and anti-democratic the system is. It is ignorance in the first instance. Whistleblowers are needed to reveal that.
Are they willing to change it? The members of the congress are afraid of what the FBI and the CIA and the NSA can reveal about their own private lives and their own political workings. They are definitely not eager to get in a fight with the intelligence community. They have taken it for granted that it is doing its job and has to be secret.
If this were to be raised, the current situation does provide a way in, because it is revealing so blatantly abuses both by the president and the secrecy system. I think people would be willing to address that now in a way they wouldn’t have even a year ago or two years ago. So that is brand new.
But let me close with this thought. There were hearings on the classification system by the Government Operations Committee at the time that included testimony from William G. Florence, an official from the Pentagon who just retired after nearly 30 years of being pretty much in charge of writing the security regulations of the secrecy system. He told Congress, under oath, that in his judgment no more than 5 percent of what was marked classified, confidential, secret, or top secret deserved that classification at the time it was classified. By the way, five percent of millions of pages is still a lot of pages. But he said after that three or four years the amount to merit classification was about a tenth of that, or half of one percent, or one out of 200 pages. The Pentagon Papers were all marked top secret. When I put them out, the government was not able to prove that one sentence of the seven thousand pages actually hurt national security to be out. And these were marked Top Secret Sensitive. Nobody has noticed or remarked on that empirical demonstration of how abusive the secrecy system is.
Past@Present: You are visiting UMass Amherst in late October. You have been a political activist, author, and a champion of democracy, truth and free speech. What will you tell UMass students when you visit us here?
Ellsberg: Well, the proposed subject of my talk on the 30th is the ethics of threatening omnicide. The omnicide is the killing and really the murder of most people on earth, which is what our war plans envision. Just recently I’ve decided to make that more personal than I originally intended, less abstract and philosophical, by showing what I learned and the ethical problems I confronted at various points in my own career. So, in that sense it will be a something of a mirror of the entire archives.
I intend to illustrate what is to be revealed in that archive as a whole. Basically, that has to do with how endless wars get started and continue, like Afghanistan, and how catastrophes are prepared and come about as a result of careful planning in secret to implement reckless secret decisions.
– Interview by Mohammad Ataie