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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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.
Why did you give these documents to
UMass and why is archiving them important for researchers and historians?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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?
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