On 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers 1971-2021
-With Daniel Ellsberg & Edward Snowden-
EDWARD SNOWDEN (ES): Daniel Ellsberg, it is a pleasure to be talking to you. You have been a friend of mine for quite some time now. You are one of the very first people after 2013 that I met in person and spent time with. You are very much an inspiration of mine.
You are known for so many things. Of course, the Pentagon Papers. You are the source or author of many books including ‘Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. And most recently ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner’.
Most centrally to me, you were the subject of a 2009 documentary ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’ about what you did back during the Vietnam War, which I was watching when I was grappling with my decision to come forward back in 2012/13. So I have to say that you were, and are, quite literally, an inspiration to me. Your example changed my life and I would like to think changed the course of history for the better.
So thank you for coming to speak with me today.
DANIEL ELLSBERG (DE): Well, that couldn’t be more gratifying to me, Ed, because I’ve not only known you as a friend that I respect very much, but to hear the feedback that what I did actually had an influence on someone to affect their life and what they did is something that I very rarely hear actually. In terms of doing pretty much what I did, which was to put out a great deal of material, not just a page or two of document but, in my case, 7,000 pages.
I waited a long time. Chelsea Manning, then Bradley, in 2010, thirty-nine years after the Pentagon Papers, was the first person to use the digital era to put out a lot of material. And then three years later you put out even more about a tremendous violation of our constitution and system of universal surveillance. I was very happy to hear, and didn’t assume at all, that it was the case that I had some influence over that. It is very heartwarming for me.
In my case, by the way, I would not have done what I did — which I did assume would subject me to life in prison if they prosecuted me, and they almost surely would do that. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that without the example of thousands of young Americans at that time, almost uniquely in any country’s history I’m not sure, but thousands of Americans who chose to go to prison rather than cooperate with the draft in a war they thought was wrong. They were doing that at a time when I’d come to realize, after two years in Vietnam and after participating in the escalation of the war in Vietnam, that I saw it as wrong just as they did. That put in my mind the question of ‘what should I do’.
The thought that facing that question and acting on it can put that same question in the minds of other people I think is very good because we need more whistleblowing, and no one of course has done that more than you.
ES: There’s so many questions I want to ask you.
It’s amazing. You’ve worked in the government. You’ve been forced to sign all these non-disclosure agreements and made to believe that you’ll never be able to speak to somebody ever again, certainly not legally, who truly understands what you’ve been through.
But there’s an increasing cohort of Americans that you represent — Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, Daniel Hale and Reality Winner. More whistleblowers are coming forward and they are limited by the system as much as the government can.
I think there’s the question that needs to be asked. You’re sitting at the desk. You see a war that is being prolonged. And what is the objective? Is it worth it? We’re told that you, Daniel Ellsberg, have no place to make those decisions. But it’s for the Congress. It’s for the President. It’s for the official bureaucracy that allegedly represents us through our elections, which we know are totally unfair But the idea here is that there are people who are supposed to make those decisions, and it is not you.
Yet you made this decision and history thinks that you made the right decision. How do you reconcile that?
DE: The 4th of July that we celebrate now is the announcement not only of independence from Britain but a change in the government in which the king is not the sovereign anymore, and doesn’t determine by himself, or by Queen Elizabeth herself; when you go to war, how you pursue it, and how long it goes on and everything else.
Actually our Article 1 Section 8 doesn’t say that Congress shares that power. It says Congress has that power. It is an unshared power of deciding whether you go to war or not. And obviously… in the last fifty years…
ES: We never declare wars anymore, right…
DE: So Section 1:8 of the United States Constitution is almost a dead letter at this point, but another point was the First Amendment we have that the British don’t have. ‘The Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or freedom of the press.’
Now, let me make an analogy here that just came to my mind on the 4th of July. There’s a famous speech by Frederick Douglass, a former slave in 1858, when slavery was still on: “What to the slave means the 4th of July?” he said, on the 4th of July. He was an escaped slave himself. Pointing out that the existence of slavery was totally antithetical to the basic notion of the Declaration of Independence that we were celebrating on the 4th of July. “All men are created equal.” What could be more opposed to that notion than four million people being the property of other Americans, of white Americans. He pointed out that tremendous discrepancy.
Well, it just occurs to me now, to use the Espionage Act which was initially intended against spies to secretly give information to a foreign government in order to harm or advantage them, especially in time of war. But the wording of the 1917 Act, especially as amended in 1950, a very anti-Communist McCarthyite period, allowed it. The general language criminalizes actions such as you and I did, but any kind of leaking for the purpose of public benefit, not for a foreign power, but for patriotic reasons, to keep the government from doing something terribly dangerous, costly, reckless or criminal.
So I think it could be said on this 4th of July, the Espionage Act so applied and so interpreted against leaks that are intended to benefit the public and so accepted by a jury that could recognize this is as antithetical to the First Amendment, the freedom of speech in the press, as the existence of slavery was antithetical on the 4th of July to the Declaration of Independence and the equality of all humans. It is a total contradiction and it strikes at the very notion of democracy.
Not only could slaves not vote in 1858, but free blacks could not vote in the state of the union and of course women could not vote. So the idea of democracy here hadn’t been achieved very much yet. Over time we’ve enlarged the electorate very greatly and now the Republicans are trying to restrict it again, like the century of Jim Crow in the south after the civil war, which essentially tried to exclude or restrict black voting in the south and the Republicans are moving back on that now.
But again, it is ironic that on the 4th of July we have to be recognizing not only what the ideals were that were put forward in the Declaration of Independence, but how far we are from actually doing it.
So you say, why did I take it on myself at that time? It was very clear to me that the public did not know it had not been a matter either of public sovereignty or congressionally informed consent or decision to be conducting that war and especially moving towards enlarging it. Almost nobody recognized that was happening.
I had special knowledge on that because I was told by the deputy to Henry Kissinger, that this was what Nixon was planning, but I believed it. There were only three of us at that time who had read the 7,000 page study of our decision-making from 1945 to 1968 and could believe that a president was deceiving the public as much as they all had, and that Nixon was still doing. I was told, me and other people, on a top secret basis, and I had clearance at that time, what Nixon’s plan was and no one believed it, that he really could be threatening nuclear war a year after the Tet Offensive had shown that the war was not winnable.
Now what I did has been misunderstood. The policy I was opposing, which is still not understood, is important, because we are still enacting it in various parts of the world. And that was this: Many people have said that the lesson of the Pentagon Papers was, first, that the government lied. Okay, that’s not why I put it out, because I’d known that from the first day I worked in the government, when I heard a lot of lies, and heard the next day and… if you can’t stand lying you can’t work for the executive branch for very long. True, the public didn’t know that on the whole, but that was not news. It was not shared only by me. Second, the papers showed the war was not winnable. That is the thing you see over and over again and it really gets under my skin, because it has nothing to do with my motives or what the problem was at that point.
Five thousand people went to jail, and I risked it myself. Not one of us did that because we thought the war was not winnable. Everybody knew the war was not winnable by that time. By 1968 and 1969 there was hardly anybody who thought the war was winnable except Richard Nixon. And I knew that he thought it was, crazily. And was pursuing a policy that was going to expand the war and continue it not only for one or two years but at least eight years, and get larger. Larger in the air, probably bringing the Chinese in and eventually using nuclear weapons which I knew he was considering as early as 1969.
The people who went to prison did it not in the belief that the war was not winnable but because it was wrong. And in my case I realized by the end that not only had it been wrong but that it was going on and getting bigger, which people didn’t realize and still don’t to this day, because they didn’t want to hear it. They don’t like to believe they’ve been fooled.
Must watch movies:
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is the 2009 documentary film follows Daniel Ellsberg and explores the events leading up to the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, exposing top-secret USA military involvement in their unjust Vietnam War. The government lied then. Today it is Afghanistan.
Citizenfour is a 2014 documentary film directed by Laura Poitras, original footage doc. Snowden is a 2016 biographical thriller film directed by Oliver Stone, a well-acted movie. Both are great to watch. Edward Snowden’s autobiography Permanent Record is an intimate book where you get the true story in his own words. “A highly recommended read.” – Joseph Roberts, Common Ground. The above article is from A Conversation with Daniel Ellsberg https://edwardsnowden.substack.com/p/ellsberg1
Daniel Hale and Reality Winner were drone whistleblowers. National Bird is a documentary that explores the drone warfare from a human perspective.