Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg on the Bush Administration, Civil Disobedience and the Eternal Fires of Hell
by Mira Ptacin
March 29, 2005
The sound of Daniel Ellsberg’s voice could falsely identify him as a softy. It’s delicate and cottony, but the Pentagon insider-turned-peace activist has wit cut sharp as a razor and insight that hasn’t faded with age.
At 73 he is out of the limelight but still trying to shake up our nation. Ellsberg recently finished a U.S. ‘Truth-Telling’ tour, spoke in Israel and will soon be traveling to Hiroshima. And after publishing his first memoir ‘Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers’, he’s polishing off his second book about America’s fatal attraction to nuclear threats.
Ellsberg publicized the Pentagon Papers 30 years ago, helping tip public opinion against our last major attempt at imperial democracy. And on this day in 1973, the last American combat troops left Vietnam, ending the direct involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War. Now Ellsberg is talking again. Shouldn’t we be listening?
Where do you see the US relationship with Iran heading in the next 6 months?
Well, every sign is that they’re still on course on the program that some of these people laid out on The Project for the New American Century, going back to when they all worked under Dick Cheney back in ’91-92. Enforcing regime change in Iraq was at the head of the list. In general it was a remaking of the Middle East. I noticed former weapons inspector Scott Ritter says June is the likely time [to strike Iran] and I think Ritter’s predictions are to be taken very seriously.
The question is: Will it be Israel as Cheney prepared us for recently who makes the attack, or will it be us? It could well be that the game here is that Israel is making such strong noises in doing it, knowing that it would entirely set the Middle East on flame. That the US will give an excuse for a strike–that we had to forestall the Israelis–it would’ve been even worse, and we had to do it because otherwise the Israelis would do it, better that we did. One theory that is even worse in the Middle East is the Israelis taking action like that before we do. That’s just a conjecture. The Israelis have used their influence before in that fashion. They’ve even threatened before at various times that if we didn’t act forcefully they would have to use nuclear weapons.
That’s so frightening, because it seems when we went into Iraq, Bush was confident that we were going to be greeted with flowers, etc. etc., and now it’s a mess. Where would we get troops and the resources that the US would need if we were to go head to head with Iran and Syria?
They would probably have to shy away from ground actions, so what are they thinking of doing? They’re not actually directly threatening use of nuclear weapons and I don’t think they’d be quick to do that, but they very well refuse to rule that out. First use is on the table. There’s no reason to think their intelligence is good enough to actually knock out whatever it is the Iranians have. How can they be thinking of doing such a radical and reckless step without even being sure of succeeding? The answer seems to be, and I’ve heard this now from two people who are very good sources in the administration, that this administration actually believes they will achieve regime change by an air attack. They think the mullahs there, the theocracy, is so unpopular that a demonstration of their vulnerability and the fact that they can’t protect their people would topple them and would leave to people overthrowing them.
Do you think they really believe what they’re saying or do you think they just don’t care?
Well, we could’ve asked that three years ago when they were talking about what was going to happen in Iraq and say ‘Could they really believe that?’ and that’s a fair question. But you can’t really believe from what they say. That’s true of all politicians–Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative–you cannot tell what they really believe from what they tell us. But, on the other hand, we now know of this group we can’t say ‘Well, they can’t believe that because it’s crazy’. That’s not sound either because they’ve proven that one. They can believe what’s crazy. I think there’s a passage somewhere in Alice in Wonderland when Alice says to the king, ‘I can’t believe that’, and the king says ‘I dare say you haven’t had enough practice. Every day I make it a point to believe six impossible things before breakfast.’ These guys have had a lot of practice.
. . . Let me move ahead for a minute to what I think lies ahead. Can I?
I think our democracy is going to be tested to the breaking point by some very dark days ahead and before long. I do expect there to be another major terrorist event. Ports, the nuclear power plants and the chemical factories are extremely vulnerable to an attack. To a considerable event, the war against terrorism has been a hoax because the president has not only spent so much money on the war in Iraq, but because the war in Iraq virtually subverts the war on terror. You cannot reduce the appeal and the strength of Al Qaeda while we occupy Iraq. You can only strengthen it, and strengthening it is what we’ve been doing steadily for the last couple of years. This is the worst public policy decision making, most antidemocratic and most inclined to be authoritarian, I would say, since the Nixon administration, but Nixon was confronting a Democratic House and Senate and a relatively liberal population in media 40 years ago. John Mitchell and John Connolly and Nixon himself had quite authoritarian instincts, but they weren’t allowed to act on them, and to the extent that they did act on them — it brought them down.
Virtually all the things Nixon did against me that were illegal to keep me from exposing his secret policy are now legal under the Patriot Act. Going into my doctor’s office to get information to blackmail me with, wiretaps without warrants, overhearing me–all legal now. The CIA supplied the burglars in my doctor’s office with disguises and with cameras and they did a psychological profile on me. That was illegal then, legal now.
I would have said that one thing that Nixon did against me was not yet legal and that was to bring a squad of a dozen Cuban-American assets of the CIA up from Miami to beat me up or kill me on May 3rd, 1973 on the steps of the Capitol. Right now there’s at least one Special Forces team under control of the White House operating in this country to take ‘extra legal actions’. Now, that sounds to me like a White House-controlled death squad. And that is what the White House sent against me. It’s not clear whether the intention was to kill me then, the words were to ‘incapacitate Daniel Ellsberg totally’. When I asked their prosecutor, ‘does that mean to kill me?’. He said, ‘The words were ‘to incapacitate you totally.’ But he said, ‘You have to understand these guys that were CIA assets never use the words ‘kill’.’
I think that’s the kind of thing we do have in our future, especially when there’s another terrorist attack. In that case, I think we’ll see enacted very quickly a new Patriot Act, which I’m sure has already been drafted which will make the first Patriot Act look like the Bill of Rights, and the Bill of Rights will be a historical memory.
Before we spoke, I asked some of my close friends and family if they could ask you any question, what would it be. And most of the responses I received from good friends of mine, younger ones, were ‘What can we do?!’ We’re reading about things we don’t stand for. We’re part of the peace movement or we just don’t stand for the war. What could the little peons like us do to stop an administration that doesn’t seem to be listening to its people?
We as citizens–young or old–are irresponsible if we lie back and say, ‘Well, it’s a difficult and dangerous problem, I guess we’ll have to let them to do best.’ We know, by now, that they are not going to do best. It is a very serious problem and we have to take a very active concern and if we don’t, not only does our security get worse and worse, but our democracy goes way down the drain.
I haven’t said anything about the unusual case that this administration relies on a constituency of right-wing Christian fundamentalist who entertain ideas as crazy as any that can be found, and who believe, for instance, that nuclear war will be God’s Will and a necessary precursor for the return of the Messiah in their lifetime. Therefore they’re not very concerned about nuclear arms control but more seriously who believe that Israel must be in control of a greater Israel, from the Nile to the Euphrates, as promised in the bible, in order for their Messiah to return. And therefore, that Likud’s policy and Sharon’s policy of holding on to the West Bank is absolutely essential and has to be expanded. That’s a disastrous influence on our foreign policy and it’s a very big influence.
I’d like to see the president directly asked (I believe he holds this, by the way, as does Tom Delay and other top republican leaders. . . John Ashcroft and others in Congress) ‘Do you, Mr. President, believe that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would postpone the return of the Messiah?’ I think he’d find it hard to say that he doesn’t believe that, because he’s supposed to witness for what he believes in his religious faith and he’d lose a lot of support if he denied that.
The kind of activity that I think is potentially helpful in our situation is revelations from insiders as to what has been done in our name and what is being planned. In other words, whistle blowing, unauthorized disclosures. We’ve had more of that than probably ever before but in very small dribbles here and there, and without much in the way of documents. What I really hope to see is somebody putting something out on the scale of the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of classified documents–which sounds like a lot, by the way, but it really just means a whole file drawer. They could show comprehensively what the real policy is, where it’s going and what the cost of those are to be, in a way that we just haven’t seen at all. Nobody’s really done that.
But the alternative is to be silent and not do what you could to end war that involves 100,000 Iraqi lives so far and almost 1500 American lives at this point and more to come. So it really is at this point for people to consider sacrificing their own freedom to have a chance to end a war. We need to take risks and we need to protest. People are capable but don’t think of being called on for it. We are a rogue superpower and this is not a time to postpone and save ourselves for another time. Nonviolence and truthfulness is essential.
For more information on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, go to http://www.ellsberg.net.
Mira Ptacin is assistant editor at CommonDreams.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.