A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I've seen no indication that the Democratic leadership in Congress, or the Republican leaders, or the candidates, envision the Americans being out of those bases any time in their lifetime or our children's lifetime. And that means that Americans will be killing Iraqis and dying, and killing Iraqi civilians -- committing atrocities, among other things -- as long as they're there. And that, as I say, is another half-century or more. -- Daniel Ellsberg, Vietnam Veteran, Pentagon Papers Leaker, Activist, and Author
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It is appropriate the day after a National Intelligence Estimate was released revealing the Bush Administration had been lying to us about Iran, just as it lied to us about Iraq, that BuzzFlash is posting an interview with Daniel Ellsberg.
That's because Ellsberg became a role model for revealing the dark secrets of a shadow government when he courageously leaked the "Pentagon Papers," which revealed that we had been knowingly and systematically deceived into the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg went through a personal evolution that led to his whistleblowing action. He came to believe that democracy is best served when the public is fully informed of its government's actions and provided with accurate information.
That's just the opposite of what the Bush Administration, in its paternalistic attitude toward the "rabble," believes. They think they know what is best for us, and that the citizens of America cannot be trusted with the fate of the nation.
Ellsberg proved them wrong in another era.
We can learn much from him.
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BuzzFlash: When we interviewed you in 2003, you had just published your book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. At that point, one of the things you were urging was for people to become whistleblowers, to out information that the government was keeping from the American public that would reveal the truth about the war with Iraq. Here we are, and the war with Iraq is still going on. Bush seems likely to bomb Iran. What happened? When we last talked, there was hope for the end Iraq war movement. Now it seems to have been pretty much abandoned, at least by the Democrats in Congress.
Daniel Ellsberg: That's true. The Congress has signed on essentially to a new war. And I'm talking now not of people like Dennis Kucinich or any members of the Out of Iraq Caucus. But the majority of Democrats, and particularly the Democratic leadership, I believe, have accepted privately at least the secret goal of many people in the administration. And that is an indefinite occupation of Iraq, preferably of reduced scale in forces. A more politically sustainable and less costly environment, with hopefully fewer U.S. casualties.
But the maintenance of U.S. bases in the middle of the oil-rich sphere of the Middle East, and specifically in Iraq -- indefinitely. I don't mean the ten-year war that Nancy Pelosi has accused the President of having in mind, and which General Petraeus talks about. I'm talking fifty years, the way the President talks, when he mentions Korea or other places. We've been in Korea, of course, over fifty years. I think that not only President Bush and Cheney foresee a stay that long, and indeed much longer -- basically until the oil is gone in the Middle East. But I think that the Democratic leadership and the major Democratic candidates have essentially accepted that idea and that project. Hillary Clinton revealed as early as March 13 in The New York Times that if she were president, she would not remove all troops from Iraq. She wasn't specific as to just how many she would reduce, but the same article gave estimates of cutting the troops in half, taking out most of the so-called combat troops, which is a rather elastic definition actually, and getting down to between 50,000 and 100,000 troops to remain indefinitely. She mentioned a number of goals which could actually easily justify leaving a much larger force there indefinitely.
The other candidates essentially have not disagreed with that, as you've probably noticed. Even when they were asked the simple, concrete question: Do you foresee our American troops being out at the end of your first term if you were elected -- that is, by 2013, the start of a new term -- not one of them was willing to say yes. And that's five years away.
I really don't think they were just allowing a little flexibility as to whether it would be five years or six years. I've seen no indication that the Democratic leadership in Congress, or the Republican leaders, or the candidates, envision the Americans being out of those bases any time in their lifetime or our children's lifetime. And that means that Americans will be killing Iraqis and dying, and killing Iraqi civilians -- committing atrocities, among other things -- as long as they're there. And that, as I say, is another half-century or more.
BuzzFlash: If we go back literally a hundred years, the British Navy that then ruled the seas was in the process of converting from coal-burning engines to oil, and they had a great interest in developing the oil capacity of the Middle East. The region was starting to emerge at that point -- people were realizing its potential. Winston Churchill, who was not yet prime minister, but was advancing in the government, had a role to play in positioning Britain to essentially control Iraq and the oil reserves in Iran, going into World War I and later.
Are we essentially seeing a continuation, now under the U.S. neocolonial sponsorship, of that effort to control the oil assets of the region? And by colonial, I mean that the sovereign states of that area are not allowed to control their own natural resources, but another power does. A hundred years ago, it was Britain and France that kind of divided up the Middle East. Russia also had tried to dominate some of that, but they were kind of out-foxed by the British, and to some degree, the French. Now the U.S. is in there, basically ensuring oil for the foreseeable future. Is that an accurate assessment?
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes. I don't need to expand on that. I couldn't say it better. We took over Britain's "responsibilities" for controlling the oil of the Middle East, and we established a special relationship during the war with Saudi Arabia, which a hundred years ago had not yet emerged as the source of these enormous reserves.
I think we do have an administration in office now, whose response to the end of the Cold War is to see the chance to dominate the world unilaterally. Everything is open now, not only to our influence, which is inevitable with the strongest country in the world, but domination, especially in a military basis. That's the peculiarity of this particular administration -- the emphasis, I think, on unilateralism and on military force.
Around the world, it's very helpful -- and as they would see it, essential -- to control the oil in the Middle East. And that's what they are in the process of doing.
BuzzFlash: The irony, of course, is Bush wraps this in the flag of "liberating" Iraqis, giving them freedom, giving democracy a chance to work. But as we saw in the Blackwater situation, where the Iraqis said get them out of here, the Bush administration said: Not so fast -- we'll decide that.
Daniel Ellsberg: It's basically absurd. Our concern for the freedom of Iraqis is no more than our concern for the humanity of the Iraqis, and our policy of torture and our reckless, negligent use of firepower there, both on the ground and especially in the air, our total unconcern for a process here that has apparently produced 1.2 million civilian casualties over the war, means that an assertion that we're concerned about their welfare is an obscene lie.
BuzzFlash: There are many Americans who support the administration. The majority of Americans polls indicate want us out of Iraq. But the diehards are still with Bush.
Daniel Ellsberg: 24% is it?
BuzzFlash: Well, it depends on which specific polling questions you look at. A lot of people go along with the cover story that this is about freedom and democracy. We would speculate that white males, particularly, go along with the basic concept that America just can't lose. We're too big. We're too powerful. And the people who advocate withdrawal are "defeatists." And we're just too big of a nation to lose a war.
Daniel Ellsberg: In short, much of our population has accepted this role of empire for the government. They've accepted the notion that their own material welfare probably depends on that in a variety of ways. They're willing to accept the cover story of concern for the Iraqis, which is, let's say, laughable, and that's not to their credit. It means that they essentially have paid no attention to what's going on there, or they accept without any question absurd fabrications by the President, without demanding that Congress, their representatives, investigate these claims. Have the Democrats actually held hearings?
I'm going to switch the subject a little bit to Iran, if I may. Quite the same process of lying us into a war, for the domination of Iraqi oil, is being used now to make sure that Iran does not have an independent role in the Middle East. The thought is to destroy it from the air. And again, Congress is showing no useful lesson learned in the process of manipulating them five years ago.
People have asked me why am I dismayed that no lessons seem to have been learned from Vietnam. And my reaction is: You know, that's 35 or more years ago. That's not too surprising that a new generation or two will have forgotten most of what happened during that. But what does dismay me is that it's possible for an administration to manipulate the media and Congress in exactly the same way, through virtually the same words that they used, just five years ago. That, I think, gives one pause about who our countrymen are in terms of their voting. And it's somewhat dismaying. Obviously, there are many people who recognize that we're again in a major crisis here that may lead to another disastrous war. But they're a minority.
BuzzFlash: Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter, wrote a wonderful book on the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 by Kermit Roosevelt, I believe the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who was working for the CIA at the time. They had a Western-style government with a very charismatic elected leader -- the kind of government Bush claims he wants to see throughout the world -- basically pro-Western, secular.
Daniel Ellsberg: But Britain and BP wanted to share the profits of the oil industry.
BuzzFlash: The British petroleum industry had a contract with the former government of Iran before they became democratic. In essence, it allowed them to control the oil reserves. That's what it amounted to within Iran. They controlled the property where the oil was taken from. A new leader wanted to take back that right, restore the ownership and the right to decide who would extract that oil. The Dulles brothers convinced Eisenhower to go ahead with the coup of this democratically elected leader, partially claiming that the communists would come in to overtake this guy and make Iran a surrogate government. But the real reason was the U.S. didn't want to see the oil industry nationalized there. They wanted it in the hands of either the British or the U.S. government.
The CIA installed the Shah of Iran. He ruled ruthlessly and brutally. We forget now, of the SAVAK, who were the torturers of the time in Iran. And that's why many Iranians have such hostility toward the United States. My point is, once again, the current government in Iran is the direct result of our overthrowing the democratically elected government in 1953 and putting in an authoritarian torturer as the Shah of Iran.
Daniel Ellsberg: That's often cited as showing that covert action fails or is counterproductive. I don't think it's seen that way in the CIA or in the White House. I'm sure they've seen that overthrow as one of their most successful operations. And they measure that by a quarter century of an extremely pro-American, pro-oil company regime based largely in torture. It delivered to the oil companies and to the U.S., militarily, anyway, just what they wanted. For one thing, Iran became an extremely large buyer of U.S. arms, some of which I suppose is deployed by the current regime.
There is another interesting lesson there to be drawn from the fall of the Shah, when it finally did come about after 25 years. At the time of the fall of the Shah, nearly every family in Iran had had some member of their family tortured by the SAVAK -- their secret police, whose methods were tutored in part by the Gestapo in Germany, with the help and approval of the American CIA. The torture there was what led women and children, in particular, to mobilize in great numbers without violence. They didn't have any means of violence, which I think served them well. If they had been shooting at the time, the Shah would have stayed in. But as it was, the soldiers eventually sickened of firing on crowds literally of their own relatives, the women and children, and basically desisted. They wouldn't do it any more and the Shah left.
The moral of this is, of course, very related to what's going on now. The movie, The Battle of Algiers, is shown in the Pentagon as a training film, of an example of a success of torture. Toward the end of that film, it points out that the FLN leadership in Algiers had been decimated and that torture had contributed to that. The film does mention that the FLN triumphed in the end, and the French were forced out some years after the "victory" of the battle of Algiers. But it doesn't make sufficiently plain, which is very well known to every student of that war, that torture had lost the war. It won the battle of Algiers, but it lost the war. Basically the French were so discredited, so repressive, that, in fact, everybody turned against the French.
Of course, what we're seeing right now is a discussion in which the loudest voices favor the President's position, which says that torture saves American lives. In fact, all the inside experts who have leaked their opinions, or have told us their opinions after they got out, have testified that each person tortured -- and in particular, each "innocent" person who was tortured -- who has no information to give, or is in no way allied with the resistance movement -- when they are tortured, it has the effect of creating many, many more resistors, making the resistance unbeatable, just as our invasion and occupation has made the Sunni al Qaeda movement unbeatable. It creates so much support for it in the rest of the world, or neutrality among people who would otherwise be repelled by its goals, that it can't be destroyed, as in Algiers. We can kill this and that. We can even kill a majority of the leaders at a particular time. That's what they boast of. The U.S. administration has had to admit that that leadership has greatly grown.
So here we have a president who was portrayed as better able to protect the United States than his opponent, John Kerry, to keep us safe. In fact, by invading Iraq, he has made us, in the longer run, much, much less safe. He's made al Qaeda much stronger. It's not to the credit of those who did vote for him.
BuzzFlash: Let me return to Vietnam, which, of course, is an era you're an expert on. Since we last talked to you a few years back, Bush went to Vietnam, and he made a remarkable statement while he was there. But here we have Vietnam now, which has become an offshore source of cheap labor for the globalized national corporations.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes.
BuzzFlash: In its own way, it embraced capitalism and said: come and exploit our people. Pay them low wages to do the jobs that Americans used to do. Bush is just happy as a clam that there's another country that's offering cheap labor to the globalized corporations. He goes to Vietnam and says, "You see, this shows why the Vietnam war was so important." We were just flabbergasted by this.
Daniel Ellsberg: Which leads to the question: Can he possibly mean that? Can he possibly believe that? Is he that stupid? Or is he simply that cynical and contemptuous of us? It could be both.
BuzzFlash: Simply from a logical standpoint, because it was the end of the Vietnam war that allowed Vietnam to evolve into the society that now is embracing multi-national corporations and providing cheap labor. But there is some thinking among the neo-cons that people who advocate politics like BuzzFlash, are the people who lost the Vietnam war. They still think we could have won that. And I'm left asking, well, what would we have won? If Vietnam is the way it is now, what more could we have won? I'm a little perplexed about what "winning" would be, except that, again, it seems there's a group of people in America that define winning as America can never lose.
Daniel Ellsberg: People who believe that we could have won with a different kind of effort in Vietnam -- basically with more bombing of North Vietnam, and possibly land invasion of North Vietnam, and possibly the use of nuclear weapons -- I don't know what else they had in mind.
BuzzFlash: What would we have won?
Daniel Ellsberg: First of all, they're nearly all totally ignorant of the war both at the time and since. I wonder if Bush has so much as read a book about the war.
BuzzFlash: But again, Daniel, I ask what would we have won?
Daniel Ellsberg: Of course, their notion is that we would still have Thieu in power, or his equivalent, and that it would be capitalism without a nominally communist leadership. It would be like China, but without the communist party on top.
Some feel that Thieu could have been kept in power a couple more years by bombing, and by U.S. bombing in support of ARVN. And it was Nixon intends to keep that air support on, and keep that going. And as soon as the American troops were out, he was going to return to bombing. Probably '76 is when they would have done it. Even then, U.S. B-52s might have fought it back. And they weren't flying in '75, and that's why the war ended.
And they weren't flying because Congress had cut off the money for a number of reasons, in particular because of Nixon's crimes against me and also against the anti-war movement in general. He used the NSA and FBI to conduct warrantless wiretaps, which were illegal. I was overheard on those wiretaps, which is the immediate cause of my mistrial. But the use of the CIA against an American citizen -- me, among others -- providing logistics for the White House "plumbers" who went into the illegal burglary in my psychoanalyst's office. I mention these things because each of those acts, which had to be covered up then, because they were illegal and lied about, and caused obstruction of justice, are now legal under the Patriot Act and under the deals that are being made with the Senate. The White House directed teams against an American citizen in an effort to incapacitate me. All of these techniques now have been legitimized basically. That's how much our country has changed. But what brought Nixon down was he was clearly perceived as acting illegally against U.S. domestic opponents -- and unconstitutionally, in a variety of ways. There was a reaction to that which faced him with impeachment, and he had to resign.
We have the same acts now, some of which, when they finally were discovered after leaks, after years of concealment, when they finally were discovered, they have been, in fact, enabled by Congress right now. And that doesn't make them constitutional. It means that the Constitution has been ripped up, with the passive connivance of the Democrats in power.
BuzzFlash: But going back to Vietnam --
Daniel Ellsberg: Yes, the bombing had continued, I do think that Thieu would have remained in power along with Nixon. They had to go together. If Nixon had not had to resign, he would have had the B-52s flying. I think he would have had a good chance of keeping Thieu in power through his administration -- through the end of '76, instead of '75, after Nixon had left office. But that's about it. Would a Catholic government in a Buddhist country still be in power in Vietnam? I don't think so.
So what these neo-cons that you speak of, and Bush himself, think would have been achieved, is another two years of bombing, and more killing of Vietnamese by Americans. And keeping Thieu in power. I don't know what they think that would have accomplished. Certainly, since they liked the final outcome, one would think it could have been achieved a bit earlier. What if Congress had stopped the bombing earlier?
BuzzFlash: Well, we back then what was argued was the domino theory -- we must prevent a communist takeover there.
Daniel Ellsberg: Another story that was not believed by, for example, Robert McNamara.
BuzzFlash: Because the Vietnamese were long-time antagonists of China for example. Isn't that right?
Daniel Ellsberg: Look, now we have an administration that, again, is willing to conflate the secular but Sunni population of Iraq and the Shia population and leadership of Iran, with the Sunni extremist membership of al Qaeda. They suggest that either of those would have given nuclear weapons, if they had them, or chemical or biological weapons, to al Qaeda, which would have been a very serious prospect actually, if there's any reality to it. Except that people who know the difference between Persians and Arabs, or Sunni and Shia, which did not include, of course, Bush and Cheney, but did include a lot of people in the CIA and the State Department, that Iran and Iraq would actually be at the bottom of the list of potential sources of WMD to al Qaeda compared to other people who would be on that. There was essentially no chance of that, and that's what George Tenet actually testified to Congress before the war.
BuzzFlash: In The New York Times, recently, Maureen Dowd had a column a speculating that Cheney may be using what might be called the madness theory to keep the government of Iran and anyone else who the Bush administration might regard as a threat off balance.
Daniel Ellsberg: I'll tell you what I have accepted on that. Nixon did very consciously use what he called the madman theory, and he put it into effect. He did have Kissinger warn Vietnam and China and Russia that we had a president who was somewhat crazy -- that he had a split personality. He was very shrewd and realistic in many ways, but also capable of being very impulsive and brutal, which actually was true. That was not a bluff.
I reflected on the fact that although he used that theory consciously, it didn't work. The main purpose of it was to get the North Vietnamese to take their troops out of South Vietnam, which they never did do. But he expected to get that by these threats, including the threat of nuclear weapons in 1969. It didn't work. It had no effect on them. He expected at least to keep them from launching an offensive while he was in office. It didn't work in 1972. And of course, later, in '75, they launched their offensives.
If they're using the madman theory now again, I would say, it has a lot of realism. It's not a bluff. These guys are crazy, along with being shrewd in many ways -- shrewd enough to get power and to use it covertly and then increasingly overtly. They're smart. They're not, in other words, stupid, except that I've learned in my time on earth that even very high intelligence can result in the same kind of stupidity and craziness very comfortably. Happens all the time. And that's what we have right now. The fact is that the attack on Iraq was perceived widely within the administration as crazy, from virtually any point of view. And the same is true of any impending attack on Iran. But I have to tell you that, the more closely you know the decisions of Vietnam -- and I know it pretty closely, because I was in the Pentagon at that time and I studied that as much as any other person since then -- and I have to say that the more you know about it, the crazier Johnson's escalation in Vietnam in 1965 was. He was warned about the enormous costs and slim prospects of any kind of real success, just as more recently Bush has been warned.
How much actually reached him through Cheney is not clear, but clearly Tenet conveyed this is not clear. We don't have the documents. We don't have the Pentagon papers. And we should. Someone who does have that kind of evidence -- and there must be dozens to hundreds -- should give them to Congress, should leak them now, including the Pentagon papers of Iraq -- the machinations of the war planning. And that would include the kind of thing that was in those Pentagon papers -- namely, the estimates officially by the Joint Chiefs, by the CIA, by the State Department, and just how costly that would be, and the low prospects of success. We have to see that information in document form. And I have no doubt whatever that it exists.
People are refraining from giving those documents to Congress. People are afraid of giving the documents on torture, and on the NSA illegal surveillance which Congress has been requesting now for years, and has still not succeeded in getting. The people who have those documents in the administration and fail to hand them over to Congress against the wishes of their high-level superiors are violating their oath of office, just as I violated my oath of office in '64-65, years before my leaking of the documents to the press.
The oath of office is not an oath to the President. It is not an agreement to keep secrets. They make agreements like that, and I made agreements like that, but that is not contained in the oath of office which you swear to. That oath is not to the President, and it's not to the flag. It is one thing only -- to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And that can easily -- in fact, daily -- it comes into conflict with these other agreements and obligations that people feel. It is simply intended to override any of those others. But hardly anybody sees that.
Members of the Congress right now and others are violating their oath of office when they fail to investigate these matters. In effect, they condone and comply with, and are complicit with the violations of international law, domestic law, the Constitution which they have sworn to protect. They have neither protected the Constitution, nor have they protected the people from the potential tyranny the Constitution was designed to protect us against
What I've been calling for is what no one has actually done, and that is a timely revelation of documents before the war, or in time to change these processes. We've had anonymous oral leaks, but we haven't had the documents. We do have one officer, Lieutenant Ehren Watada, who said no, that the war was illegal and unconstitutional, and he refused to participate in it. He is facing trial right now as we speak, and a possible prison sentence. He's the single official from the U.S. government, to my knowledge, who is taking seriously that oath of office to uphold the Constitution.
Standing up for our Constitution is still our best potential protection against executive tyranny, which is what we fought to avert in the revolution of this country, and the war of independence.
BuzzFlash: Thank you, Daniel, for this interview and your service to our country.
Daniel Ellsberg: Thank you.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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ResourcesHigh School Students' E-Mail Exchange with Daniel Ellsberg, May, 1999
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW