In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Now, with bellicosity about Iran in the Beltway air, Ellsberg is renewing his call for insiders to leak. He and Brooke discuss the tension between government employees’ contract to keep secrets and their oath to uphold the Constitution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the 1960s, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg had access to a lot of highly classified information. He worked for the Pentagon, the State Department and the Rand Corporation. In 1971, he unlocked his safe, made a lot of photocopies and leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. In October's edition of Harper's, with a potential war in Iran as his focus, Ellsberg renews his call for insider leaks. Daniel Ellsberg, welcome back to On the Media.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you had the Pentagon Papers today, what would you do with them? Which senators would you go to and which reporters at which papers would you go to?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: From my own experience, I wouldn't waste time now going only to the Senate – Congress. I wasted really 22 months waiting for Senator Fulbright and others to decide to take the political risk of putting out secrets and doing nothing about it – and, in fact, they were waiting for me to do it on my own, but they didn't tell me that. What I would do or what I would advise other people to do right now is to go at the beginning to the press and the Senate and the Congress in general, and tell the truth with documents, and to do it before the war, not to wait, the way I did, until years had passed in the war. I would have done it earlier if I'd thought of it, and I just thought of it too late. I'm trying now to remedy that with this Harper's article and with other talks like this one, to suggest to people who have safes in their office to ask themselves, do I have a right to keep this secret? Many people didn't ask themselves that question, and they went ahead and they were silent in Iraq about a war they knew would be disastrous. There are a lot of people right now who know that an attack on Iran would be at least as disastrous, perhaps much more, especially if nuclear weapons are used, and yet so far most of them have been silent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say in your article that people in your position have to swear a couple of oaths. One is to uphold the Constitution and the other is to maintain the secrecy that your office and clearance requires.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: You know, strictly speaking, one often uses the word "oath" for a secrecy agreement, and actually it's a contractual agreement. It's something you sign, usually which says, I understand that I may be subject to prosecution if I violate this agreement. It's not actually an oath. The oath that you take, every official and every military officer, is to uphold the Constitution. It is not to obey the president of the United States. People in the government do act as though the secrecy agreement, which they colloquially call an oath, takes precedence over any other loyalty. It doesn't occur to you that anything you might be asked to do by the president could possibly be against the Constitution. If public servants understood the reality, that a secrecy agreement often conflicts with their oath to uphold the Constitution, I would hope they would realize that that oath to the Constitution takes precedence, and that when the president breaks the laws, it's not right for them to accompany him and to be an accomplice in that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So today, in regard to the war in Iraq and the potential war in Iran, you want civil servants to act as heroes, choosing allegiance to the Constitution over allegiance to the President. Do you think they know what they signed up for?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: You know, it shouldn't have to be regarded as heroic to fulfill your oath to the Constitution when you see it being violated by your superiors, but, in fact, it is very, very uncommon. It does take courage to do it, and there will be a price for doing that, whether it involves prosecution or not. But many lives are at stake. This war in Iran, which is described as possibly inevitable by Time Magazine this week in the cover story, would not be inevitable and could definitely be stopped by somebody laying out the official estimates of the costs and the consequences and the terrible prospects of such a war. They would show it to be crazy, just as the Iraq war was a crazy decision and the Vietnam war, of which I was part, was a crazy decision in terms of the legality but also the disparity of costs and consequences and any possible benefits. So I'm saying, yes, an individual could have enormous effect, and I hope one or more of them will do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dan, thank you very much.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can find Daniel Ellsberg's piece in the current edition of Harper's. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MARK JURKOWITZ: Coming up, journalists just can't have too much access, except perhaps in Iraq, and the semiotics of spinach.