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Telling the Truth

Once termed "the most dangerous man in America," Daniel Ellsberg reflects on the current crisis and the role of the press in wartime

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Henry Kissinger once called him "the most dangerous man in America." Daniel Ellsberg is one of the most important figures in the history of American journalism. A little more than 30 years ago, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The 7,000 pages of documents exposed an extraordinary catalogue of lies and duplicity on the part of the US government and ultimately helped to bring an end to the war in Vietnam -- and an end to the Nixon presidency.

Ellsberg's whistle-blowing not only sparked a landmark freedom-of-the-press case, it changed journalism forever, ushering in an era of "leaks" and general skepticism about official statements. His book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, was published to much acclaim last fall.

Ellsberg is uniquely qualified to address the issue of the media and war: as a former Marine company commander, a Rand Corp. analyst and an adviser to Robert McNamara, Clark Clifford, and Henry Kissinger on Vietnam -- not to mention as one of the most famous newspaper sources in history.

Greg Mitchell, editor of the journalism trade magazine Editor & Publisher, recently interviewed Ellsberg, who has long lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What do you think of press coverage of the ramp-up to the Iraq war?

People used to ask me, at the time of the Pentagon Papers, how the press was covering Vietnam, and I would respond that I could put it two ways: they were doing badly, but better than any other institution in society -- or they were doing better than any other institution in society, but badly.

Back then, the press only looked good compared to the administration's account of itself, which was awful from beginning to end, and, compared to Congress, which only once held a real hearing on the war. Dissenters within the administration behaved badly, too. They understood the war was heading for disaster, and, without exception, including me, did not break ranks.

With Vietnam, the press accepted the government's view until very late in the game, [to a] large extent until the Pentagon Papers came out. The public felt, "Why are we learning this stuff only now?" Many of those documents were with officials, and they knew the story. The public wondered, "Why is the story of actual government decision-making still a secret?"

Talking to [President] Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, paraphrased a staff colleague's judgment of the impact of the Pentagon Papers after the first two days of reporting on them by The New York Times: "[O]ut of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: you can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong."

The White House aide Haldeman was quoting was Donald Rumsfeld. Whether Rumsfeld himself has kept that lesson in mind isn't clear. Has the press?

I'm not sure if the press learned from Vietnam how to do better. In any case, the press as a whole is not doing it better now.

What exactly do they need to do better?

They are not doing the job that should be done on informing themselves, Congress and the public on the decision-making process, the dissenting positions within the government, and the real considerations in the decision. Without that, Congress and the public cannot bring pressure to bear, before the bombs drop.

Still, they are getting more leaks. Many in the Pentagon, CIA and State Department see this may be a reckless war and that many may die needlessly. We do know much more than we did at a comparable time with Vietnam. And, as in the past, the foreign press is reporting much more adequately than the U.S. press -- and the U.S. press, as before, is largely ignoring that.

Do editors and publishers feel, individually, that they understand the reasons we are going to war, and the consequences? And if they are basing their own understanding on what is being put out by the government, then they, and their readers, don't understand it very well at all. I suggest that, just as in Vietnam, when the bombs start dropping, the American public will be entering this war with a very limited understanding of why we are at war and what the consequences will be in both the short and long terms.

Thirty years later, Americans are still asking why we went to war in Vietnam and stayed at war. Of course, the American presidents gave answers at that time and we are still looking for better answers.

What differences do you see between today's Iraqi crisis and Vietnam?

One difference with Vietnam in '64 is: We now know we are headed to a big war with a lot of troops. But, still, the public feels it will be short and cheap, like the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan. They expect that model. Why? Has the press failed to pursue other scenarios? The administration has mainly conveyed what its top civilian leaders seem to believe or want us to believe that this war can be as quick and cheap as those examples. There seems to be no military leader who has that same confidence.

It could go like that, but, as I saw in Vietnam, in war the uncertainties are extreme. To be confident of any outcome is naive or foolish. The press could step into this breach by aggressively probing for, and reporting, the views of dissenters who clearly abound in the Pentagon, CIA and State Department.

But aren't many revealing stories now appearing? And how does the average editor take advantage of that?

Thanks to the Internet and links to skeptical or analytical pieces all over the U.S. and world, it is possible, with some work, to actually get a pretty clear picture of the real reasons for the war and the deceptiveness of the official reasons and the costs and risks of the war. They are out there, but scattered. Going to a site like www.antiwar.com, and others, you get a good picture, which includes links to pieces in mainstream papers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and elsewhere.

Why has the press had such a hard time getting at the truth, as you see it?

There is as much lying going on as in Vietnam, as in Iran-Contra, as in the Catholic Church sex scandal, as in Enron -- you can't have more lying than that, and that's how much we have. Are American officials peculiar in this? No, worldwide, all government officials lie, as I.F. Stone said, and everything needs to be checked from other sources of information. And anything they say may be a big lie. That was true in Vietnam, and the Pentagon Papers proved that, if nothing else.

So it is irresponsible for anyone in the press to take [their] understanding exclusively from government accounts, from the president or secretary of defense or lower-level officials. That definitely includes backgrounders that purport to be the "real" inside story. Just as press conferences are a vehicle for lying to the public, backgrounders are a vehicle for lying to the press, convincing the press they know are getting the inside story when all they are getting is a story that is sellable to the press. That doesn't mean that everything they say is false, but that nothing is to be relied on as the actual or whole truth.

So what exactly are the lies you say the press should be examining more deeply?

The first lie is: Saddam represents the No. 1 danger to U.S. security in the world. To allow the president and Rumsfeld to make that statement over and over is akin to them saying without challenge from the press that they accept the flat-Earth theory. To say Saddam is the No. 1 danger is being made without real challenge from the press, with few exceptions. More dangerous than al Qaeda? North Korea? Russian nukes loose in the world? An India-Pakistan nuclear war?

I'm impressed by the testimony of Gen. Anthony Zinni, Bush's mediator in the Middle East, who said he'd place Saddam sixth or seventh on any list of dangers we face. The question is: Are we helping our cause against threats one through five by going after number six or seven?

Two: That we are reducing the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction by attacking Iraq. This is one of the most dangerous assertions since all evidence is that we are increasing the threat of such terrorism by the attack, as CIA Director [George] Tenet said in his letter to Congress. Tenet said the danger is very low that Saddam will use weapons if not attacked and fairly high if he is attacked.

Three: The reason we are singling Saddam out is that he cannot be contained or deterred, unlike other leaders in the world, and again this is largely unchallenged by mainstream press. No one brings out the following point: This is a man who had weapons of mass destruction, including nerve gas, and missiles capable of hitting Israel and ready to go in the 1991 war which he does not now have and he kept his finger off the button. So how unreliable is he if not on the brink of being deposed or killed?

What specific questions are not being asked or not asked often enough by the press?

One question the press is not asking: Is there a single high military man who believes this war should happen now, that it is appropriate and [the] risks worthwhile? Every indication leaking out is that most feel that it is far from certain, even unlikely, that the war will be as short and successful as the civilian bosses say. What are we gaining here that is worth the chance of a disastrous outcome? The military chiefs do not agree with civilians in the Pentagon as far as we can tell. And does anyone in State or the CIA strongly favor war?

Another question not asked is: What do we do if Saddam launches chemical weapons, nerve gas, etc., against invading U.S. troops? Based on my years of experience within the government and familiarity with such scenarios, let me say I am certain we have contingency plans for use of nuclear weapons in response to a successful use of gas against our troops. I would say there's a significant chance that we will respond by initiating nuclear war.

So you should press officials hard. Ask: Under what conditions would you use nuclear weapons? Are there plans? Have targets been picked? Ask: Are there nuclear weapons in that region right now?

There must be a public discussion of how serious we are in possibly using nuclear [weapons]. But officials don't want to do that fearing it will scare the public and our allies who may think they are out of their minds. In fact, they are smart guys who are out of their minds.

Another question, about how the oil reserves play out in this has that issue been fully explored for the American public, and have they weighed it adequately? Again, if you read the foreign press, you'll see a lot of serious discussion of a "war for oil," and even the pros and cons of that, and I don't see that in the American press. So the public is not being asked to address a powerful motive for this war.

What about the possible loss of Iraqi lives?

The lesson the government learned from Vietnam is to rely on bombing rather than troops, no matter what the cost to civilian life, and at high altitudes. Second, keep the American public in the dark as to how many foreigners we are actually killing. In this case, before we start killing Iraqi soldiers, the press needs to address, do we have the right to kill all of these people, especially civilians? Have they threatened us in a way that they deserve to be killed?

Have editors ever asked how many we killed in the Gulf War? Have you ever seen a number on that? We never really even got good figures in Vietnam. In Vietnam, early on, I was pressing for estimates of civilian casualties of bombing. Over and over, I was asking the embassy consul in Vietnam, and later [Henry] Kissinger in 1969, to undertake that: what is the range of estimates? The Bush administration does not want to answer that question now, but the press has got to get that out.

How can the press draw more "whistle-blowers" out?

We're getting more leaks than ever before, but I have the impression that competitiveness, which is very healthy in many ways for a free press, has another side to it people in newspapers are reluctant to build on or give credit to someone else's scoop. When someone comes up with a major revelation, I look for other papers to mention that or build on it, and instead they tend to leave it as an exclusive. They don't want to appear to be playing second fiddle or following on. So a reader only gets the particular scoop in his paper rather than the larger picture, which is why they can get fuller picture via Internet links or the foreign press.

I believe we do not have enough unauthorized disclosures. What we call leaks, nine times out of 10, are authorized, within the practice of "information management" in the government. When Rumsfeld complains about leaks, he means only the ones he did not authorize.

Far from being content with the number of unauthorized leaks, the press should be asking themselves, How can we increase that and improve the timing before the bombs start and the Congress has a chance to react?

All officials know 12 reasons they should not tell the truth. They could be made more aware of the potential effect of saving lives by taking a chance with their own careers. That they will not simply be considered snitches or informers, but actually be doing a patriotic service to their country in telling truths that the president or their boss does not want told. That those people are not the ultimate authority of what the public has a right to know. That they have a choice to choose not to be silent when the country is lied to about war.

Publishers and editors should start from a knowledge that if policies from the outside look questionable and unfounded and even dangerous, there is a very high likelihood that many people inside the government feel the same way, and possibly even more deeply. There is a lot more dissent inside than you can imagine. It may even be offered by those who are spokesmen for the policy as we saw with George Ball and others in regard to Vietnam. So a reporter may not be able to tell or guess who they are, but start with the knowledge they exist.

This government, like in Vietnam, is lying us into war. Like Vietnam, it's a reckless, unnecessary war, where the risks greatly outweigh any possible benefits. I'd make this argument to insiders: Don't do what I did. Don't keep your mouth shut when you know people are being lied to. Tell the truth before the bombs are falling, while there's still a chance to do something about it.

This interview first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of Editor & Publisher. It is reprinted with permission. To read more about Ellsberg and read excerpts of his memoir, log onto www.ellsberg.net.

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