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Lied Into War - An Interview With Daniel Ellsberg

Tony Jones speaks with former US Defence Department official, Daniel Ellsberg, who accuses President Bush of lying to take America to war with Iraq, and believes secret groundwork is being laid for a war with Iran.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Broadcast: 12/10/2006

Video Runtime 17 Minutes

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TONY JONES: Well, comparisons between the US war in Iraq and the quagmire of the Vietnam War are frequently made by critics of President Bush's foreign policy. But now the most famous whistleblower of the Vietnam era, former State and Defence Department official, Daniel Ellsberg, is speaking out, calling on Bush Administration officials to do what he did with the Pentagon papers more than 30 years ago and leak secret documents and war plans to the public. Ellsberg claims President Johnson lied to take America to war in Vietnam. He accuses President Bush of lying to take America to war with Iraq and he believes secret groundwork is being laid for a war with Iran. Now in his 80s, Ellsberg is still regarded as either a patriot or a traitor, depending on your perspective. But as a Vietnam veteran and a senior Pentagon official, he was an insider until he blew the whistle. I spoke to him in Berkeley, California earlier today.

TONY JONES: Daniel Ellsberg, thanks for joining us.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Thank you for having me.

TONY JONES: Now it's been said that nations must understand their history or be condemned to repeat it. Your argument is that in going to war with Iraq, America failed to learn one of the most profound lessons of Vietnam. Tell us what you mean by that?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, in a way it's not surprising that a generation and a half after Vietnam, it's been some 30, 35 years since that war ended, it's not too surprising that a new generation will have forgotten how they were lied into that war and just how disastrous it was. People have to make their own mistakes and people don't often learn from other people's mistakes. It is surprising to me that this administration seems ready to lie us into a war in Iran, using the same playbook they used very much on Iraq, just three years later. That's fairly dismaying. It's the same electorate, same people. Apparently if you can't fool all the people all the time, as Lincoln said, apparently you don't need to. You can fool enough of the people enough of the time, and I'm sorry to see it.

TONY JONES: You really believe that the war in Iraq was based on lies?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: No question. Actually, no matter how much misunderstanding there was underneath that about the role of the presence of WMDs in Iraq, when the administration figures, all of them - Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld - said, we have no doubt, our intelligence agrees, we know for a fact, all those things were lies. The evidence which they had, which was misleading at best, was extremely thin by any standards. Contradictory, controversial, and the administration managed to conceal from the public for years the amount of controversy there was about the aims of the project, how much it would cost, how long it would take. All of those things were concealed from the public and lied about, just as happened in Vietnam and I'm afraid that's happening once again with respect to Iran.

TONY JONES: Okay, well, that's your thesis. I want to go back in history to find out exactly how you came to this conclusion and I was surprised to learn that you actually carry a burden of guilt for not having become a whistleblower much earlier?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, the guilt isn't as strong as it might be if I'd really considered putting out the truth early on as I could have and had rejected that for careerist reasons or for other bad reasons. The fact is I didn't think of doing that and so, of course, I don't feel as guilty as I would if I hadn't thought of it. The question remains, why didn't I think of it? Nobody had ever done that before, told the truth before a war to avert the war altogether. So I didn't have a precedent, but that doesn't let me off the hook altogether. I do feel I was one of perhaps 100 people who could have stopped the war if we had simply told the Congress, and to the public, the documents and the information that we had in our safes and in our heads at that time and the fact we didn't think of it, as I say, doesn't excuse us altogether. We should have thought of it and I'm hoping that people, I'm hoping to remind people of that possibility earlier than was the case with me.

TONY JONES: Well, here's what you write. "It had been in my power to avert the deaths of 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese." Now that's a very big statement.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It might seem pretentious, that I was taking on myself more power than I actually had. Actually, when a policy depends upon fooling the public with lies and concealment and deception, that policy is vulnerable to a lot of individuals, each one of whom could puncture those illusions. The people, in other words, who could give the lie to what the President and his subordinates are saying have much more power than she or he generally thinks of themselves as having and I'm trying to make people aware of that. They have a choice. They have a responsibility. If they choose to be silent as the public is lied to, they're responsible for that and for all the deaths that follow. They're fully complicit in the wrongful war and Iraq was a wrongful war and indeed Vietnam was a wrongful war and we share - we don't have only on ourselves - but we share the responsibility of those deaths to a very great extent. I think that people right now who are telling reporters like Time magazine and others that a) they know of plans for attacking Iran, b) they are appalled by the risks and the costs involved, which might include nuclear war, then I think they should consider going beyond what they've done so far. They should consider going beyond leaking anonymously or without attribution to reporters and put out documents that will show unequivocally and change the controversy from their own personality or their motives to a controversy about whether we should go to war or not. That's what should be debated and discussed.

TONY JONES: Okay, well let's stay with history for a moment, though. Can you explain why back in 1964 you were so sure that the President and the Secretary of Defence were lying about the reasons for going to war with Vietnam?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I knew that because I was reading the cables that were going to the President and to the Secretary of Defence and I was aware that what he was saying - let me give some examples. The President said the night of an alleged attack on our destroyers, and I spent that night in the Pentagon following the action, he said that the attack on our destroyers was unequivocal, that it was an unprovoked attack, that our destroyers were on a routine normal patrol in international waters and that we sought no wider war, that we were responding simply on a one-time basis. I knew that every one of those statements was a conscious lie and I knew that along with hundreds, I've guessed here 1,000 other people in the Pentagon.

TONY JONES: Now seven years later, in 1971, you broke that taboo and you leaked 7,000 pages of secret documents to the 'New York Times'. What was it that changed your mind and convinced you it was time to become a whistleblower?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Really a number of things. For one thing, I knew then what I would say, the same kind of information we have now, that we're planning an attack on Iran or that many people had before the attack on Iraq. In my case I had it then as an insider, someone who had worked as a consultant for President Nixon. Now we're getting leaks from people in the position I was who are now leaking to Sy Hersh and others. So I knew that the situation was very dangerous and I was convinced that it would be disastrous - in between those years, I'd been to Vietnam for two years. I'd become aware that there was no prospect of any success in Vietnam, just as I would say by this time hundreds of thousands of young Americans have been in Iraq and have reached the conclusion that we're not likely to achieve any success there. Third, I'd read the Pentagon papers. I'd read the Pentagon papers and I understood by that, by reading, that our project there had not been legitimate from the very beginning. We had been helping the French and, in fact, paying for the entire French effort in an imperial effort to regain their colony from the beginning. That meant to me that all the killing we were doing in Vietnam, even of the armed soldiers or the guerrillas we were fighting as well as the unarmed non-combatants, that all of that killing was unjustified. It was murder and that meant to me that that murder should stop right away. Not gracefully and that we shouldn't spend a few years getting out of it, but really we should be out of that war. Finally, the key thing was I met young Americans who were giving their all to do what they could to protest the war. They were going to prison instead of taking part in the draft and that put in my mind the question, "What could I do if I were willing to do what they're doing? Going to prison, giving up my career, doing all that I could non-violently and truthfully?" I think that was the right question to ask myself and it's a question I'm trying to put into the minds of people in the government right now. Normally you simply don't ask that of yourself. You ask, what can I do to avert this terrible policy - this is often a question in people's mind - consistent with my keeping my job and my clearance and my chances for promotion and access in general? That's what people ask themselves and I'm suggesting that when so many lives are at stake they should really ask themselves what they could do if they're willing to risk their jobs and even their freedom.

TONY JONES: Let's go forward in time now to those very officials you're appealing today. You're essentially saying they have a higher duty than to a chain of command or even to the President himself. What is that higher duty?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: In our country officials, both military and civilian, take an oath to uphold and support the constitution. They don't, as in Nazi Germany for example, take an oath to the leader, the commander-in-chief or even the elected president. They take it to uphold the constitution. When the President is deceiving the Congress on the issues of war and peace he's clearly violating that oath, his oath. And that doesn't mean, I've come to believe, that relieves you of your own oath if you're an official. If he's breaking the law, as he was, for example, with these warrantless wire taps that have been going on for the last five years that are a clear violation of the law and the constitution - that doesn't mean that the people below him who know of that are relieved of their responsibility to uphold the law. Doing that can only mean revealing what's going on, breaking that secrecy. It means giving higher priority to your promise to uphold the constitution and the laws than to your promise to keep secrets.

TONY JONES: Do you really believe that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a breach of the constitution because of the way it was taken?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Oh, absolutely. For one thing, we have signed and ratified the UN Charter, which makes very clear the conditions under which it's legitimate to go to war and when it is not and without the sanction of the UN Security Council and without a direct attack on our own armed forces or our country, it can be repelled immediately under the UN Charter and under our constitution. Then, beginning a war initiating hostilities is aggression. It's a crime against the peace. It is the sort of thing that entitles one to a trial in an international criminal court such as Nuremberg and that's the crime for which people were hanged at Nuremberg and in Tokyo. In our constitution it's also necessary that that decision be taken by the Congress, if there's been no direct attack on the armed forces, and the President does have the constitutional authority to respond to that immediately - he may lie about it, as in the case of the Tonkin Gulf when he told Congress we'd been attacked when, in fact, the evidence was very unclear on that and in fact, we had not been attacked. But in the case of Iraq he didn't even pretend that there was an immediate threat. He did pretend there was a long-term threat. The evidence for that was very weak, and in fact non-existent, invalid. He did pretend there was a long-run attack. That does not make it a preventive war legal. The fact is, there was no way for Congress to make that war legal under the UN Charter, and the UN Charter is the highest law of the land on this matter.

TONY JONES: Daniel Ellsberg, your recent article is entitled 'The Next War' and you've talked a lot in this interview about Iran and about the war plans drawn up by the Pentagon, but isn't that what the Pentagon has always done - coldly examined all the military options and sent them up to the President for a decision?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Of course there are contingency plans all the time. But what has been leaked, what has been disclosed without authorisation and without attribution so far, is that the White House itself and very specifically Vice-President Cheney has asked for plans to be prepared ready to be enforced or executed on a strict timetable, in fact the earliest timetable was last year but more recently we've heard that it was 1st of October - Time magazine had that. Now that's not your ordinary contingency planning. That's planning that the President has shown a great interest in and an interest in being able to execute on a very short and strict timetable. That's - I can tell you as somebody who was involved in the planning process in the government, that is regarded as an operational plan to be taken very seriously. The fact that it has been asked for by the White House is to be taken as a serious indication that the White House wants to be ready to carry that out on a moment's notice and we in the public and Congress should also take it very seriously.

TONY JONES: Well, we now have the example of North Korea. They've gone ahead and tested a nuclear weapon and the US response has been pragmatic. They realise evidently there is no real military option without risking a regional conflagration. Do you not trust in the end the commonsense of your own President?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I wish I could say yes. Of course I would like to have trust in the commonsense of my president. No, I don't. We've had this president for five years now. I would say that the judgment that he and his advisers have shown not just in Iraq but in an entire range of situations have earned him the greatest distrust and scepticism. Indeed, I would say that if there was an Opposition party in the House, in the Senate, he has richly earned impeachment and I would say, though the trial hasn't been held, conviction on a number of grounds through breaking the law and of showing absolutely miserable judgment. It's widely said, widely believed that there's little chance of attacking Iran because that is so obviously crazy. I agree. It's crazy. It's illegal. We've talked about that. We haven't even talked about the retaliation to be expected, which overweighs any potential benefits that could be understood from this aggression. But the same was true of Iraq. It's said that the military don't want to attack Iran. I think that's true, but they didn't want to attack Iraq. They did when they were ordered. I'm glad to see civilians control the military but that has a downside, too. It means they'll carry out crazy plans and basically that was true in Vietnam. I was a part of what was essentially horrible judgment. I was a low-level point - I don't want to take on airs as being a major war criminal. But the fact is I did participate in terrible decision making in which, by the way, Australia participated in a way that does your Australian leaders no credit whatever, to have joined that hopeless and illegal war in Vietnam. So, in fact, I believe Australia's leaders were quite upset that I released the Pentagon papers because it showed the degree to which they had been manipulated rather easily into joining that terrible effort. So unfortunately, I have to conclude at my age now, I've seen a number of cases in which a number of men who are individually intelligent; I'm not saying individually they're crazy or even stupid - they may be in some cases - I don't know President Bush, in a way. But I don't have to assume that he's stupid to be following a stupid policy. The people inside are not necessarily less intelligent than the smart guys that I worked for and was one who got us into Vietnam. And to say that is to say that the fact that they would be stupid as well as illegal and crazy to attack Iran, that is not reliable assurance that these same people will not put us into Iran, the ones who got us into Iraq.

TONY JONES: Daniel Ellsberg, that's where we'll have to leave you for now. It's been fascinating to talk to you; hopefully we'll be able to do it again some time.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

 

 

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