Daniel Ellsberg Never Ran Out of Secrets

“Mr. Ellsberg, who died on Friday at 92, copied the military’s secret 7,000-page history of the Vietnam War and gave it to The New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971. The government sued to stop publication, but the Supreme Court defended the First Amendment right of a free press against prior restraint. [..]

[New York Times] The number of people with the security clearances to view classified material has expanded, perhaps exponentially, since the leak of the Pentagon Papers, and I wonder, aside from a few people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, why haven’t there been more Dan Ellsbergs? Why aren’t there more people who, when presented with evidence of something that they find morally objectionable, disclose it?

[Ellsberg] [..] It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. Many of the people whistle-blowers work with know the same things and actually regard the information in the same way — that it’s wrong — but they keep their mouths shut. As Snowden said to me and others, “Everybody I dealt with said that what we were doing was wrong. It’s unconstitutional. We’re getting information here about Americans that we shouldn’t be collecting.” The same thing was true for many of my colleagues in government who opposed the war. Of course, people are worried about the consequences.

Before my case and the Obama administration’s prosecutions of whistle-blowers, they needn’t have been worried about going to jail. But apart from that, they fear losing their jobs, their careers, risking the clearances on which their jobs depend. People who have these clearances have often invested a lifetime in demonstrating that they can be entrusted to keep secrets. That trust becomes a part of your identity, which it is difficult to sacrifice, so that one loses track of a sense of higher responsibility — as a citizen, as a human being.

[NYT] We tend to think of the classification system as a system of protection. But you sometimes talk about it, and I think correctly, as a system of control.

[Ellsberg] That is what it is. It is a protection system against the revelation of mistakes, false predictions, embarrassments of various kinds and maybe even crimes. And then the secrecy system in its application is predominantly to protect officials, administrations from embarrassment and from accountability, from the possibility that their rivals will pick these things up and beat them over the head with it. Their rivals for office, for instance.

[NYT] How should the average reader understand the difference between the importance of a risotto recipe that was disclosed by the Russian hack of John Podesta’s email account and serious secrets like those disclosed by Snowden? Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, who studies secrecy, for instance, once called the indiscriminate disclosure of military files by WikiLeaks a kind of “information vandalism.”

[Ellsberg] I disagree with Steve. I think he greatly underestimates the amount of overclassification. The media as a whole has never really investigated the secrecy system and what it’s for and what its effects are. For example, the best people on declassification outside the media, the National Security Archive, month after month, year after year, put out newly disclosed classified information that they have worked sometimes three or four years, 10 years, 20 years to make public. Very little of that was justified to be kept from the public that long, if at all. An expert estimated in Congress in 1971 that 5 percent of classified information met the criteria for secrecy at the time it was classified, and after a few years that decreased to half of 1 percent. [..]

[NYT] Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense during the Cuban missile crisis, once said, “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.” Why haven’t we seen nuclear weapons used since 1945?

[Ellsberg] We have seen nuclear weapons used many times. And they’re being used right now by both sides in Ukraine. They’re being used as threats, just as a bank robber uses a gun, even if he doesn’t pull the trigger. You’re lucky if you can get your way in some part without pulling the trigger. And we’ve done that dozens of times. But eventually, as any gambler knows, your luck runs out.

For 70 years, the U.S. has frequently made the kind of wrongful first-use threats of nuclear weapons that Putin is making now in Ukraine. We should never have done that, nor should Putin be doing it now. I’m worried that his monstrous threat of nuclear war to retain Russian control of Crimea is not a bluff. President Biden campaigned in 2020 on a promise to declare a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. He should keep that promise, and the world should demand the same commitment from Putin.”

Full editorial, A Kingsbury, New York Times, 2023.3.24 (updated after Daniel Ellsberg’s death on 2023.6.16)