Farewell to whistleblowing mensch Daniel Ellsberg

Tributes idolise the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers - but attitudes now towards national security are radically different from those in 1971

June 22, 2023 12:10

Before there was Watergate, there were the Pentagon Papers. There might never have been a Watergate at all, were it not for the Pentagon Papers. And there would not have been a Pentagon Papers without Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who died last week, aged 92.

The Pentagon Papers were a 47-volume secret history of America’s involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. Assembled by the Department of Defence’s Vietnam Task Force for President Lyndon B Johnson, they were presented to his successor Richard Nixon in 1969.

Ellsberg was one of the team that produced the report. In 1971, he secretly photocopied thousands of pages and gave them to the New York Times.

The leaks proved that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had deliberately misled the American public about American goals in Vietnam.

They had sold the war as a defence of democracy. In truth, it was a strategic attack on China and communist influence in Asia, and a flawed one at that.

The Nixon administration prosecuted Ellsberg for treason under the Espionage Act. In 1973, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favour of Ellsberg’s First Amendment rights and the right of the American people to know what their government was up to. It was a conditional victory for the freedom of the press.

The Pentagon Papers exposed that Vietnam was a self-inflicted defeat for America. What followed was a self-inflicted defeat for Nixon. Enraged by Ellsberg’s impudence, Nixon commissioned a team of “plumbers” to ruin the whistleblower’s reputation with dirty tricks.

In June 1972, the same team were arrested in the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate Building in Washington, DC.

The revelations of skulduggery that followed led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, before Congress could impeach him. Ellsberg was raised in suburban Detroit by Jews who had converted to the mind-over-matter cult of Christian Science.

He remained a Christian Scientist, always called himself Jewish, “though not in religion”, and married Patricia Marx, the Jewish daughter of Louis Marx, the founder of America’s biggest toy company.

Nixon, who was foolish enough to tape his conversations, had no time for these subtleties. “I don’t care how you do it,” he told his adviser Bob Haldeman after the New York Times had run the first batch of Pentagon Papers.

“You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand?” Nixon reasoned that public opinion could be turned against Ellsberg: “People don’t trust these Eastern establishment people. He’s Harvard. He’s a Jew. You know, and he’s an arrogant intellectual.”

After Harvard and the Marine Corps, Ellsberg began his career as a strategic analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank; he worked on nuclear policy with Herman Kahn, the theorist of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The revolving door carried him into the Department of Defense in 1964, the year that America tipped into full-scale war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg’s patron, Robert McNamara, was the Secretary of Defense. Like Ellsberg, McNamara was a civilian wonk: his innovation was to carry systems analysis from the world of business into the sphere of government.

An early supporter of the Vietnam War, McNamara devised the “body count” metric as a measure of efficiency and a path to victory.

Intellectuals are mind-over-matter people. McNamara reasoned that as the number of Viet Cong fighters was finite, the most efficient American units were the ones that killed the most, and that intra-unit competition would lead to higher body counts. In reality, the body count incentivised the killing of civilians and the inflation of claims.

By early 1966, McNamara realised that the war was politically unwinnable, whether in Vietnam or closer to home; student protesters ambushed his car when he was on his way to consult with Henry Kissinger at Harvard.

Still, McNamara continued to implement Johnson’s policies of increasing the draft and expanding the war.

Politicians are matter-over-mind: the matter of power and popularity comes before the facts. Ellsberg reached similar conclusions about the war, but he went public with the truth.

He didn’t flee to Russia like Edward Snowden after he revealed the extent to which America’s intelligence agencies were spying on its citizens.

Unlike WikiLeaks’ exposure of the DNC’s servers in the 2016 elections, there were no fingerprints from foreign intelligence agencies on Ellsberg’s material. He faced the music, and he won. He was that rare case, the whistleblowing mensch.

“The people have a right to know” is a legal catchphrase that became popular after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

That was a long time ago. When I came to America nearly 20 years ago, the bumper sticker “dissent is patriotic” was still a common sight. In 2005, the war for democracy was in Iraq; a year earlier, CBS News had broken the story of torture at Abu Ghraib.

Dissent was obligatory under the Trump presidency, when the media declared a war for democracy at home.

Today, however, most of the US media agree with the government: the people cannot be trusted, so it’s better that they don’t exercise that right, as the downplaying of the Hunter Biden scandals demonstated until they reached court this week.

The whistle goes unblown, the wars for democracy go on.

June 22, 2023 12:10

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