Whistle-blowers wanted here
Daniel Ellsberg Speaks
By JULIA REYNOLDS Herald Staff Writer
November 27, 2007 Tuesday
If any era cries out for government insiders to risk their careers by exposing truths, that era is now, says a man who may be the nation’s best-known whistle-blower of all time.
It was 1971 when military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, a secret study that revealed far more about prospects for the Vietnam war effort than President Richard Nixon’s administration wanted the public to know.
On Wednesday, Ellsberg will speak at CSU-Monterey Bay about several modern “convergent crises,” including one that he said evokes haunting similarities to the Vietnam war days: the possible U.S. military involvement in Iran, which he calls a “catastrophe in the making.”
In recent years, Ellsberg has called upon government workers with high-level national security clearance to go public and speak up about the nation’s involvement in the Middle East.
The aim, he said, is simple: to prevent war and save lives.
“There are 160,000 of us in Iraq and every one of them is risking their life every day. It seems to me that there should be some officials who are willing to risk their careers and go to prison to save lives.”
Ellsberg said he was often in danger when he spent two years in Vietnam as a wartime fact-finder for the State Department.
“I risked my body a lot in Vietnam. Then I thought, why not risk it for this?”
“This” ended up being the release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, an action that Ellsberg hopes will be repeated by government insiders today.
He’s been asking high-level officials to release reports given to the president that describe the consequences of an invasion of Iran, including costs, effects on the world economy and the possibility of retaliation against the U.S.
So far, though, there hasn’t been much in the way of whistle-blowers taking him up on the challenge, a fact that Ellsberg finds astonishing.
“No one has risked their clearance,” he said. “I don’t understand why nobody does it.
“There has been a lot of leaking (of information), good leaking. But I’ve asked for people to testify with documents.”
Working in the federal government today, Ellsberg said, are some 100 to 1,000 people who he believes could prevent a war with Iran if they openly exposed inside information that he is sure exists.
“I think they could stop the war. Why you don’t have one person, I can’t explain, because I did it and I don’t see myself being that different from the others.”
But Ellsberg acknowledges that in the Pentagon Papers era, there were people all around the country willing to take risks for their beliefs.
“I did meet people who were on their way to prison for draft resistance. Maybe these people today haven’t met that kind of person,” he said.
For Ellsberg, the turning point came when he met a young man named Randall Keeler, who spoke in public as he faced prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Keeler would end up serving two years in prison, but felt it was worth it to make a point.
“When Randy Keeler spoke, that was the moment,” Ellsberg said the moment that changed his life.
He decided to spend months photocopying the 7,000 pages of documents he had access to at Rand that described a far bleaker analysis of the country’s prospects in Vietnam than leaders would have had the public believe.
He faced a trial and life in prison, but was ultimately released largely because President Richard Nixon’s hired burglars broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal files.
That, plus an attempt by the president to bribe the judge with the directorship job at the FBI, Ellsberg said, got him freed.
In many ways, history has looked kindly on Ellsberg, painting him as a hero. But he agrees his is not an easy path to follow. Whistle-blowers leaking high-level classified information today still face life in prison, just as he did.
And a recent report by the East Bay’s Center for Investigative Reporting and Salon.com found that whistle-blowers who seek protection in court lose their cases 97 percent of the time. State and federal laws designed to protect them have largely failed, the report found.
“People generally suffer pretty badly,” Ellsberg conceded. “Unless there is a question of saving lives, it probably isn’t worth doing. But when it’s about war and peace, it is worth it. Where there’s a moral principle, it is worth it.”
Despite the consequences, which often include losing jobs and being publicly discredited, Ellsberg said most whistle-blowers feel the sacrifice is worth it.
“I’ve never met one who regretted what he did,” he said.
Ellsberg has helped put together a group of other high-level “truth tellers,” who have put out a call to “patriotic whistle-blowing.”
Now the group has expanded to some 60 or more people who are part of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.
That’s good news, he said, adding that today there is greater need than ever for government secrets to see the light of day.
“The Constitution has been abrogated. When I say there has been a coup, it’s because we are not operating under the same constitution we had years ago.
“To say that the Bill of Rights is intact well, not the 4th amendment, not due process. Now we’ve accepted the whole idea of torture, of endless detention.”
And a Democratic Congress has gone along with these policies, citing the tide of public opinion, he said.
“Congress is doing nothing to investigate. They’re doing nothing to educate the public about the facts,” he said.
Because neither side of Congress wants to bring back independent prosecutors, which he says was the key factor leading to Nixon’s fall, “we now have the whole infrastructure for a police state.”
“The president has the legal infrastructure. Total surveillance, total detention … With the approval of the public, or enough of them.”
“People should be impressing on (their representatives) that they were not elected for the sole purpose of being re-elected. To allow that to be the sole consideration when the Constitution is being ripped … they are violating their oath of office.”
Despite all this, Ellsberg said he does believe there is time to turn things around.
It’s all about finding the courage to break the status quo, he said.
Ellsberg once asked former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska if he thought Congress in recent years has been extraordinarily cowardly.
“Mike said, ‘No. Ordinarily cowardly.’”