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Secrets, Then and Now 

Time's running out. When will the American government--and people--realize what Daniel Ellsberg really learned in 1971?

Those looking for insight on the Bush administration's transformation of executive power could do nothing more to horrify themselves than read Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg is the former military analyst who triggered the Watergate crisis by releasing copies of a classified Pentagon study on U.S. decision-making in Southeast Asia from 1945-1968 to Congress and The New York Times in 1971. Although Nixon's administration was not covered in the study, he feared Ellsberg had similar documentation of his administration's decision-making processes. The "dirty-tricks" campaign that was subsequently begun to discredit Ellsberg eventually spilled over into the Watergate burglary, leading to Nixon's resignation and to the eventual de-escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The purpose of Ellsberg's memoir is to delineate the process by which he became a "truth-teller." But the story he tells concerns the dangerous effects of the isolation of power in the executive branch, regardless of which party is in power.

From 1961 to 1967, Ellsberg worked as a specialist on American involvement in S.E. Asia for the Defense and State Departments. A Harvard-trained economist--whose dissertation oddly enough focused on the "game theory" made famous in last year's film A Beautiful Mind--Ellsberg was one of Kennedy's idealistic "Best and Brightest," a cold-war warrior and Marine whose analysis of U.S. government decision-making led him again and again to question systemic obstacles to the development of pragmatic, moral policy.

What Ellsberg found is that a combination of tremendous work-loads--he describes being met with a 10-foot tall stack of paper each morning--and patterns of secrecy within the executive branch created a climate in which the most realistic assessments of outcomes were routinely ignored. This was confirmed for him in 1967 when, as part of his work on a Rand Corporation project, he gained access to the Pentagon Papers and discovered that every crucial policy decision on Vietnam since 1945 had been "secretly associated with realistic internal pessimism, deliberately concealed from the public."

Indeed, he found that the documents with the most stringent classification were precisely those pessimistic assessments that were most prophetically accurate. Because those assessments concerned estimates of civilian and U.S. military casualties and because no assessment predicted defeat of the North short of all out war, Ellsberg decided that the executive branch had, in concealing these facts, waged outlaw aggression from the beginning.

To Ellsberg, this was not an instance of specific mendacity, but rather a product of systemic failures associated with patterns of privilege and secrecy within the executive branch. He remarks, "There were situations--Vietnam was an example--in which the U.S. Government, starting ignorant, did not, would not learn." It would not learn because, as he presciently warned Henry Kissinger:

First, you will be exhilarated by some of this new information [from special clearances above top-secret], and by having it all--so much! Incredible!--suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written and talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information. ... You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you've started reading all this daily intelligence input ... you will forget there was ever a time you didn't have it, and you'll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don't ... and that all those other people are fools ... [and] it will have become very hard for you to learn from anyone who doesn't have these clearances.

Ellsberg found this process of isolation exacerbated by the fact that institutional memory of policy and analysis prior to any current administration was almost wholly absent.

The situation has, of course, gotten no better. Anyone knows this who read Time magazine's damning Aug. 12 Special Edition on the effects of administration transition on U.S. policy vis-à-vis al-Qaeda between Jan. 2001 and the Sept. 11 attacks. Time revealed that the most strident and prescient analysis of al-Qaeda was ignored by Condoleeza Rice because of the administration's sweeping, unilateral reassessment of all policy matters--and its desire to focus Nuclear Regulatory Commission resources on Bush's Missile Defense Shield.

One of the terrible ironies arising from reading Ellsberg's memoirs is that he is most often remembered as a partisan liberal who helped bring down a corrupt Republican president. In fact, his analysis in Secrets is a far deeper critique of the anti-democratic dynamics of the executive branch in the modern era. The current administration's retrenchment on matters of executive privilege--from Dick Cheney's refusal of congressional oversight requests, to Bush sealing his father's papers, to Attorney General Ashcroft's directive to all government agencies to obstruct Freedom of Information Act requests--is its signature posture. It is also a move that precisely illustrates Ellsberg's observation that the U.S. government does not learn from history. Or, in this case, it might actually reflect that the administration has learned, too well, the wrong lesson from the Pentagon Papers--to control information even tighter.

Despite the fact we so often hear that national or military security necessitates such measures, I cannot think of one instance where release of such information actually damaged security. Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that patterns of secrecy produce environments in which America becomes implicated in outlaw action against foreign and domestic targets.

If Ellsberg is right, this is not because the men are criminals. Rather, the culture of isolation endemic to upper levels of an administration produces a climate of authoritarian lawlessness where moral decisions simply cannot be made. And we become implicated in that.

We are on the cusp of entering into a war that could cost millions of lives, both domestic and abroad. It will likely be a war that will not make us safer from terrorism and one that would not have stopped Sept. 11; a war that will put us on a semi-permanent war footing in the Middle East. It will likely cost billions of dollars, potentially devastating large sectors of the economy.

After reading Secrets, I suspect that somewhere in the Bush administration an assessment to this effect has already been made. I suspect that it has also been ignored, because the ones above it "know better." Finally, I suspect that we won't be told about it until after the fact--no matter what that fact turns out to be.

In Secrets, Ellsberg asks us once more to learn. Given the likely fact that the phenomenon he documented is happening again, unfortunately it's far too timely a request. EndBlock

More by David Need

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