American Democracy in Dissent

Daniel Ellsberg gave the White House and the world quite a shock in 1971 when he leaked 7,000 classified pages of a Defense Department report outlining the full extent of the U.S. role in Vietnam to the New York Times. The documents revealed that the federal government had been steeped much deeper in battle in Vietnam than the public had been told, and that presidents had acted unconstitutionally to carry out their plans. Ellsberg was charged with espionage, theft, and conspiracy, and the federal government sued to stop newspapers from publishing the leaked documents. Ultimately, the charges were dropped, and the government lost its case in the Supreme Court. Since then, Ellsberg's political activism has gotten him arrested 70 times, as well as earned him several awards. This week he visits Minnesota to discuss dissent.

CP: Does anyone with information that American citizens should have about potential wars or governmental misdeeds have a responsibility to go public, even if it's a great risk to them?

DE: Not at all. There are secrets that should be kept, certainly. I'll give you an example: the name "Valerie Plame Wilson." I would never have put that name out there and I don't know any colleagues that would have been so stupid to undermine an operation that was aimed at discovering peripheration and stopping it. The premise here is that in the case of a war like Iraq, as in Vietnam, there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who are well aware that the documents in their own office safes would disprove statements the president is making in order to manipulate Congress into an illegal, hopeless, doomed war in which many people will be condemned to death, both Americans and others—millions of Vietnamese and perhaps more than a million Iraqis by now. By manipulating them falsely into an aggressive war, he's violated his oath of office to uphold the Constitution, and when they keep silent about their knowledge of that situation, they are themselves violating their own oath to support and defend the Constitution. I'm doing my best to really put out the message to people in that position: Don't do what I did. Don't wait till bombs are falling in Iran or a new war is started wrongly or thousands more people have died when you know that your bosses are lying to the public.

CP: Can America's next military disaster be stopped today if people just come forth with information that they have?

DE: There would be no guarantee of that, because we have seen a lot of examples of sufficient proof coming out with Congress ignoring it and doing nothing about it. But I think it's necessary and has a chance to succeed. For example, when the national intelligence analysts a few months ago threatened to resign and go public if the new National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran was not producing nuclear weapons and had not been for some years, was not made public. If they hadn't threatened to resign, that report would not have become public, and I think we'd be closer than we are to going to war against Iran right now. Even so, as I said, their action doesn't guarantee that the president won't just go ahead on his own terribly misguided belief that he has unlimited power as commander-in-chief, that he's virtually a king, despite the passage of the Constitution two centuries ago. That's his sincere belief, and if we let him act on that, he'll be right, he's a king.

CP: Do you consider yourself to be a political radical?

DE: I believe in democracy. I believe that our Constitution, despite its shortcomings and flaws, which are significant, has some marvelous innovations in it. The idea of forbidding laws to be written that would infringe on freedom of speech and freedom of the press was an amazing political invention. It was certainly radical in its time. I'd almost have to say it's radical right now, because clearly Congress and much of the public has gotten tired of these kinds of freedoms and the courage and effort it takes to sustain them. So you could say that I am a radical democrat, small d, in that I really believe in regaining the kinds of protections and tyranny usurpation that were meant to be built into our Constitution. I would not have said there was anything radical about that when I was growing up 60 years ago, but I'm afraid it's radical now in the sense of going back to roots, and our roots are in the concept of democracy. That's not a system I want to see change.

Daniel Ellsberg and political science professor Larry Jacobs will discuss dissent and democracy as part of the U of M's Great Conversation Series.
Tue., Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m., 2008

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