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For the 40th Anniversary of Pentagon Papers: When Dan Ellsberg Warned Us About Iraq | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

For the 40th Anniversary of Pentagon Papers: When Dan Ellsberg Warned Us About Iraq

Today, to mark the fortieth anniversary of their arrival in the public eye, the Pentagon Papers are being released with much fanfare, along with some valuable commentary (such as from James C. Goodale, the former New York Times counsel) linking that with today’s prosecutions of WikiLeaks, Thomas Drake and more. Suitably, Daniel Ellsberg is getting fresh attention, and using some of his media exposure to back Bradley Manning and other whistleblowers.

I still vividly recall watching Dan on a latenight live Channel 13 talk show in New York blowing the whistle on Vietnam months before he became famous for leaking the papers and wondering, Who is that guy? A decade later, partly inspired by Ellsberg (and Karen Silkwood) I wrote one of the first books about whistleblowers.

Daniel Ellsberg appears in a new PBS documentary, focusing on his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers.A couple years after that, I finally met Dan. I was editor of Nuclear Times and he had become an antinuclear activist—he even got arrested several times at bomb sites. I actually managed the (then) very rare feat of getting him to complete a magazine article and we have remained friends since, with Dan contributing important insights for the book I would write with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America, and much else. Once, attending a Lifton gathering on Cape Cod, I saw him strip to his shorts on a beach and dive into the frigid October waters without fear—it seemed to be some kind of metaphor.

So when, in Janaury 2003, it became clear that George Bush was hell-bent on invading Iraq, I naturally interviewed Dan for a special issue of Editor & Publisher (where I now served as editor), one of the few mainstream media outlets to early and often raise profound questions about the impending war. The Q&A would prove remarkably prescient about the media and Iraq, and the hazards of the war, nothing new for Dan. “This government, like in Vietnam, is lying us into a war,” he charged. “Like Vietnam, it’s a reckless, unnecessary war, where the risks greatly outweigh any possible benefits.” His comments on the need for whistleblowers to speak out, before the bombs fall, he is still repeating today.

What do you think of press coverage of the run-up to the war?

People used to ask me, at the time of the Pentagon Papers, how the press was covering Vietnam, and I would respond that I could put it two ways: they were doing badly, but better than any other institution in society—or they were doing better than any other institution in society, but badly.

Back then, the press only looked good compared to the administration’s account of itself, which was awful from beginning to end, and, compared to Congress, which only once held a real hearing on the war. Dissenters within the administration behaved badly, too. They understood the war was heading for disaster, and, without exception, including me, did not break ranks.

With Vietnam, the press accepted the government’s view until very late in the game, [to a] large extent until the Pentagon Papers came out. The public felt, “Why are we learning this stuff only now?” Many of those documents were with officials, and they knew the story. The public wondered, “Why is the story of actual government decision-making still a secret?”

I’m not sure if the press learned from Vietnam how to do better. In any case, the press as a whole is not doing it better now.

What exactly do they need to do better?

They are not doing the job that should be done on informing themselves, Congress, and the public on the decision-making process, the dissenting positions within the government, and the real considerations in the decision. Without that, Congress and the public cannot bring pressure to bear, before the bombs drop. Still, they are getting more leaks. Many in the Pentagon, CIA and State Department see this may be a reckless war and that many may die needlessly. We do know much more than we did at a comparable time with Vietnam. And, as in past, the foreign press is reporting much more adequately than the US press—and the US press, as before, is largely ignoring that.

Do editors and publishers feel, individually, that they understand the reasons we are going to war, and the consequences? And if they are basing their own understanding on what is being put out by the government, then they, and their readers, don’t understand it very well at all. I suggest that, just as in Vietnam, when the bombs start dropping, the American public will be entering this war with a very limited understanding of why we are at war and what the consequences will be in both the short and long terms.

Thirty years later, Americans are still asking why we went to war in Vietnam and stayed at war. Of course, the American presidents gave answers at that time—and we are still looking for better answers.

What differences do you see between today’s Iraqi crisis and Vietnam?

One difference with Vietnam in ’64 is: We now know we are headed to a big war with a lot of troops. But, still, the public feels it will be short and cheap, like the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan. They expect that model. Why? Has the press failed to pursue other scenarios? The administration has mainly conveyed what its top civilian leaders seem to believe—or want us to believe—that this war can be as quick and cheap as those examples. There seems to be no military leader who has that same confidence.

It could go like that, but, as I saw in Vietnam, in war the uncertainties are extreme. To be confident of any outcome is naive or foolish. The press could step into this breach by aggressively probing for, and reporting, the views of dissenters who clearly abound in the Pentagon, CIA and State Department.

But aren’t revealing stories now appearing? And how does the average editor take advantage of that?

Thanks to the Internet and links to skeptical or analytical pieces all over the US and world, it is possible, with some work, to actually get a pretty clear picture of the real reasons for the war and the deceptiveness of the official reasons and the costs and risks of the war. They are out there, but scattered.

Why has the press had such a hard time getting at the truth, as you see it?

There is as much lying going on as in Vietnam, as in Iran-Contra, as in the Catholic Church sex scandal, as in Enron—you can’t have more lying than that, and that’s how much we have. Are American officials peculiar in this? No, worldwide, all government officials lie, as I.F. Stone said, and everything needs to be checked from other sources of information. And anything they say may be a big lie. That was true in Vietnam, and the Pentagon Papers proved that, if nothing else.

So it is irresponsible for anyone in the press to take your understanding exclusively from government accounts, from the president or secretary of defense or lower-level officials. That definitely includes backgrounders that purport to be the “real” inside story. Just as press conferences are a vehicle for lying to the public, backgrounders are a vehicle for lying to the press, convincing the press they are getting the inside story when all they are getting is a story that is sellable to the press. That doesn’t mean that everything they say is false, but that nothing is to be relied on as the actual or whole truth.

So what exactly are the lies you say the press should be examining more deeply?

The first lie is: Saddam represents the number-one danger to US security in the world. To allow the president and Rumsfeld to make that statement over and over is akin to them saying without challenge from the press that they accept the flat-earth theory. To say Saddam is the number-one danger is being made without real challenge from the press, with few exceptions. More dangerous than Al Qaeda? North Korea? Russian nukes loose in the world? An India-Pakistan nuclear war?

I’m impressed by the testimony of General Anthony Zinni, Bush’s mediator in the Middle East, who said he’d place Saddam sixth or seventh on any list of dangers we face. The question is, Are we helping our cause against threats one through five by going after number six or seven?

Two: That we are reducing the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction by attacking Iraq. This is one of the most dangerous assertions since all evidence is that we are increasing the threat of such terrorism by the attack, as CIA Director [George] Tenet said in his letter to Congress. Tenet said the danger is very low that Saddam will use weapons if not attacked and fairly high if he is attacked.

Three: The reason we are singling Saddam out is that he cannot be contained or deterred, unlike other leaders in the world, and again this is largely unchallenged by the mainstream press. No one brings out the following point: This is a man who had weapons of mass destruction, including nerve gas and missiles capable of hitting Israel and ready to go in the 1991 war—which he does not now have—and he kept his finger off the button. So how unreliable is he if not on the brink of being deposed or killed?

What specific questions are not being asked or not asked often enough by the press?

One question the press is not asking: Is there a single high military man who believes this war should happen now, that it is appropriate and [the] risks worthwhile? Every indication leaking out is that most feel that it is far from certain, even unlikely, that the war will be as short and successful as the civilian bosses say. What are we gaining that is worth the chance of a disastrous outcome? The military chiefs do not agree with civilians in the Pentagon as far as we can tell. And does anyone in State or the CIA strongly favor war? Another question, about how the oil reserves play out in this—has that issue been fully explored for the American public, and have they weighed it adequately?

What about the loss of many Iraqi lives?

The lesson the government learned from Vietnam is to rely on bombing rather than troops, no matter what the cost to civilian life, and at high altitudes. Second, keep the American public in the dark as to how many foreigners we are actually killing. In this case, before we start killing Iraqi soldiers, the press needs to address, do we have the right to kill all of these people, especially civilians? Have they threatened us in a way that they deserve to be killed?

Have editors ever asked how many we killed in the Gulf War? Have you ever seen a number on that? We never really even got good figures in Vietnam. In Vietnam, early on, I was pressing for estimates of civilian casualties of bombing. Over and over, I was asking the embassy consul in Vietnam, and later [Henry] Kissinger in 1969, to undertake that: what is the range of estimates? The Bush administration does not want to answer that question now, but the press has got to get that out.

This government, like in Vietnam, is lying us into a war. Like Vietnam, it’s a reckless, unnecessary war, where the risks greatly outweigh any possible benefits. I’d make this argument to insiders: don’t do what I did. Don’t keep your mouth shut when you know people are being lied to. Tell the truth before the bombs are falling, while there’s still a chance to do something about it.

Greg Mitchell is author of So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq. His two current books and e-books are The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences.

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