“…the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy.” – Richard Nixon to Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig
The press (a free press, at least) is indeed the enemy of imperial authority figures.
It seems that the first amendment is a right that high-ranking political figures love to give lip-service to; but when it comes to exposing their own lies and criminal acts, their support this fundamental constitutional freedom quickly fades.
In such a hostile environment where those who tell the truth are condemned, we need individuals who are willing to risk their own freedom, and even their lives, to expose the corruption that pervades Washington, particularly during times of war; we need individuals like Daniel Ellsberg.
Daniel Elsberg was an analyst at the RAND Corporation, an organization which provides research and analysis to the U.S. military, and a former employee at the Pentagon.
It is now very well-known that the entire length of the Vietnam war was littered with lies and deceit coming from our elected officials. But, during the time in which Ellsberg was working under then Secretary of Defense Robert Macnamara, antipathy toward the war was seen as unpatriotic and even treasonous.
Some saw the war as necessary, others saw it as absolutely just, our duty as virtuous Americans.
Ellsberg didn’t share this hawkish fervor, and he worked behind the scenes at convincing the president and his advisers that the war was not going as planned, but to no avail.
He then went on to serve in Vietnam as a “State Department Civilian”.
“…during two years in Vietnam, its people and plight became real to me, as real as the U.S. troops I walked with, as real as my own hands, in a way that made continuing the hopeless war intolerable.”
After seeing the Vietnam War up close, both in the Pentagon and embedded in Vietnam, a major event that fundamentally altered Ellberg’s perception of the war was a speech given by draft-resister Randy Kehler at a War Resisters League conference.
Kehler expressed his eagerness to go to jail for his opposition to the war, and Ellsberg was devastated that he had not felt the same way earlier, but he was ultimately inspired by Kehler’s words.
“How his words in general showed that he was a stellar American, and that he was going to jail as a very deliberate choice—because he thought it was the right thing to do.
There was no question in my mind that my government was involved in an unjust war that was going to continue and get larger. Thousands of young men were dying each year.
I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that.”
The words of Kehler, and Ellsberg’s firsthand experience on the battlefield, made him determined to do anything he could to stop the war; including photocopying and helping to make public the top secret documents which would later be called the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages of classified documents.
Because of his willingness to expose the lies underlying U.S. actions in the Vietnam war, Ellsberg was deemed “the most dangerous man in the world” by Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon.
The Papers were, of course, embarrassing to President Nixon, and he did everything he could to stop Ellsberg.
“Now listen here: Printing top secret information. I don’t care how they feel about the war. Whether they’re for or against it. They can’t and should not do this and attack the integrity of government and by God, I’m gonna fight that son of a bitching paper.
They don’t know what’s gonna hit them now.” – Richard Nixon reacting to the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers
The administration’s embarrassment eventually led them to break in to the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an attempt to dig up as much dirt on him as possible. The attempt backfired, of course, and this was just one event leading up to the famed Watergate Scandal.
These events would, thankfully, be the demise of Richard Nixon and the demise of the war.
Ellsberg describes the consequences of his heroic actions, and the events that followed, in his memoir Secrets:
“Shortly, I was indicted in a federal court, with [Anthony] Russo later joining me in a second, superseding indictment. Eventually I faced twelve federal felony charges totaling a possible 115 years in prison, with the prospect of several further trials for me beyond that first one.
But I was not wrong, either, to hope that exposing secrets five presidents had withheld and the lies they told might have benefits for our democracy that were worthy of the risks.
This truth-telling set in motion a train of events – including criminal White House efforts to silence or incapacitate me – that lied to dismissal of the charges against me and my codefendant.
Much more importantly, these particular Oval Office crimes helped topple the president, which was crucial to ending the war.”
In my opinion, Ellsberg’s actions changed American perception of war and of high-ranking political officials.
No longer were political officials seen as benevolent and subservient to the public interest. No longer were they seen as truth-tellers looking out for the good of the nation.
Unfortunately, however, we are a society with amnesia.
We, as a whole, have forgotten the implications of Ellsberg’s courage. The Obama administration is waging a war on whistleblowers and truth-tellers that is unprecedented (see Snowden and Assange, as two popular examples), and many turn a blind eye.
The media is more subservient to government than ever, and reporters don’t dare to ask the tough questions for fear of losing their jobs.
Ellsberg was considered a thief and a traitor by the establishment during his time, much like Snowden and Assange are seen in the eyes of our political officials today.
Why haven’t we learned our lesson?
Ellsberg’s actions exposed the ever-widening disconnect between the public and high-ranking political officials.
The government has more power than ever to spy on American citizens, yet we know less and less about what the government is doing behind closed doors.
This is not democracy. Democracy depends on freedom of information, freedom of the press, and freedom for citizens to know the truth and tell the truth without persecution. Unfortunately, our elected officials don’t seem to feel the same.
“The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers.
If you can’t handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t stay in the government at that level…
The fact is Presidents rarely say the whole truth—essentially, never say the whole truth—of what they expect and what they’re doing and what they believe and why they’re doing it and rarely refrain from lying, actually, about these matters.”
There is a time, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, when silence becomes betrayal. Information wants to be free, and it needs to be free if we are to live in a truly free society. Ellsberg showed how radically the truth can change public perception, and I think that we need this radical shift in perception once again.