Ellsberg Discusses Government Secrecy

In a conversation last night between Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, and lawyer-journalist, Scott Horton, Ellsberg said that most confidential government information is intended to be hidden, not from a country’s enemies, but rather from the population at large in order to avoid potential blame or embarrassment after decisions are made.

“Most secrecy is not directed at keeping secrets from external nations, enemies, allies, or otherwise. It’s to keep secrets from Americans, Congress, and public courts. They’re the ones that have the votes and write the budgets,” Ellsberg said at the event, which was sponsored by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinic. “They’re the ones whose blame is to be feared.”

Ellsberg is famous for releasing confidential information about the Johnson administration’s actions during the Vietnam War to the New York Times in 1971 when he was working at the Pentagon.

Rejecting the perception that many major disasters were not foreseen in some capacity, Ellsberg cited evidence acquired by the government before 9/11 about the potential for attacks by hijacked planes as well as cables released by Wikileaks that expressed concern about how Japan’s nuclear program would fare in case of severe seismic activity.

It is this type of information, he said, that the government most fears the public will discover because it suggests culpability on the part of public officials.

Ellsberg said that especially within a large organization, whether that be a government or a corporation, loyalty is held at the ultimate premium and is used to justify a member’s silence. He cited not only the American government, but employees of tobacco companies or clergy within the Catholic Church, most of whom did not release information about actions being committed that were harmful to the public.

Looking at the Obama administration, Ellsberg expressed concern about the dramatic increase in prosecutions of whistleblowers. In the 40 years preceeding the Obama administration, there were three prosecutions against people for releasing confidential information. There have been five since his term began.

He also criticized legislation in Congress that he said would establish a system similar to the Official Secrets Act used by Great Britain, which criminalizes the release of confidential information. Ellsberg argued that these laws will severely impair the workings of American democracy.

“We’ll have a government by handout. You’ll know what they want you to know and that really means no democratic participation in foreign policy,” said Ellsberg. “Popular government without popular information is but the prologue to a farce or tragedy.”

Looking at the relatively small number of whistleblowers who have emerged since he released the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, Ellsberg said that many within a government have “guilty knowledge” about the inner workings of government, but most are afraid to take the risks necessary to reveal information to the public.

However, he said that when he released the Pentagon Papers it was worth risking a life in prison or even execution in order to release information that he felt would shorten the Vietnam war and save lives and that he hoped that others would follow his lead in this respect.

—Staff writer Monica M. Dodge can be reached at mdodge@college.harvard.edu.

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