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Interview with Daniel Ellsberg

Questions asked by Ole von Uexkull on September 26, 2006 (free to use, no copyright)

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg

Q: There are probably many high-ranking officials in the world who are plagued by a bad conscience. Why do so few dare to speak out?

A: Actually, I think that few if any high officials suffer from a bad conscience from participating in policies that they themselves consider reckless or hopeless or even immoral or illegal, because they feel powerless to change them. They may think of resigning--in silence, "like a gentleman"--but they conclude, with reason, that would have no effect on policy or events. It simply doesn't occur to them that they might have a very big impact, perhaps averting or stopping a war and saving many lives, if they went public with a mass of secret documents--as I did with the Pentagon Papers. They shrink even from anonymous leaks or resigning and speaking out without documents because they foresee little effect but great personal career costs, including being accused of betraying their promises of secrecy and their loyalties to colleagues and leaders.

Q: What convinced you to publicise your knowledge? Was it a long process for you personally to decide to change sides?

A: It was long after I saw the Vietnam War as hopelessly stalemated that I moved from trying to change it from inside, which didn't threaten my career, to leaking secret documents in hopes of averting an imminent, disastrous escalation, in March, 1968. A year and a half later, under a new president, I knew from inside information that the same prospect loomed again. At the same time, I met young Americans who were going to prison, as draft resisters, doing all that they could to protest and perhaps shorten the war even though they knew their individual actions had little chance of impact. I felt a responsibility to do likewise, even though the chance of affecting current policy by releasing essentially historical documents seemed small and the personal risk of prison very great.

Q: Were you afraid about your personal security or that of your family? How did you deal with your fear?

A: My wife was afraid that the government might try to attack me in various ways, even physically, but I didn't think so, so I didn't have to deal with that fear. (It wouldn't have stopped me, given my experience--as a civilian using my former training as a Marine officer--with the risks of combat in Vietnam). It turned out that my wife had been right.

Q: What did you as an insider learn about military decision-making in the US government? And what implications do your experiences from the 1960s have for the present discussion about the Iraq war and the nuclear threat posed by Iran?

A: As an insider I learned over a decade that when policy is decided by a small group of men acting in secret, they can often choose and carry out a course of action that almost any outsiders, if they were not kept in the dark, would regard as insane: with human and social costs wildly disproportionate to possible benefits, little or no prospect of success but major risk of catastrophe, sometimes criminal or immoral. Precisely that happened not only in Vietnam under both Johnson and Nixon, but again in the Iran-contra debacle under Reagan, the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and the current occupation, and now in secret planning for an attack on Iran, possibly even nuclear. All of the earlier costly fiascos could have been averted by timely exposures to Congress and the public, by one or more of the many insiders who were aware these policies were crazy and dangerous, if they had thought of accepting the personal risks of revealing the truth. I'm urging insiders who are rightly appalled at the current risk of nuclear war with Iran to consider doing that now.

Q: Do you think the Right Livelihood Award can help your cause in the US?

A: I'm hopeful that my receiving the Award for my own past and current efforts to blow the whistle on war or on deeply undemocratic and dangerous government activity will encourage others to do likewise, not in hopes of personal reward but because this unusual public recognition makes them aware that doing so can be widely regarded as "right livelihood," as the right thing to do, despite official condemnation and personal costs to themselves and their own families.