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Daniel Ellsberg: The counter-insurgency plan in Afghanistan is similar to Vietnam

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DANIEL ELLSBERG, FMR. US MILITARY ANALYST: The people who are in the government who have been telling the truth for some years who are in this room were all, as Colonel Wilkerson has laid out for us, servants of empire. I wonder if any one of us perceived that at the time. Certainly, I didn’t think in those terms. I doubt if any of us did. And I won’t ask now, but I will love to know, Larry, later, how much of the view that you held that you expressed so eloquently tonight, which is so unusual from anyone and unique for a former official four years out of office, was clear to you most of the time while you were serving. If it was, you did an awful lot of biting of lip, I guess, which is true in any case, and I would like to know how much. But, no, it’s not unique to have those views. The government is—even without having such a clear picture of the overall context of empire, and certainly the emphasis on the economic dimension of that role, which I learned a lot from tonight from you, and I want to hear more, and there’s a lot to learn there—very unusual for officials of the government to perceive that here, to have any idea that that has anything to do with our policy. But what is not unusual is to have the perception that the course the government is on currently is not only going to be unsuccessful but disastrous, even catastrophic and murderous. Again, the word “murder” is not usually in the minds of people. When that became clear to me that what I had been involved in in Vietnam had never been legitimate, therefore all the people that we had killed and had paid for killing—we paid for the French killing, we paid for the killing by the government we subsidized in Vietnam, the GVN, the Saigon government—all of them, not just the civilians, had been victims of unjustified homicide, which to me as a layman seemed indistinguishable from murder, mass murder, and that murder had to be stopped. I reached that perception late in the game, in basically 1969, and not long after that I took the steps that were described here earlier—all I could think of doing to have some possibility of stopping this murder. Craig Murray, veteran diplomat, much higher than I in the government, his government, comes face-to-face with murder, but murder by torture, torture, something that he felt he could not, even at the total cost of his career, as he mentioned it to me tonight (and I hope it’s alright to mention this) as he set out describing what he was understanding internally, internally to his superiors in the government. He understood from the beginning, as he said to his wife, that this was probably the end of his career. That’s very, very unusual. What you heard from Craig, what he did, actually, was something close to unique, actually, for somebody to just give away his career as an ambassador to protest internally, and eventually publicly. And he drew the same lesson I did, eventually, which was if anything he would do differently, he would have gone publicly much sooner than he did. And I would give that same advice to others: rather than internal protest, which did nothing in his case more than alert the people that he might possibly act on the perception he was describing—. It’s one thing to say, “I think this policy is ill-advised. It’s unproductive. It’s even counterproductive. It will not be successful.” None of that tips your superiors off to the fact that you might leak or that you might actually do something to stop the policy, because the reaction to that would be, “Ah. We can see that. We all know that. Right. Counterproductive, wrong, unsuccessful.” But to say “illegal”, “criminal”, is going to be a red flag right away, because just possibly somebody who sees it in those terms might feel called on to take a personal risk, a personal sacrifice to get in the way of it and not merely inform somebody. And so in his case, possibly uniquely, they acted preemptively to smear him and tar him and blackmail him and to discredit him, even before he came out publicly with his news. And as he said, the way to do it now would be put on the web right away, right from the beginning. Same advice I would give. In other words, what I’ve been saying since 2002, when I saw us being lied into a war, in the fall of 2002, in the same way that the government I had been part of—not Nixon’s, by the way, but Johnson, before. It didn’t all start with Nixon, by any means. I was part of Nixon’s predecessor. Actually, LBJ was doing virtually all the crimes that Nixon did: use of NSA, warrantless wiretaps, use of CIA against domestic citizens, the CHAOS Program, FBI, COINTELPRO—everything was being done by LBJ, too. He wasn’t caught. The difference between him and Nixon was that he wasn’t caught while he was still in office—didn’t come out till later. Okay. So I saw this all happening again, both domestically—not domestically; I didn’t see that right away—and externally in Iraq, being lied into a war. And since then, and that’s seven years ago—I have been, I think, in this room five years ago, 2004, when we met, a bunch of us, all the same people, and they’ve heard me say for the last five years and before that to officials—and this is a town where I don’t know if there’s any—probably no current officials here, no doubt. Very hard for me to address current officials. But this is a town where people in this audience know current officials, I’ll bet. I’ll bet there are some parents, brothers, sisters. And I’d like to get the word inside, leak it inside, the message: don’t do what I did. Don’t wait till the bombs are falling. Don’t wait till the war has started. Don’t wait till the escalations have occurred and thousands and thousands more have died or have been tortured before you go if you know that this is wrong, that this is deceptive, that this is criminal, before you go to the press and to Congress. And don’t just go to Congress either. Go to the press and Congress, or now I would say the Internet, and give documents to that effect right from the beginning. Consider doing that at whatever personal cost, because although the smallest personal costs are usually enough to keep civilians from showing any kind of courage in terms of opposing authorities—amazing how little it takes, really, to keep people in line—the same people who perhaps earlier as military officers (many of them were) on the battlefield or enlisted men perceived physical courage in support of a team, in support of an effort, in support of a service absolutely routinely, routinely, as even I as a civilian, a former Marine walking in the fields in Vietnam, saw courage just routinely everywhere around—on both sides, by the way. Very impressive performance by the Vietcong, who were defending their backyard from us, but also by the soldiers who were over there in the role of redcoats, being just as brave as the redcoats. And here’s a little surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this perception, but I have no reason to believe that the redcoats were as brave—I don’t have any reason to believe they weren’t as brave as the minutemen who were opposing them at Lexington and Concord and so forth. Bravery on both sides. As Susan Sontag said, courage is a neutral virtue, you know, on both sides, all over. The question is what cause you’re in. The courage of our troops for quite a while has on the whole, with some exceptions, been the courage of redcoats, of people who are enforcing an imperial role on countries far from their homeland. And that is not to denigrate the courage, and it’s not to point the finger at 19-year-olds and 22-year-olds who have no reason to know any better than what they were told by their superiors down the line of command and what they’ve been told from the top has been lies. So they do their best in a bad cause that they don’t even perceive as a bad cause. How many troops in Iraq, having been told otherwise, understand right now that Saddam was not behind 9/11? A minority. Almost sure every poll shows that. So they’re over there punishing the people who perpetrated 9/11, only not. So they’re not the ones, then, to criminalize, let’s say, personally, but they are part of a criminal, aggressive policy.


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Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation who precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers. His recent book is entitled, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.