The Man Who Didn’t Keep the Secret: Interview with Daniel Ellsberg


Stefania Maurizi - La Repubblica

In 1971 he made the ethical choice to risk spending the rest of his life in jail to reveal the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages of top secret documents exposing the lies and miscalculations at the base of the Vietnam War. At the age of 87, he just published The Doomsday Machine, a memoir that tells another remarkable story: Ellsberg also photocopied secret information on the impact of nuclear war.

15 Jan 2018 – He is a legendary figure. At the age of 87, he is still the brave and clear-headed man who, in 1971, made the ethical choice to risk spending the rest of his life in jail to reveal the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages of top secret documents exposing the lies and miscalculations at the base of the Vietnam war. Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst at the Pentagon and RAND Corporation, just published The Doomsday Machine (Bloomsbury, 2017), a memoir that tells another remarkable story: Ellsberg not only photocopied the secret files on the Vietnam war, but he also photocopied secret information on the impact of nuclear war: files revealing the massive destructiveness that only insiders could know in detail, accessing data, estimates and top secret plans. Those documents were never published, however, because Ellsberg had planned to leak them after his trial for the Pentagon Papers. While on trial, he handed those nuclear files over to his brother, who buried the box containing the documents in the town trash dump. Unfortunately, a tropical storm destroyed everything. Almost half a century later, Ellsberg has written his book to tell this story and to reconstruct the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons he had learned from the inside. With the upcoming film The Post by Steven Spielberg, featuring the Pentagon Papers, Repubblica has interviewed the icon of all whistleblowers.

Forty-six years after you took the huge risk of leaking the Pentagon Papers, what made you to stick to the commitment of alerting the public opinion on the existential threat represented by nuclear weapons?

“Because virtually all the dangers evident half a century ago are still with us, as dangerous as ever. And it became clear by the end of the century that neither the end of the Cold War, nor the administrations of Bill Clinton or, later, Barack Obama, were going to lead either to eliminating these dangers or even to reduce them significantly. Meanwhile, the discovery of nuclear winter in 1983, and its confirmation by newer, more powerful climate models from 2007 on, made it clear (except to the public) that the dangers were even greater in scale than was recognizable earlier: risking the near-extinction of our species and full extinction of most other large species from the effects of carrying out our own first-strike plans”.

In your book you tell very effectively how you were shocked to learn about the massive destructiveness of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we still live with that existential threat, because despite progress in reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals, the world’s nuclear arsenals remain huge: 14,550 warheads as of end-2017, according to the Federation of American Scientists. They are enough to destroy all life on our planet many times over. However, people do not perceive this threat as real, as they have never been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can we be confident that they will never be used again?

“It is not only the numbers of warheads in the U.S. and Russia that constitutes the catastrophic threats; rather, it is the continued readiness on both sides to ‘launch on warning’ based on fallible tactical warning or strategic, political, warning, like the new Cold War that American elites, including both Democratic and Republican ones, are generating, describing Russia as an ‘enemy’ of the US – with much the same happening on Putin’s side – which has preserved the danger of a war of near-extinction resulting from a false alarm, or paranoia, on either side. Confident they will not be used? The whole message of my book is that the opposite of such confidence is realistic. The best I can say is that it is not certain that the full arsenals of both will be launched! Moreover, as I presume you read in my book, it’s my view that it is totally misleading to say that the nuclear weapons ‘have never been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki’. On the contrary, I point out that they have been used, dozens of times since then, and are being used this month by both the U.S. and North Korea, the way a gun is used when it is pointed at someone’s head in a confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled. But US weapons in Italy are also being used today, and have been for decades, the way a gun is used when it is held – in loaded and cocked status! – ostentatiously in a shoulder holster, even before it is withdrawn from the holster and pointed! Exactly how do the perhaps ninety weapons stationed by the US in Aviano and Ghedi Torre air bases serve Italy’s security, or the world’s? Why – the answer might be – by making Italy hostage to its being targeted by Russia, or perhaps by some terrorist group bent on catalyzing world catastrophe! And, assuring that a Russian attack on Italy – say, what? – will be an attack on US nuclear forces as well, assuring near-extinction. Furthermore, they make Italy participant in US first-use nuclear threats by the US in a crisis, arising anywhere in the world, e.g., North Korea, Syria, Ukraine. Finally, by assuring that Italy can no more speak authoritatively in favor of no-first-use or non-proliferation than can the U.S. itself – or Russia. I don’t have time at this moment to pursue all this further. I’ll just reiterate what I said in my book: NATO nuclear first-use policy, in which Italy has fully participated for generations, is the most irresponsible, insane and immoral strategy and policy in the history of warfare or of the human species. It remains exactly that today. It didn’t need the discovery of nuclear winter, assuring near-extinction in the southern hemisphere as to inflict mass annihilation on the Eurasian continent, as well as North America. Either retaliatory multi-genocide, or escalatory multi-genocide from a non-nuclear conflict. What exactly would these ninety weapons in Italy be aimed at? Who in Italy knows the answer to that? Does any civilian, starting with the president? What would be likely consequences for Italy? Ninety thermonuclear weapons are enough to cause just enough reduction of sunlight – from the lofted smoke from burning cities, distributed globally- to lead to the starvation of over two billion humans, the least nourished prior to the war. What gives Italy the right to participate in such operations, to this effect, or to house this mini-Doomsday Machine? Under what conditions, exactly, would operational control of those weapons shift to Italian hands in a crisis? These moral and existential questions for Italy – as for Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, along with the UK and France- cannot be attributed specially to Berlusconi, Italy’s Donald Trump. Every Italian prime minister since NATO began has been full party to these threats of catastrophic, evil action. Was and is this ‘necessary’, a necessary evil? How long has it been since such a question was raised in Italy, if it ever was? It is not premature, it is long past due, for these questions to be addressed now”.

How do you reply to those who argue that we should be grateful to these weapons as they have protected us from major world wars in the last 70 years?

“If they have contributed to that at all – which is very much in question – it was at the unconscionable risk of near-extinction of humanity, an unjustified and immoral risk no matter how small the probability of these threats of multi-genocide being carried out. And the probability was not always small, in crises and false alarms”.

Despite significant progress in nuclear disarmament, today there are thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, which means they are kept in a state of readiness, that allows them to be launched within minutes of a decision, thus exterminating millions of people. What should be done immediately?

“The U.S. and NATO should not only adopt a no-first-use policy but should act in accordance with that by removing all tactical nuclear weapons – all highly vulnerable, and conducive to launch on warning given a false alarm – from Europe. That means all weapons now based in Italy, Germany, Belgium, Turkey and the Netherlands. French and British weapons are at least less vulnerable, though they too endanger world security more than they promote national security. The same applies to Russian tactical nuclear weapons: but reductions on one side – though best accompanied by mutual reductions – need not and should not await moves to others. The U.S. should eliminate its vulnerable, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, for the same reason: first-strike-only weapons, threatening the vulnerable weapons of the other and conducive to launch on warning on both sides. Moreover, submarine-launched ballistic missiles [ballistic missiles capable of being launched from submarines] should be reduced in number so as not to threaten a ‘damage-limiting’ (illusory) first-strike”.

How do you look at North Korea’s decision to nuclear weapons?

“It follows almost inevitably the worldwide acceptance of ‘deterrencè by threat of monstrous retaliation. It imitates the behavior of the ‘great powers’: U.S., NATO, Soviet Union/Russia. It has the same prospect of short-run success: at the risk of holocaust”.

You declared that you are pretty convinced that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has made provisions for massive retaliation, if he is killed. You clarified that this is just speculation, but it’s based on your experience and knowledge of the history of nuclear weapons. Can you tell us more about this?

“I devote several chapters in my book to my discovery, almost sixty years ago, of the delegation of U.S. nuclear weapons authority to military field commanders, and their sub-delegation to lower commanders, and to the Soviet Union’s adoption of similar measures to ensure that a ‘decapitating’ attack on their respective capitals would not paralyze their power to retaliate. All of this was kept secret from the publics and from their adversaries, sacrificing whatever deterrence these arrangements might have achieved. There is no reason to suppose that Kim Jong-un, facing perfectly open threats and preparations for assassination and invasion of the North, has not made the same arrangements”.

How do you look at President Trump’s handling of US nuclear weapons? There have been talks to restrict his ability to launch a nuclear attack…

“There is no way constitutionally to restrict the president’s control of the nuclear forces, or any of the armed forces of which he is commander-in-chief. These proposals are just talk, a way of distancing legislators from their responsibility to change this monstrously reckless system altogether, to make it sound as if their proponents meant to ‘do something’ confronted with the obvious dangers posed by our hopelessly immature president. What might do some good for the world is for Italian citizens – or those of other allies of the U.S.- to demand of their own legislators that they inform themselves and their constituents of the present dangers, and then act to change alliance policy – and that of the Russians and the others who endanger humanity”.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, are all US presidents alike?

“No; some are even worse than others. Nixon, for example. The sanctified Eisenhower increased the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons from 1000 fission warheads to 23,000, largely thermonuclear. Trump has the appearance – as did Reagan, dangerously – of being one of the worst, but that yet remains to be seen. Not that the world should wait passively to test that, as if bystanders”.

What about Putin’s Russia? It still has huge nuclear arsenals and yet all the public debate is about Russian hackers.

“Putin’s threats of first-use in Europe – in connection with Ukraine, or Kaliningrad – are as insane and immoral as NATO’s have always been”.

You have known some of the government’s darkest corners, who inspired you to leak the Pentagon Papers?

“Without the example of young Americans like Randy Kehler, who chose to go to prison to demonstrate their conviction that our war on Indochina was morally wrong (not merely hopeless), it would not have occurred to me that I could do what I did, at the almost certain prospect of life in prison, following their example”.

After the Pentagon Papers, it took 39 years before Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks revealed massive amount of classified documents on the war on terror and it took 42 years before Edward Snowden leaked top secret documents about the NSA mass surveillance programs. Why did it take so long, considering that there are almost 5 million US citizens with a security clearance to access all sorts of secret information which is in the public interest?

“The moral courage shown by Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden is, unhappily, still far more rare than courage on the battlefield – as Bismarck observed, of Germany”.

Today there are more than 4.2 millions Americans with a security clearance: the so-called ‘national security apparatus’ is a state within the state with very little accountability. How do you look at it?

“It is incompatible with even an approximation to democracy with respect to foreign affairs and military policy”.

Finally, you have lived an intense life, looking back would you suggest to talented and young people to serve their country operating inside the government and trying to change the system from the inside or would you rather suggest that they rebel? Follow the orders or follow your conscience?

“Changing the system from the inside scarcely ever happens; there are too many built-in safeguards against insiders acting on conscience that disagrees with the judgment of their superiors. One’s conscience can mislead, too; in fact, all too often ‘consciencè counsels insiders to put their obedience to superior authority and orders higher than any oaths they have taken to support the Constitution and the welfare of their fellow citizens. Often re-direction of conscience, enlarging one’s loyalties to fellow citizens and humans beyond narrow agency or conventional loyalties, is called for; and the example of others can help that awakening. I would suggest to talented young people that they can do better to serve humanity and their own countries by learning about, questioning, and acting to change wrongful and dangerous policies by their government from outside the Executive branch. If, instead, they find themselves inside it and discover that their bosses or agencies are deceiving the legislature and the public, acting inhumanely and dangerously, then I would urge them to consider exposing that to the larger citizenry, with documents, at whatever personal cost to their own careers and lives”.


Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how the US public had been misled about the Vietnam War.



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