ELLSBERG: Well, I would like very much to know. And I think that people like -who did expose very important leaks, which I think may have prevented that horrible war, which would have been even more serious and more dangerous than the Iraq war. I think that the expose by Sy Hersh, from sources in the Pentagon and the White House, and by Philip Giraldi and others, that those plans existed. That Vice President Cheney had asked and was very (AUDIO GAP) for plans for attack on Iran, including possible use of nuclear weapons. And that he was continuously pressing for that until virtually the end of the administration.
I think those disclosures may have been among the most significant in history, more than the Pentagon papers, really, in preventing that war.
ELLSBERG: If there were other reasons, I’d like to know them.
KURTZ: Well –
ELLSBERG: That’s a story, by the way, that’s a story the press should be looking into. Why was there not any attack, or were the sources to Hirsch and Giraldi, and others wrong, after all? I doubt that.
KURTZ: Let’s have a broader discussion about this. As a reporter, I love leaks, but how can a government function if it can’t maintain secrets?
ELLSBERG: Well, governments will always maintain secrets and they’ll always maintain excessive secrecy, so we don’t have to worry about government being conducted in a goldfish bowl. Careerist impulses and feelings of loyalty to one’s boss will keep people from revealing secrets — that they should, in many cases.
KURTZ: But you’re saying that a bureaucrat can undermine the president because he or she happens to disagree with a policy. What if an Obama administration official leaked information about say, a diplomatic outreach effort toward Iran. And that it sunk the whole initiative. In other words, it was something that that person didn’t like, or maybe you agree with?
ELLSBERG: I think you’re pressing me in effect to say there should be no secrets. I don’t believe that at all. Of course there should be. There are things that should be kept secret and I kept a lot of those secret for a long team.
I also kept too many things secret that should never have been secret. And, particularly, at the time. I am say that an official who, like myself, and I’m sure there are many people in this position right now, who feel Congress is being, has been, or is being deceived in various ways and the Constitution violated, and they are violating their own oaths to defend the Constitution by keeping those secrets. They do have an obligation, I think, to obey the oath, not to obey their careerist motives. And that does apply to the Obama administration. With all his talk of transparency, Obama needs as much pressure from the press as any administration before that. We haven’t seen much action on transparency in many respects. We could get concrete about that.
KURTZ: Do you think that the Obama administration is getting as much pressure from the press as it should, particularly compared to previous administrations, say the Bush administration?
ELLSBERG: None. No administration has gotten the pressure that it should from the press on this point. We got into Iraq with as much deceptions as occurred in Vietnam, a generation earlier. A performance by the press no better than we saw of pressing behind the lies of the administration than we got during the Johnson administration when I was in; nor did we get a single person within the administration, the Bush administration now, who saw that the adventure into Iraq was going to hurt our counter-terrorism efforts, hurt our security, and was violating the Constitution in terms of treaties. Another example would be treaties on torture and our domestic laws on torture. People who saw that clearly, not one of them leaked to Congress, or to the press.
KURTZ: Obviously, there were conflicting opinions and conflicting evidence, for example on WMDs. But let me come back to this.
ELLSBERG: No, pardon me.
KURTZ: Go ahead.
ELLSBERG: When it came to lying — when it came to lying about the nature of the evidence that the evidence was unequivocal, that was as much of a lie as saying that evidence of the attack on August 4th, on our destroyers, was unequivocal. Yes, there was —
KURTZ: You’re comparing the Bush’s building of the case to go to war in Iraq, with Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf war incident, just to be clear.
ELLSBERG: I am, indeed. It’s exactly the same in the performance not only by the president, but by all of the people who knew that it was a disaster. And I could name names there, if you want.
KURTZ: Let me — let me jump in here, because we’re short on time.
Let me take you back to this incredible period in American history when you were targeted by the Nixon White House, as I mentioned earlier. Your psychiatrist’s office was broke into in an effort to dig up dirt, on Daniel Ellsberg. And on the infamous White House tapes President Nixon said, to one of his aides, “Just get everything out, get it out, leak it out, I want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear?”
What was it like to be on the receiving end of that kind of campaign from the president of the United States?
ELLSBERG: Of course, Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, were in exactly the receiving end of the same kind of operation from Rove and others in the administration of Cheney, Scooter Libby, and others. I felt very familiar with that one. Get that guy, destroy his credibility because Joe Wilson, former ambassador, had been telling the truth just as I told the truth with documents.
The lesson that I think is there right now, in the Obama administration, and any later administration, is if you, in the government, believe that your oath to uphold the Constitution is being violated by lies, by reckless adventures abroad, you should consider doing what I wish I had done in ’64 and ’65. Don’t do what I did, wait until the war has started and the bombs have fallen. Do what I wish I had done earlier, go to the press, and to Congress — not just Congress — with documents, even though that may risk going to prison.
KURTZ: Let me ask you a last question here. “The New York Times” as you know, won a Pulitzer prize for exposing the Bush administration’s secret domestic surveillance program, but Dick Cheney, among others, denounced the paper for doing that. Critics say that journalists who received and published classified information are every bit as morally culpable than the Daniel Ellsberg’s of the world who actually leaked the material. ELLSBERG: Well, if you think it was culpable. By the way, people who do that unless it involves communication intelligence, or the identity of covert operatives, as in the case of Valerie Plame, are not actually breaking the law in terms of any prior precedent.
KURTZ: What about morally?
ELLSBERG: Morally, I would say they are very complicit in not putting out that information when they understand that lives depend on their revealing it. And I feel I was culpable earlier and that those who have led to so many deaths, Iraqi and American in Iraq, by not risking their careers, are morally culpable for that. You have to make your choice. You have to make your decision as to where morality lies.
KURTZ: Daniel Ellsberg, thank you very much for joining us.