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Secrecy and National Security Whistleblowing

By       Message Daniel Ellsberg       (Page 3 of 9 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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That may seem over-dramatic, but it actually describes the experience rather closely, both in anticipation and in reality. In my own case, after my trial ended in 1973 it was at least fifteen years -- roughly until the end of the Cold War -- that any former colleague of mine from RAND or the government, with two or three exceptions, would permit themselves to be found even momentarily in a room or a meeting with me. Nor did I hear from any of them ever again, either directly or indirectly. This is a characteristic experience for whistleblowers.

Humans are herd animals. The threat of expulsion from a group on which their well-being and self-regard depends will keep them participating in (or helping to conceal) behavior they would abhor in the absence of that threat. Socialization in the practice of keeping their organization's secrets gradually blinds them to moral ambiguities or conflicts that might earlier have given them pause. For example, they become less and less mindful that what is being demanded is a loyalty to the institution that is implicitly superior to any other loyalty or obligation whatever, and which overrides altogether the interests of outsiders. Keeping particular secrets that threaten the institution (a lurid instance: widespread child abuse among Catholic clergy) may greatly prejudice the welfare or safety of others, but this is not to be considered in keeping the promise of secrecy or sanctioning violations of it.

Moreover, a promise to keep certain secrets really well entails a promise to lie when necessary to keep an outsider from suspecting or guessing the secret. This corollary is not always obvious to the neophyte at the time of making the commitment, but the experience of watching and listening to other insiders as they deceive the "non-witting," and of being watched, mentored and judged by them as the initiate does or does not do likewise, will soon make the connection clear.

Thus, in being given access to secrets along with membership in a group or status, one is being trusted, among other things, to lie to "outsiders," even when these are friends who are trusting and trusted by you, to whom in other contexts (or in their eyes, under all circumstances!) you
owe openness and honesty.

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A personal example: when my close friend Tony Russo at RAND asked me on several occasions if I knew anyone who had worked on or might have access to a study he had heard of that later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, it was my duty to tell him "no," since although he had a top secret clearance himself at the time he was not authorized to know those particular facts. The truth was that I had worked on the study myself and had it in my office safe at RAND. Lying convincingly to my friend to keep a secret came easy; it had long been part of the job for me. Without that ability, I could not earlier have been granted a dozen clearances higher than top secret, the existence of most of which was a well-kept secret from all who didn't have them.

Yet truly effective resistance to wrongful practices by one's own group, organization or nation -- certainly resistance up to the limits of one's own knowledge and abilities -- may not be possible without telling secrets without authorization. Effectively to change harmful or wrongful policies or practices (putting aside questions of accountability) will very often require exposing them to those outside one's organization -- one definition of "whistleblowing" -- and this entails breaking that code of omert-, the promise of silence, and with it, foregoing that trust of others, that sense of oneself, that has been a fundamental basis for self-respect, pride, and valued relationships with superiors, colleagues and agencies.

Moreover, it may well (I would say, typically) be necessary, to have adequate effect, to go beyond oral testimony, whether private or public. Given official cover stories concealing the true policies, given effective lying about them by most of those in the know, and given the benefit of the doubt that is vouchsafed by most of the media and public to official descriptions of motives and activities, documents are essential to make one's revelations of culpable secrets sufficiently credible: credible enough to impel effective action in response to them, credible enough to mobilize effective resistance to authoritative policy.

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But precisely because copying and giving secret documents to outsiders is so much more powerful than purely oral witness, it will be seen by one's colleagues as an ultimate betrayal. It may well feel that way to the secret-sharer, too, to the extent (which is rarely zero) that he or she retains some sense of identity with those associates. That is so because documents have the ability to compel belief, to "prove" allegations of lying or wrongdoing, and thus to strike fatally at the prestige and authority of the group or its leaders, their own sense of righteousness and identity. Revealing documents may expose them not only to loss of office or job but to prosecution. Yet nothing less than such revelation may protect the lives of many others.

There is always a powerful option for those in the executive branch who know, or who come gradually to recognize, that a disastrous course is being chosen or is underway, that the real policy or its costs and dangers are being concealed, and that it is being supported by Congress and the public on the basis of lies and manipulation. That state of awareness is not purely hypothetical. It was true for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilian or military officials as America was being lied into escalation in Vietnam in 1964-65 or into invading Iraq in 2001-2003.

Many of them were anguished or distraught, and some made their views known, without effect, to some colleagues or superiors. Some of them, in the case of Iraq, considered resigning or wished later that they had, and a few actually did so, without much notice. Others, like Robert S. McNamara thirty years after his role in Vietnam, wished they had presented their views earlier and more boldly to the President, at the risk of being removed earlier than he actually was.

There was in fact a far more promising path of resistance for all of these dissenters from a hopeless and homicidal policy, one which none of them appear even to have imagined or considered at all. That was not merely to press their case within the executive branch, however strongly, nor to resign in silence: but to use their expertise and access as executive officials or staffers to influence Congress to investigate administration policy and explore alternatives to it, with hearings and subpoena power, and if necessary to use its constitutional power of the purse to force a change in course.

That would have called on them to reveal and expose the executive branch policy and lies to Congress with testimony -- their own, and that of other dissenters they could identify to Congressional members and staff -- and with documents from their own office safes (or now, computers). It would mean testifying to and working directly with Congress and courts and the press and public associations opposed to the policy. And preferably to do this as an executive official or employee before being fired, and to continue it afterwards.

This is what George Ball or half a dozen others whose dissent to escalation remains less well known (and I and my immediate boss) could and should have done in 1964-65 to avert the Vietnam War. It is what Robert McNamara could and should have done in 1966 or 1967 to end the war after he had come to recognize its hopelessness. It is what Colin Powell or Richard Clarke or a number of their subordinates could and should have done to avert the invasion of Iraq in 2001-03.

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Is it really realistic to say that these particular individuals "could" have acted in that way, that it was psychologically available to them to imagine or carry out such behavior? Probably not. (Clarke came close to it: although regrettably, like myself, not until the war had already begun and after he had lost access to current documents with which to prove his case.) The usefulness of raising such "possibilities" is not to judge them personally but to suggest a lesson for current and future officials who find themselves in a comparable position to draw from their failure to act in such fashion.

Other forms of opposition within the Executive branch -- or after resigning silently, still declining to reveal inside information or to criticize former bosses and colleagues -- are often considered and then dismissed by executive dissenters because these actions look impotent, probably rightly so. So the dissenters (like Ball or Powell) keep their jobs and stay inside as long as their quiet dissent is tolerated, trying to influence the President on other matters or to help implement the disastrous policy more moderately and humanely than others might do it. This may not be a lot more effective than the measures they have rejected (it wasn't for Powell, with respect to invasion or torture), but it doesn't challenge their identity or associations in the short or long run and it is a lot more comfortable.

By comparison, from the point of view of effectiveness, this other alternative which seems never to come to their minds -- wholehearted collaboration with Congressional investigators and legislators, along with courts and press, including the sharing of large numbers of secret documents -- has a great deal of promise in a democracy. It is entirely in keeping with the letter and spirit of the oath actually sworn by every member of the executive branch, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But it does entail giving up any prospects of working ever again in the executive branch, or perhaps in other corporate hierarchies. No doubt that is why there are no precedents for it.

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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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