It would mean to "defect" from the executive branch to the other institutions of democratic self-government. It would be more than a shift in career, it would be a shift in identity. It could not be contemplated by someone who had not yet become willing to give up the sense of being -- or the desire to become again in the future -- "one of the President's men." (As it happened, my reading in 1969 of twenty-three preceding years of presidential decision-making in Vietnam, in the Pentagon Papers, burned that desire out of me: which made me available for radical career-changing.)
But as my own example illustrates, people do change. Helping to stop a war, or to prevent some other catastrophe or preserve our Constitution, can be worth a loss of whatever identity. It can be worth one's life, or life in prison. In my case, along with learning secret history, it took a war and the secret knowledge that it threatened to persist and get larger, and finally, direct encounters with war-resisters who were giving up their freedom to avert that prospect, to bring me finally to that recognition.
II) Some lessons from my own experience
Between 1968 and 1971, I repeatedly broke a solemn, formal promise that I had made in good faith: not to reveal to any "unauthorized persons" information that I received through certain channels and under certain safeguards collectively known as the classification system.
I had signed many secrecy "oaths," or contractual agreements, over the years: as a US Marine officer, as an employee of the RAND Corporation, and later as a highest-level employee of the Department of Defense and the Department of State. All of them were blanket promises never to give any information that was identified as safeguarded or secret -- "classified" -- to a person who did not have a proper "security clearance" for it and moreover, explicitly authorized by higher authority to receive it.
Implicit in my promises not to reveal such information to unauthorized persons was that I would obey this commitment no matter what this information might be:
- Even if it revealed evidence of official lies, crimes, planning for wars in violation of ratified treaties or the US Constitution, violations or planned violations of laws made by the US Congress;
- Even if the unauthorized persons or agencies were officials of the legislative and judicial branch who vitally needed the information to carry out their constitutional functions and had a legitimate right to learn the truth;
- Even if an election, congressional investigation, or vote that decided issues of war and peace might be affected by public ignorance or by my silence and obedient lies about the government's secret actions and plans;
- And even if countless people had died and were continuing to die because the information was being wrongfully withheld by my own colleagues and superiors under a policy of secrecy and deception.
That is how I was meant to understand those promises. And for many years, I followed the rules. Of course, they were not explicitly spelled out in these terms in the papers I signed, nor were they told to me in briefings. If they had been, they would have given me a good deal of pause, to say the least.
Would I have signed those contracts regardless? Probably: at least in the beginning, which was in the mid- and late-1950s. Government secrets had been so well kept by so many people before me that as a young citizen I was unaware that I might ever be confronted with such problematic information in the service of the US government. Eventually I came to know better, though it was still many years before I began copying secret information and giving it to the US Congress and the press.
Had the obligation to keep silent about lies and crimes been made explicit during that period, it would have been more difficult for me to continue repeating these promises as I took new jobs, renewed old contracts, and received higher clearances. It would have been harder to conceal from myself that what I was being asked to sign was an agreement to participate in major governmental conspiracies and grave obstructions of justice by remaining silent or even committing perjury. An agreement so stated and interpreted would clearly be unenforceable, indeed, illegal. It would be in flagrant violation of my superseding oath of office in all those positions, which was to defend and support the U.S. Constitution.
I have never doubted that, under the circumstances facing me, I did the right thing when I copied and revealed the contents of the top-secret Pentagon Papers -- a 7000-page, 43-volume study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968, which was then in my authorized possession at the RAND Corporation-to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1969 and later to the press. Although it involved breaking the promises I had made to various government agencies and the Rand Corporation, it was the only way to inform the US Congress and the US public of information that was being wrongfully withheld from them. I had considered many other options and tried most of them. The information was vital to Constitutional processes of decision-making on an ongoing war in which tens of thousands of US citizens and millions of Vietnamese had been-in effect-lied to death.
Moreover, this had occurred with the complicity of a generation of officials -- myself among them -- who had placed loyalty to their promises of secrecy (and to their bosses and careers) above their sworn loyalty to the Constitution and to their opportunity to avert or end an unnecessary, wrongful, hopeless, and vastly destructive war. By 1971-when I gave the classified study to the New York Times and, in the face of unprecedented federal requests for injunctions, to the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers-it was clear to me that it was my earlier complicity with the secrecy system that was mistaken and censurable, not my later choice to tell the truth.
Thus I exchanged a highly-paid and prestigious identity as, in part, a keeper of presidential secrets for the more controversial and ambiguous identity of "whistleblower." Or in the eyes of many Americans, a less ambiguous identity: "traitor."