Keeping Secrets
On the Road to War

By Harold Frost

San Jose Mercury News, 2002

(Postscript material from 2009, 2010, and 2012)

As America ramps up for a risky war with Iraq, we would do well to study how we’ve gotten involved in past conflicts. A new book by Daniel Ellsberg includes an insider’s account of the U.S. moving toward deep engagement in Vietnam. At the heart of the process was secrecy and lying. The result was disaster.

Politicians and bureaucrats, as Ellsberg notes, hide and prevaricate in order to defend their budgets, feed their egos, and sustain their versions of truth. Power feels good; the holding of secrets can preserve power; an undue amount of material thus gets labeled “secret” and is buried in dark caverns.

Ellsberg is, of course, an expert on secrets. In the spring of 1971, as a 40-year-old defense analyst, he carried out American history’s most famous unauthorized disclosure of government material, giving the New York Times a classified study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. These documents, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, revealed deception by the nation’s executive leadership about the risks and likely duration of the U.S. venture. Ellsberg was spurred to leak the material because he felt the Nixon Administration was embarking on a fresh set of lies about Southeast Asia. He thought Congress could be mobilized to anti-war action if it knew the historical pattern.

Postscript: WikiLeaks

Ellsberg, now 71, is a political activist living part-time in the East Bay. His memoir has a twin focus: Vietnam policy-making from 1964 to 1975, and his shift during that period from government insider, inclined to protect secrets, to radical outsider, open to civil disobedience, eager to, in his phrase, “tell the truth, with documents.” (Not a bad title for a book.)

The memoir is often compelling, as when Ellsberg tells stories about bureaucratic behavior, and when he describes his two years in Vietnam. However, parts of the work can only be loved by policy wonks interested in the most arcane aspects of government conduct. But hey, wonks need bedtime reading too.

Born in Chicago in 1931 into a family of Jewish heritage and Christian Scientist practice, Ellsberg was an academic star, pushed, and pushing, toward greatness. We don’t find much information on Ellsberg’s early years in his book; if you’re interested, consult the exhaustively-researched “Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg” by Tom Wells, published last year.

Ellsberg was one of the top students in Harvard’s Class of 1952, winning appointment to the Harvard Society of Fellows, “the chosen of the chosen,” in the phrase of journalist and historian David Halberstam, “….supremely talented people (spared) the drudgery of normal doctoral work.” Even here Ellsberg was an over-achiever – he got his Ph.D. though he wasn’t required to, writing a thesis about decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. His field was game theory; he made a signal contribution to the discipline called the Ellsberg Paradox (building on work done by John Maynard Keynes).

A fervent anti-Communist, he thirsted for action, and joined the Marines in the mid-1950s, becoming an outstanding officer. In the late ’50s he went to work at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, a think tank with ties to the U.S. Air Force. By age 30 he was a world-class expert on nuclear weapons. Rand’s thinking about nukes would have a major impact on the Kennedy Administration starting in 1961.

In these years, Ellsberg writes, he put loyalty to president and career “above all else. Above loyalty to the Constitution. Above obligation to truth….” Traveling often to Washington in the early ’60s, he more-or-less worshiped at the altar of one of the few guys in town as smart as him, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (who, in turn, worshiped John F. Kennedy). Ellsberg got a job at the Pentagon in 1964. And here his book picks up steam.

He was assigned to read government cables on Vietnam and decide what was important for higher-ups to see. He sometimes confronted a mountain of daily paper 12 feet tall and whittled it down to a few inches. If anyone ever makes a fictional film of Ellsberg’s life, they should open with an early-morning shot of his Pentagon office, the sun casting a glow on a towering stack of documents, and dissolve to the room at 10 p.m., with flourescent lighting, styrofoam coffee cups, and a now-tiny pile of government paper.

Ellsberg performed other Pentagon duties as required. One day, a U.S. drone plane (i.e., with no pilot) went down in China. Ellsberg’s supervisor, John McNaughton, said, “Bob (McNamara) is seeing the press at eight-thirty. We have ten minutes to write six alternative lies for him.” The two men accomplished their mission and the press was duly fooled. Just another day’s work in the vineyards of the Lord and the Cold War.

He was a hawk about Vietnam and played a significant role in the Pentagon’s planning for the war. In 1965 he got a chance to see things first-hand, wangling an assignment to work in the war zone for the State Department. His description of his two-year stint is riveting, an essential part of the Vietnam literature. He talked to everyone worth talking to. He got lots of trigger time, waded through rice paddies, got shot at, shot back, walked point, and acted with conspicuous bravery on several occasions. He was tutored by the legendary American official John Paul Vann, who told David Halberstam that Ellsberg had the best mind ever to grapple with the complexities of Vietnam at the ground level – an assessment that doesn’t appear in this book but should. Modesty has its place, but few readers will be aware of this immensely interesting observation.

(Biographer Tom Wells unearthed a striking story about Ellsberg in Vietnam. He writes that his subject had a death wish there, tapping into a vein of personal recklessness and wanting to “die in a glorious way” on a Southeast Asian battlefield. Ellsberg doesn’t mention this in his book – not even a denial. His reticence is frustrating; we have a right to assess and judge the full man, including how he feels about what others have reported about him. Also, since he devotes pages to other aspects of his personal life, why not this?)

Back in the U.S. in 1967, Ellsberg became one of three dozen analysts assigned by McNamara to write the Pentagon’s history of the Vietnam War. McNamara got the idea for such a study in 1966 when he read a CIA tome titled “The Vietnamese Communists’ Will to Persist” and, in the words of journalist Tim Weiner, “began asking himself what the United States was doing in Vietnam.” Better late than never, perhaps.

So Ellsberg set to work writing history, bringing to bear his usual fervor and focus, meanwhile dipping into a culture in ferment. He experimented with LSD and pursued an adventurous sex life, according to Tom Wells (Ellsberg doesn’t discuss these matters) and studied Gandhian precepts and other modes of pacifist thought (Ellsberg describes his philosophical quest at considerable length). He moved rapidly toward becoming a dove. And he began to question America’s Cold War creed that made the president a sort of god or imperial presence.

Cold War Articles at This Website

The Tet Offensive in early 1968 shocked the nation. A few weeks earlier, President Lyndon Johnson had announced the war was going well; not so, apparently. Ellsberg took his first tentative steps into leaking secrets, giving insider war material to the New York Times and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Previously, writes Ellsberg, “I had instinctively accepted the ethos of my profession, the idea that leaking was always inherently bad, treacherous, or at best an unhelpful thing to do….(I believed) that for the Congress, the press, and the public to know much about what the President was doing for them….was at best unnecessary and irrelevant….I had been wrong. (I decided that) leaking could be a patriotic act.”

The Pentagon historians completed their Vietnam study in early 1969: 47 volumes, 7,000 pages, 60 pounds, raw data plus interpretive essays, the whole shooting match titled “United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967: Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” Officials made 15 copies of the work, depositing two sets in the safe of the Rand Corp. Ellsberg, re-employed by Rand, gained access to the study and spent months reading it.

He learned a lot. For one thing, the history revealed flat-out lies, such as the Johnson Administration’s explicit promise in 1964 not to widen the war, even as it made plans to do so.

The papers seemed to Ellsberg to refute the “quagmire” thesis on Vietnam, a common interpretation in 1969 of how the war had evolved. (“The Making of a Quagmire” was the title of David Halberstam’s first Vietnam book, published in 1965.) According to this idea, the nation’s presidents, from Truman to Johnson, waded into Vietnam without a clear sense of the difficulty of extraction; got advice from the bureaucracy that was overly optimistic; did not foresee the consequences of an ever-increasing commitment; and only belatedly realized that the country was caught in the muck.

The Pentagon Papers show a different scenario, according to Ellsberg’s reading – the study, he decided, reveals a national leadership well aware of the potential for a terrible long-term mess but not telling the American people what it knew. (Scholars argue about what, exactly, is revealed by the Pentagon Papers. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., historian and a Kennedy aide, has expressed doubts that the papers refute the quagmire theory.)

Ellsberg decided to leak the work in its entirety. He assumed that this action was illegal, that he would “probably” go to prison “for the rest of my life” and/or that he would destroy his carefully-constructed, good-paying, high-status career as a government insider.

(Biographer Wells, probably too inclined toward easy psychologizing and quick reductionism, detects a needy Daniel Ellsberg behind the gutsy activist: “His once promising career had fallen short of expectations….He had not enjoyed the success that he had anticipated or desired [and, cursed by writer’s block, had not been able to write an important full-blown analysis of Vietnam].” Wells quotes an Ellsberg acquaintance: “‘….The Pentagon Papers may have been his way of [publishing a major Vietnam book].'” Ellsberg, quoted in Wells’ book, dismisses this notion, but doesn’t comment on it in “Secrets.”)

Ellsberg snuck the Pentagon Papers out of Rand’s office a few sheaves at a time. He and a couple of associates, including antiwar activist Anthony J. Russo Jr., spent weeks photocopying the work in a Los Angeles office. Xerox technology was clunky in those days; Ellsberg suggests that speedier copies might have been made by a monk in a scriptorium. Eventually the job got done and he explored how to make the documents public.

Ellsberg first sought to leak the material via anti-war members of Congress. Finding no takers, he turned to the press, contacting Times reporter Neil Sheehan, whom he had met in Vietnam. (Sheehan is author of the excellent A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” [1989].)

In early 1971, Sheehan informed his employers that he was sitting on a major exclusive. Many key figures at the paper favored publication, but publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and some of his advisers were leery – after all, the nation was at war. Internal debate ensued, well-chronicled by David Rudenstine in his 1996 book “The Day the Presses Stopped.”

Eventually Sulzberger gave the OK, and, on June 13, 1971, the Times published its first Pentagon Papers story, followed by the Washington Post and other outlets. Banner headlines announced the story in cities across the land. All the media participants refrained from printing the most sensitive data.

President Richard M. Nixon had no problem at first with publication, probably because he felt his party, the Republicans, would be less harmed than the Democrats. But Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said, “This is an attack on the whole integrity of government.” Kissinger and Nixon worried that Ellsberg’s action would hurt foreign policy initiatives and fretted about appearing weak. Nixon tapped into his ever-ready reserves of rage, privately called the leak “treasonable,” roared about his intention to “destroy” the Times, and approved government lawsuits seeking a bar on further publishing of the material. In a word, Nixon was seeking censorship. This was the first time in the history of the republic that the federal government sued the press to block it from publishing material. The president’s hatred of the “liberal establishment” found full voice here (the “Georgetown crowd” and its friends); this episode can be seen as a precursor to the conservative revolution in America that culminated in the 1980s, one of the goals of which was to shift power away from the Times, the Post, and Georgetown, toward business, organized religion, and local organizations.

A legal battle about press freedom unfolded, brief but monumental, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, where, on June 30, 1971, the justices handed down a 6-3 decision in favor of the newspapers. Justice Hugo L. Black, the court’s senior member in years of service, wrote that the press had a responsibility to “bare the secrets of government.” Justice Harry Blackmun had rather a different view – he said at one point in the proceedings that he had “nothing but contempt” for the Times. (Earlier, a lower court judge named Murray I. Gurfein repeatedly questioned the patriotism of the Times. Things were plenty feverish in the summer of 1971.)

Hugo Black echoed any number of commentators over the years, including John Adams, who wrote in 1816, “Power must never be trusted without a check.” Further, Black paved the way for Judge Damon J. Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals, who, last summer, ruled against the Bush Administration’s effort to enact a new level of secrecy in deportation hearings against suspected terrorists, writing, “Democracies die behind closed doors.” As author and editor Harold Evans says, “Real news is something that someone wants to suppress.”

The Nixon Administration, worried and/or hoping that Ellsberg might release other secrets, established the so-called Plumbers Unit in July of ’71. (The nickname derived from its mission to plug leaks.) One of the unit’s first assignments was to find out everything possible about Ellsberg, with an eye toward doing some leaking itself, or dabbling in blackmail. The Plumbers, not clued-in to the indecipherability of doctor’s scribbles, burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Beverly Hills in September of ’71 but didn’t find anything juicy. The Plumbers were soon disbanded, but the following June, several former members of the group conducted a break-in at Democratic Party offices in the Watergate Hotel in D.C. Result: the Nixon cover-up, which, after months of national agony, led to the president’s resignation on August 9, 1974. Meanwhile the federal government prosecuted Ellsberg and Russo for the Pentagon Papers leak, accusing them of several felonies. All charges were dismissed in 1973 due to government misconduct.

Daniel Ellsberg has written a solid and important book. Perhaps he had a chance to write a great one. This reader felt shortchanged at his refusal to examine many aspects of his life. Ellsberg, as noted, is 71; nobody over 70 should assume they have lots of time to write another memoir.

Ellsberg’s prose occasionally evokes the work of an economics student with a paper on probability theory due in four hours, with six pages still unwritten. Also, since the book is rife with government acronyms, it badly needs a glossary. It might also have benefited from better profiles of key figures with whom the author came in contact (Ellsberg apparently assumes that younger generations have read “The Best and the Brightest”).

But the book offers useful perspective on large issues. And the timing is good. The risks of an Iraq invasion require candid examination and discussion, at a time when, as journalist Anthony Lewis writes, the Bush Administration is “the most secretive Washington has seen in years,” and when the press, as it tries to probe the complexities of war, is virtually accused of treason. Shades of Judge Murray I. Gurfein. ●

Postscript – A documentary film about Ellsberg is “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (2009). An interesting theatrical play is “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” (2010).

The scholar Allison Stanger noted in 2009 that the Information Revolution (the Internet, etc.) makes sunshine a logical policy – i.e., the keeping of secrets is far more difficult today than in pre-Internet days, so the American government can benefit, can become truer to its ideals, by embracing “radical transparency.” The documents of 2010 suggest that the Internet has the power to become a game-changer when it comes to government secrets. Relevant articles about WikiLeaks can be found here, here, and here.

On the other hand, there’s this from Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times in 2010 during the WikiLeaks releases. Keller wrote in the Times on February 19, 2012: “My consistent answer to the ponderous question of how WikiLeaks transformed our world has been: really, not all that much. It was a hell of a story and a wild collaboration, but it did not herald, as the documentarians yearn to believe, some new digital age of transparency. In fact, if there is a larger point it is quite the contrary….The most palpable legacy of the WikiLeaks campaign for transparency is that the U.S. Government is more secretive than ever.”