By Sari Gelzer
Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the country's most famous whistleblower, fears that before the Bush administration leaves office they will try to attack Iran.
Indeed, Ellsberg's argument gained merit as George W. Bush increased his rhetoric against Iran when he delivered his final State of the Union Address . Bush accused Iran of training militia extremists in Iraq, and emphasized the US will confront its enemies.
In a wide-ranging interview with Truthout, Ellsberg uses insight from his experience as a Pentagon analyst under the Lyndon B. Johnson, and later, the Nixon administration, to discuss Bush's plans to begin a war with Iran, the role of the press to give whistleblowers exposure, and how American democracy can be restored.
Due to Ellsberg's experience working within the government, I wanted his insight into how the Bush administration is attempting to begin a war with Iran.
When I highlight his experience working for Secretary of Defense Robert Macnamara in 1965 to draft a speech with the goal of rationalizing and gaining public support for the Vietnam War, Ellsberg gives a very long sigh.
"That was not my finest hour that I look back on. That was something that I am ashamed of," he tells me, with a heavy heart.
Ellsberg wishes he spoke out against the Vietnam War sooner. As a civilian working for the government, he says his oath was always to the Constitution and he violated that oath until the day he decided to leak the Pentagon Papers in 1971, to reveal the war was unlawful.
Ellsberg now spends his time ardently encouraging and supporting whistleblowers to come forward when they see constitutional violations. He emphasizes the importance of documents as evidence, and of timeliness, so lies are exposed before an actual war occurs.
Pending War With Iran or Gulf of Tonkin Deja Vu
The recent announcement in December by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) revealed, counter to the president's claims, Iran did not have an active nuclear program. This was unexpected, says Ellsberg.
The administration had said, weeks before this release, they had no intention of putting out NIE summaries, Ellsberg says. However, the information was released because, according to newspaper reports, there was the threat of leaks:
"As one news story put it, intelligence officials were lined up to go to jail, if the administration did not release those findings," says Ellsberg, emphasizing his creed in the need to take risks for the sake of revealing truth.
"I wish I could say it made an attack on Iran zero, and it hasn't, but it has reduced it and confirms, in my opinion, the power of being willing to risk prosecution, willing to give up your career, your clearance, which these people would have done if they'd put that information out - and the mere threat was enough to get it out in this case," emphasizes Ellsberg.
Ellsberg says Bush will simply find a different pretext from the nuclear program.
"After all, it was about a year ago that he really stopped pressing the nuclear program as the main reason to start attacking Iran and start talking about what they were doing against US forces in Iraq," says Ellsberg, who claims people in the military have recently undercut this statement by saying there is no evidence of Iran's involvement against US forces in Iraq.
Bush could also use an incident that is blamed on Iran as a means to begin a war with them.
Early this year, Ellsberg experienced deja vu when the white house and a complicit media portrayed an incident in the Strait of Hormuz that deeply paralleled the Tonkin Gulf Incident of 1964.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was an alleged attack by North Vietnamese ships upon American boats. As a result of this alleged aggression, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave former President Johnson the permission to expand the Vietnam War.
The recent incident involving Iran alleged serious threats were being made to US ships by Iranian speedboats. Within days of the events in the Straight of Hormuz, information revealed the details of the entire event had been fabricated . Ellsberg sees promise in the quickness of this revelation because, in contrast, it was only in 2005 and 2008 the inaccuracies and deceptions of the Gulf of Tonkin incident were revealed by the declassification of National Security Administration reports.
Ellsberg is worried Congress has not put forth an effort to demand they be informed before an attack on Iran should occur. Currently, there is a Senate resolution to demand Congress be consulted in the event of plans to attack Iran, but it has not gotten out of committee.
Instead, the Senate has virtually endorsed the president's power to begin a war with Iran, says Ellsberg, with the passage of legislation last September declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is a terrorist organization .
"To say that the Revolutionary Guards in Iran are a terrorist organization ... is very close to saying that the president is able to attack them at his discretion. Now to give this president that discretion is inexcusable, outrageous," says Ellsberg.
The Democratic Congress should be having open hearings on Iran, says Ellsberg, as well as on how we got into the war against Iraq, and regarding Guantanamo. But the Democratic chairmen are not holding such hearings.
The American public, and media in general, have not picked up on the urgency surrounding a pending war with Iran, Ellsberg says. For over two years, Sy Hersh and others have been writing detailed articles stating operational plans against Iran are being updated to the minute, so that within hours or a day they can be implemented.
The problem with these articles, says Ellsberg, is not that Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, lacks credibility, it's that his sources are not willing to go beyond their anonymity. Ellsberg emphasizes the sources in Sy Hersh's reports, and others within the government, must reveal documents, risk their career and testify before Congress, if they wish to profoundly alter the course of a pending war with Iran.
Gateway for Whistleblowers: The Press
Whistleblowers depend strongly on the press to relay their information to the American public, who will then be able to exert pressure in politics. When I ask Ellsberg if he believes the press is doing a good job of this, he gives me the most matter-of-fact answer of the evening: "No."
In October of 2004, whistleblowers gave The New York Times knowledge of an illegal and unconstitutional domestic spying program that was being carried out by the US government. The newspaper waited a year to reveal this information.
This was not just any year, says Ellsberg, they held this information at the request of the White House till after the 2004 election, avoiding the possible impact it could have had in swaying voters.
The New York Times, says Ellsberg, was pressured to publish the article because their internal reporter, James Risen, was going to release a book regarding The New York Times's choice to remain silent at the request of the White House.
The New York Times received a Pulitzer Prize for releasing this story. Ellsberg, shares that he believes not only reporters, but whistleblowers, too, who reveal important information should receive a prize in recognition of their public service. This is not a retroactive attempt on his part, he says, to receive an award.
Ellsberg smiles. "In my case my prize was the indictment," which he says he has taken to be as great an honor as he needs in life.
The press in America, says Ellsberg, is currently avoiding the story of an explosive whistleblower by the name of Sibel Edmonds. A former FBI translator of Turkish and Persian, he says she has been attempting to speak before Congress for five years.
Early last month, Sibel Edmonds appeared on the front page of the London Sunday Times to reveal information she learned as an FBI employee. Ellsberg describes her claims, that the US government is giving nuclear materials, equipment, and techniques to countries, including Turkey, which in turn sell them to other countries, including Pakistan. In effect, says Ellsberg, there is criminal bribery going on.
Ellsberg says Edmonds is also revealing the US government is allowing a drug trade that finances terrorist operations, such as al-Qaeda, to continue. Ellsberg describes her revelations further, saying the US government is turning a blind eye to the drug trade of US allies such as Turkey and Pakistan, as well as to countries such as Uzbekistan, where the government wants to gain military base rights.
These allegations or only part of the knowledge Edmonds wishes to share before Congress, and she awaits the chance to do so, claiming she has people in the FBI, CIA and NSA who will corroborate her statements, says Ellsberg.
This is in direct parallel, says Ellsberg, to what happened to Catherine Gunn, a British whistleblower whose actions, he believes, were more important then the release of the Pentagon Papers, because she gave information at a time that could have prevented the Iraq war.
Gunn, who worked as an employee for British Intelligence, Government Communication Headquarters, revealed a document showing the US was "tapping the UN security council members in order to influence their votes in support of an aggressive war, which was about to take place," says Ellsberg.
This was front-page news, not only in London, says Ellsberg, but all over the world, except the US, where it did not appear for about 11 months. Ellsberg says it was reasonable to believe she could have stopped the war, and he believes she prevented the UN Security Council vote in support of the war.
"The same thing is happening to Sibel Edmonds as we speak," says Ellsberg, intensely.
How to Restore American Democracy
As the days of Bush's final term in office dwindle, Ellsberg emphasizes that no matter how much time is left, impeachment is one thing that must happen for the sake of preserving American democracy.
Impeachment proceedings are essential, says Ellsberg, "both for the information that it will produce and above all to make it clear that Congress perceives the illegal and unconstitutional acts taken by this administration to be high crimes and misdemeanors, and for the deterrent effect that will have on future presidents."
In addition to impeachment hearings, Ellsberg says Congress must reverse the laws that have "outrageously" passed under "intimidation" by Bush. These include say Ellsberg: "The patriot act, the military commission act, which among other things essentially denies habeaus corpus, the signing statements, which essentially gives the president the power to ignore constraints on torture, and they could change the so-called Protect America Act which legalized much of the unconstitutional surveillance that the NSA was doing without congress even knowing what they were legalizing."
For those things that Congress cannot overturn, Ellsberg suggests hearings held by Congress to show, for example, that "not only was torture illegal, it should continue to be illegal because it hurts our national security."
None of these changes will happen without an active American movement, says Ellsberg, which must demand Congress uphold their oath to support the Constitution rather than their political careers.
Looking at the current primaries and the future presidential election, Ellsberg says the American public must create priorities that are different from those offered by the current candidates.
The changes that need to occur are drastic, and given the stakes, Ellsberg believes the American public should be willing to invest their time, so the crisis we currently find ourselves in can be met with strong action:
"If enough people simply look clearly at what we are doing in our course towards an abyss right now, they do have the power with the remaining democracy we have still in this country to turn it around."
Sari Gelzer is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.