Trusting Trump Shows a ‘Divorce From Reality’
The original Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg on government lies, public trust and when to break an oath
Before Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, there was Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, Ellsberg leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers, secret Defense Department documents showing that U.S. presidents had been lying to the public about the war in Vietnam. The revelations helped speed the end of the war, but they also changed the image of leakers. For the first time, releasing secret government documents could be viewed — by some Americans, at least — as an act of patriotism.
Ellsberg didn’t take his act lightly. For years, he had worked at the heart of the national security complex and was privy to some of the country’s most closely held secrets, including the operational plans for nuclear war, which he helped draft. When he decided to leak the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg wasn’t just risking life in prison. He was breaking promises he had made — and kept — his entire professional life.
“I shouldn’t have been asked to keep secrets when they were about concealing crimes or reckless and murderous policies.”
Ellsberg avoided jail time and has spent the years since as a political activist, warning Americans not to blindly trust their leaders. Now 87, he’s sounding the alarm over the threat of nuclear war. In December 2017, Ellsberg published a memoir, The Doomsday Machine, about his time as a nuclear war planner in the 1960s. In it, Ellsberg once again exposes the lies the U.S. government has told its citizens — this time, about the possible end of the world.
Ellsberg spoke to me by phone about his fear of nuclear annihilation, the moral calculus that led him to leak the Pentagon Papers, and how challenging it will be to rebuild the public trust that President Donald Trump has helped shatter. (This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Medium: Knowing what it could cost you, how did you ultimately decide to leak the Pentagon Papers?
Daniel Ellsberg: When I began copying them in October 1969, it was with the belief that the public was being misled by the administration as to its aims in Vietnam. I thought that if the public understood that they’d been misled in the same way by four previous presidents — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — that they would at least look more seriously on the possibility that I believed they were being misled in that way by a fifth president, Nixon.
The willingness to go to those lengths to enlighten the public in terms of my readiness to go to prison for life, as I expected to, came from the immediate example of young Americans who were already going to prison — not for life, but for years — in order to make the strongest message they could that the war was wrong.
How did you come to terms with releasing government secrets?
I had taken an oath of office in the government, and earlier in the Marine Corps, but that was not to keep secrets or to obey the president. That was a different oath: “To protect, support, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
That was a real, “so help me God,” right-hand-raised oath, which I had been violating along with the president and all of my colleagues for years. I just didn’t see it right away in those terms.
At the time, there was no question that I was breaking promises I’d made as a condition of employment. But I came to realize I had been mistaken to give that unconditional promise. I shouldn’t have been asked to keep secrets when they were about concealing crimes or reckless and murderous policies.
Countless people in government had access to the same information you did, who might have even felt the same sense of outrage you did, but they did nothing. What made you different?
It seemed to me, as it does to other whistleblowers at the time, that the information obviously needed to be out. You’re asking why so few do it, and that’s been puzzling me for 50 years now. One factor, I think, is that it was critical for me to meet people that I could identify with, like [Vietnam War activist] Randy Kehler, who otherwise had a similar background and who were doing this as draft resisters. If I hadn’t met them, the idea of doing this, I think, would not have come into my mind at all.
It comes down to whether you’re willing to take this risk, and it turns out that, empirically, almost no one is willing to do that. That seems to be the way humans are. That’s why the human species and all other large species are in very great danger.
“What I came to see was that several presidents had systematically broken trust with the public and with their promise to obey the Constitution.”
What would you tell someone who finds themselves in that kind of position?
If we’re talking about information that is being wrongfully withheld from the public by the government, with very high stakes involved, then I would say to them, “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until bombs are falling, and thousands more people have died, or the Constitution has been irreparably violated, before you consider putting the information out.”
I’m not exactly saying, “Do it.” I’m saying consider being willing to pay any cost to your life if we’re talking about stakes in which many, many other lives are involved or a major rule of law is involved.
Why did you wait?
I thought of leaking as betraying, breaking a promise, being wrong, embarrassing the president in ways that I had no intention of doing. I actually trusted the president to do the best thing under the circumstances, what I would have thought was wise or appropriate. Any divergence between us, I trusted, was just a matter of human error on his part or mine.
What I came to see was that several presidents had systematically broken trust with the public and with their promise to obey the Constitution. They did not deserve this kind of benefit of the doubt that I was actually giving them.
In your book ‘The Doomsday Machine’, you write about the horror you felt when presented with U.S. nuclear war plans that scoped out the deaths of 600 million people worldwide. What is it like to be in that machine? Why didn’t more people react?
What’s your guess on that?
Maybe they convinced themselves it was necessary to check the Soviet Union. Maybe they just put it out of their minds. Maybe they treated it as an intellectual exercise rather than something that could actually happen in the real world.
You’re looking at the simple effects on your personal life and your identity as a high-level official. Your career prospects, your children’s education, your ability to get further jobs. It all depend on your willingness to keep company secrets. It’s also possible to [talk yourself out of] the beneficial effect of revealing this stuff. Will the public really take action? Will anything come of it? Will Congress or the president actually respond? It’s certainly realistic to be skeptical about that.
If, for example, someone were to leak a report about what it would be like to have a nuclear war with North Korea, is there a risk that the American public simply wouldn’t believe it?
Oh yeah, definitely. President Trump is willing to deny any fact, no matter how well based on evidence and scientific explanation. And he has a base of people who think there are no facts except what the president says. That’s a misplaced trust that is very dangerous, not just to democracy, but to our continued existence as a civilization and even as a species.
How much should we be trusting a president in general?
Well, not as much as I did. I gave too much trust to the president. Trump, of course, is in a class by himself on this one. Trusting Trump, which about a third of the population does, shows a divorce from reality. And our democracy is not benefited by having that kind of misplaced trust.
“Trump is willing to deny any act, no matter how well based on evidence and scientific explanation.”
In the future, do you think another president could restore that trust? Or has it been fundamentally broken?
That has to happen. It won’t be a quick matter. But it could be done by people with a will to change it, who act in accordance with what they’re promising. It would take a period of time. It would be by earning it, by acting more truthfully—and I don’t mean just the executive branch of the government. I mean Congress and the courts and the media.
You’ve written about your great fear that we won’t escape nuclear war. How do you continue to do your work, your activism, believing that there’s such a great chance that our species won’t make it?
How do I live with that? It’s a reality as much as my own mortality is. I don’t say that I’ve done everything, by any means, that I have used my time as effectively as I could have. But I’m trying to do my best, and I’ll continue to do that, because I think it’s worth it. Even with all of its ills of past and current times, inequality, famine, cruelty, tyranny—I still think civilization and democracy and the rule of law are worth struggling to preserve.
Is it worth risking prison or permanent exile for a small chance of improving our chances of survival—and for the survival of democracy? I would say yes, it is.