In the late 1950s former marine Daniel Ellsberg established a reputation as an expert in nuclear-weapons policies. His innate talent for rapidly ingesting and processing raw information earned him a post with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institute engaged in military research and development. During the 1960s the self-described “cold warrior” was a rising star among the best and the brightest who “managed” the war in Vietnam. While working for RAND, Ellsberg was given access to many classified documents, including a report titled “History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945–68,” which described nearly three decades of institutionalized lying by top U.S. officials to the American public, and to each other. Ellsberg copied the seven-thousand-page, top-secret report and gave a copy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which failed to act on it. In 1970 Ellsberg left RAND, taking copies of the report with him. After trying unsuccessfully to convince several senators to release the documents on the Senate floor, he provided a copy to the New York Times. When the Nixon administration prevented the Times from printing the report, Ellsberg gave it to seventeen other publications. The documents Ellsberg leaked became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Ellsberg had hoped that the leak would allow President Nixon to pull out of Vietnam “with honor,” blaming the mess on the previous Democratic administrations. Instead the president assumed he was next to be exposed. Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, filed an unprecedented twelve-count indictment against Ellsberg, and three counts against his co-defendant Anthony Russo, for releasing classified information. Nixon put Ellsberg at the top of his “enemies list” and ordered a series of illegal actions against him: he was overheard on a warrantless wiretap, his psychiatrist’s office was broken into, and a group of former CIA operatives were hired to “incapacitate” him during an anti-war rally. (They backed out when they saw how large the crowd was.)

Ellsberg relives his version of this story in his 2002 book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Viking). The writing is cohesive and spry, offering a window into the American president’s unchecked power to make war and an idea of what happens when someone poses a real threat to the people who run the country. About the secret bombing of Cambodia, Ellsberg writes, “A modern president’s practical ability to drop secretly several hundred thousand tons of bombs on a country with which we were not at war was a considerable tribute to the effectiveness of the postwar secrecy system.” This system, Ellsberg says, serves the president even better today, allowing the Bush administration to accrue powers apparently beyond those granted it by the Constitution.

For the past thirty years Ellsberg has been immersed in antiwar activism. He’s been arrested nearly seventy times for civil disobedience, including three arrests while protesting the current war in Iraq. “I’ve felt the power of civil disobedience in my own life,” he says. “The people who went to prison to protest Vietnam, the draft resisters, the people who sat on train tracks to prevent the movement of munitions — their example put the question in my mind: What can I do to help shorten the war, if I’m ready to go to jail?” Ellsberg now works with Veterans for Peace and a new group called Iraq Veterans against the War, which he predicts will soon have thousands of members. In June of this year Ellsberg launched the Truth-Telling Project (, which encourages high-level government and private-sector war managers to blow the whistle on illegal attacks against other nations, or against U.S. citizens.

During our conversations in the spring and summer of 2004, the seventy-two-year-old Ellsberg said he would be “surprised” if there wasn’t at least one nuclear weapon used somewhere in the world during the next decade. Coming from a Harvard PhD who has made nuclear weapons his life’s study, the remark stunned me. Surely he’d said this to many reporters. I drove home wondering if anyone was listening.


346 - Daniel Ellsberg


King: What was it like to find yourself the target of a president like Richard Nixon?

Ellsberg: I wasn’t at all conscious of the Nixon administration’s activities while they were happening. It was only later that I found out they were targeting me extensively; they had a whole room devoted to me in the Executive Office Building. It was a supersafe room, swept for electronic bugging, with bulletin boards on the wall tracing all their activities. Egil Krogh and David Young, the aides in charge of the campaign against me, reported directly to White House Counsel John Ehrlichman and the president. But I wasn’t aware of any of this. Hardly anybody was aware of the degree of surveillance that was going on.

After I went public with my opposition to the war, my wife was afraid for me at big rallies, but I told her they didn’t do bad things to Americans. Foreigners who got in the way of our policies in Vietnam, even former allies, would be blackmailed or threatened or even killed, but I didn’t think that they did that to Americans. I was mistaken.

The succession of crimes that brought Nixon down are now legal under the PATRIOT Act. CIA operatives acting against an American citizen? No problem. . . . Sneak-and-peek entry? No problem. Coordination of the FBI and the CIA? No problem. Wiretaps? No problem. We have become less free.

King: While researching Secrets, in 2001, you were among the first to review the newly released Nixon tapes, wherein the president and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, along with White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, have the following exchange:

Nixon: We’ve got to be thinking in terms of an all-out bombing attack [on North Vietnam].

Kissinger: I agree with you.

Nixon: We’ve got to use massive force. How many did we kill in Laos?

Ziegler: Maybe ten thousand — fifteen?

Kissinger: In the Laotian thing, we killed about ten, fifteen . . .

Nixon: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind . . . power plants, whatever’s left — POL [petroleum], the docks . . . And I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?

Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

Nixon: No, no, no. I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?

Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.

Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Chrissakes.

Nixon goes on to say he wants the North bombed “to smithereens. If we draw the sword, we’re gonna bomb those bastards all over the place. Let it fly. Let it fly. . . . We are going to cream North Vietnam. For once, we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country against this shit-ass little country.” What was your reaction to the tapes?

Ellsberg: The striking thing is the tone of voice. Reading it, you could suppose that these people were showing a lot of emotion. In most cases, though, they are very matter-of-fact. Of course in phrases like “shit-ass little country,” you hear the contempt, but not a lot of passion. You hear just the rulers of the world going about their business. Some people say that Kissinger “vociferously” or “decisively” rejected the notion of nuclear war, but on the tape he’s very calm.

This is old news to me. I’ve been trying for thirty years to alert people to the way nuclear war is planned and contemplated. It’s very hard to convey that matter-of-fact style. I’m horrified by it. If I really said what I think, I would sound hysterical.

King: The Bush administration seems almost bumbling in its coverups during the Iraq War, compared to the Nixon administration’s secrecy during the war in Vietnam. Yet the current administration continues to have its way. Congress overwhelmingly supported a record $417 billion defense bill this summer. How do we explain this?

Ellsberg: It is disturbing to see the amount of support that the president and his advisors continue to receive, despite having exaggerated the case for war and manipulated the press and the public a great deal, and despite the fact that it’s becoming increasingly hard for them to make the Iraq invasion look anything like a success. I’ve been surprised at the degree of caution shown in Congress, particularly by the Democrats, who seem afraid to speak out against this war. There’s obviously a fear of being called “unpatriotic,” of being seen as weak on terrorism or unsupportive of the commander in chief in a time of war. Over the last half century, countless people have died because Democrats were afraid to be called “weak,” “unmanly,” and “unpatriotic.” I think that fear influenced Lyndon Johnson’s decision to get us into the Vietnam War. He was also afraid of being called an “appeaser.”

In contrast, look at Spain today. The Spanish people just showed democracy at its best, turning out a government that had gone against the will of the majority by participating in the invasion of Iraq. Like so many world leaders, Spain’s had accepted the exaggerated and, it turned out, false intelligence estimates and joined a venture that held no promise of benefit for the Spanish people, only danger, as we have seen with the recent terrorist attack in Spain. The apologists for U.S. policy in Iraq are denouncing the Spanish and saying that they’re turning away from the war on terror, as if the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism were one and the same.

In reality the Iraq War is very much in the interests of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Recruitment for al-Qaeda is up all over the world. Does Osama bin Laden want the U.S. out of Iraq? No. He would love for the U.S. to stay in Iraq and fight indefinitely. I don’t think he foresees Iraq ever becoming an Islamic state under his control, so there’s nothing he’d like better than for us to continue to promote his anti-American cause by killing Muslims in Iraq, which we will do as long as we’re there.

King: If Democratic candidate John Kerry is elected president, do you think we will see a less violent, more secure future?

Ellsberg: Oh, definitely. Although no one in the Democratic Party, including Bill Clinton, has carried out an adequate nonproliferation program or changed our own nuclear policies, at least they are not fanatics who are determined to test nuclear weapons. That sort of thinking has long been concentrated in the Republican Party, even before George W. Bush got elected.

President Bush seems to be against every nonproliferation agreement. Most countries in the world don’t have nuclear weapons, but that could change under the policies of the Bush administration. I think if Bush is in for four more years, we will renew nuclear testing. If we do that, India and Pakistan will renew testing. China will renew testing. France will renew testing. South Korea will probably go nuclear, and Taiwan, and very likely Japan. With Japan goes Germany. Remember, a lot of countries have plutonium and uranium from their energy programs. Germany and Japan have more than enough plutonium for a huge nuclear arsenal, and they have the expertise to convert it into weapons within weeks, or even days. Within a year, Germany and Japan could be nuclear superpowers. Bush could set this process in motion.

King: Columnist Anthony Lewis of the New York Times fears that the Bush administration is catapulting our nation into a series of “endless wars,” which Lewis contends “is already having profound consequences for the American constitutional system.”

Ellsberg: I think the Bush administration does have in mind a series of wars. I don’t think the president and his advisors want to be at war so much as they want the fruits of war, which currently include control of oil in the Middle East. There’s more than one reason for any war, but to deny that oil is a major factor, as the pundits do, is totally unrealistic. I think the neocons, like Security Advisor Richard Perle, John Bolton in the State Department, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice President Cheney himself, have their eyes on the oil fields of southern Iran and eastern Saudi Arabia next. They’ve indicated that they’d like to have U.S. troops permanently occupying both of those countries, with Syria as a bridge between them.

U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil does not serve the interests of the people of the United States, except those who want to be rulers of the world. And the neocons’ goal is to run the world. They don’t think in multilateral terms. They think in terms of a single, unchallenged superpower, an enlarged version of the British Empire, which at one time controlled a third of the world’s people. The Bush administration has in mind two-thirds or more.

If you really want to run the world, having your hand on the tap in the Middle East — and thus controlling other countries’ oil supplies — is even more important than having access to it for domestic use. It’s a base of power and a source of great profit for a limited number of huge corporations.

King: What about Lewis’s prediction of consequences for our constitutional system?

Ellsberg: I agree, the consequences for the Constitution are dire. There were times during the Vietnam War when I feared that if the escalation went on and domestic resistance grew, our system of government would move toward a totalitarian state. The FBI was abusing its power. The CIA was illegally spying against domestic “enemies.” There was a tremendous amount of wiretapping going on.

Nixon aide Tom Huston, a young right-wing lawyer, proposed that we coordinate all of our intelligence agencies and focus them on domestic dissent. It was called the “Huston Plan,” and under it, the CIA, which is forbidden by its charter from operating against American citizens, was to coordinate fully with the FBI, the DEA, the INS, and the IRS. Moreover, all restraints on wiretapping and illegal entries would have been done away with, and “black-bag jobs,” such as breaking into my psychoanalyst’s office, or the Watergate Hotel, would have become routine. But Nixon was reluctant to get his fingerprints on such a plan, and ultimately it was abandoned.

Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the Huston Plan has become law. We’re not a full police state yet, but the PATRIOT Act is moving us closer to it. There are provisions of the PATRIOT Act that Nixon envisioned, but he backed off from them.

Here’s the significant point: The succession of crimes that brought Nixon down are now legal under the PATRIOT Act. CIA operatives acting against an American citizen? No problem. Breaking into a doctor’s office to steal information? No problem. Sneak-and-peek entry? No problem. Coordination of the FBI and the CIA? No problem. Wiretaps? No problem. We have become less free. When the Nixon administration was caught doing these things, it had real problems. The resulting scandal helped remove Nixon from office. Today that wouldn’t be the case. And if the Bush administration can legally do such things, what might it be doing that’s still illegal? Will those things, too, be made legal after the next terrorist attack?

King: What do you think about the alleged connections between the bin Laden family and the Bush family?

Ellsberg: It’s interesting, and of course it’s not accidental. The bin Ladens represent oil, and the Bush family represents oil. The Bush family’s relationship with the bin Laden family may have led to President Bush’s lack of interest in pursuing Osama bin Laden. Clinton warned Bush that he should focus on bin Laden and Saudi Arabia, but he failed to do that.

I don’t believe that Bush and bin Laden are working hand in hand, but I do think there’s synergy there, a convergence of interests between the Republican Right and al-Qaeda on a number of points. For example, I would say that both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush wanted the U.S. to invade Iraq in response to 9/11. That was the best result that al-Qaeda could have hoped for. Attorney General John Ashcroft welcomes the terrorist threat because he can use it as a justification for a tougher, more authoritarian state here at home. I think the next terrorist act, if it occurs under Bush, will likely lead to a police state in this country. We have never had one, despite McCarthyism, despite the Palmer raids, despite Nixon. But I think we’ll be more than close to it if there’s another big terrorist attack under the Bush administration. And I think it’s likely there will be one, so it’s important to use our freedoms now, while we have them, to avert the possibility of a police state.

King: Where is Congress in all this?

Ellsberg: Essentially supine. Only one senator voted against the PATRIOT Act. That’s outrageous. It’s a badge of honor for Russ Feingold, who cast that vote, but it’s a shocking scandal for all the others. Similarly, there was just one vote against the invasion of Afghanistan, cast by Representative Barbara Lee on the grounds that we should not give the president the power to declare war whenever he sees fit. That’s what we did with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which is what got us fully into the Vietnam War. Have we learned nothing?

At least there was a case to be made for going into Afghanistan after 9/11. Al-Qaeda was headquartered there. The Taliban were protecting Osama bin Laden, although they’d put forth the possibility of handing him over, which the Bush administration did not pursue. Invading Afghanistan wasn’t the only or the best way, by any means, to go after al-Qaeda, but it was worthy of consideration. Still, the Bush administration shouldn’t have asked Congress for a blank check to invade without a debate. They shouldn’t have asked, and Congress certainly shouldn’t have given it. Yet you had one vote, total, out of both the House and Senate, cast against the invasion.

By the next year, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich, co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, got 133 votes in the House and 23 in the Senate against the Iraq War. But every congressperson with high political ambitions voted for the Iraq War: John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, Joseph Lieberman, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Dick Gephardt. And it was clear that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States. Much larger threats were, and are, the poorly guarded nuclear weapons in Russia, the nuclear weapons in Pakistan, which might be used against India or sold; and North Korea’s emerging nuclear-weapons program.

King: Is it true that the current Bush administration is developing “small-scale” nuclear weapons to be used not just in a nuclear conflict, but also against any country that conducts chemical or biological warfare?

Ellsberg: Yes, it’s in writing, as a matter of fact, in the various strategy papers and nuclear-policy papers that this administration has put out. Like its predecessors, the Bush administration has refused to adopt a “no first use” policy, which would allow nuclear weapons to be used only in response to a nuclear attack. What’s new is how explicit the administration is about it. They advocate the use of nuclear weapons against any who use or even just possess weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biological, or nuclear. And biological and chemical weapons are very easy to produce; they’re the poor man’s nuclear weapons. The administration also has a category in which nuclear weapons could be used in the event of “surprises.” It’s virtually an open-ended first-use policy.

There was an explicit American policy going back to Cyrus Vance, President Carter’s secretary of state, called the “negative-assurance” policy. It said that we would not, under any circumstances, use nuclear weapons against any country that meets three criteria: it’s a non-nuclear country, it’s a signatory of the nonproliferation treaty, and it’s not allied with a nuclear power. That’s a complicated set of qualifications, yet they all applied to Iraq in the first Gulf War. Nevertheless, we did use nuclear weapons in the Gulf War. We used them the way you use a gun when you point it at someone’s head: whether or not you pull the trigger, you are still using the gun. We used the nuclear gun against Saddam Hussein by saying, when asked, that we would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq, despite the fact that it was, as far as we knew, a non-nuclear power that had signed the nonproliferation treaty. When asked if we were repudiating the Vance negative-assurance policy, the first Bush administration simply said, “No.”

King: The current Bush administration is not afraid to use this gun, either.

Ellsberg: William Arkin revealed in the Los Angeles Times last year that Donald Rumsfeld had a secret Pentagon group picking nuclear targets in Iraq, in case nuclear weapons had to be used. The deliberate leak of that report is itself a threat to use the weapons, which sets a precedent for every country in the world. They see the United States, the world’s most powerful nation, threatening the use of nuclear weapons to deter the use of chemical and biological weapons, and they assume that they have the right, and perhaps the need, to do the same to defend against a biological or chemical attack. And of course to threaten to use nuclear weapons, they must have them.

The number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal has not grown in the past fifteen years. Now, however, it looks as if nuclear-weapons production could be renewed. The Republican Party, as well as the Bush administration, is committed to new production and testing of nuclear weapons. They want smaller, more precise — and therefore more usable — weapons, perhaps some with tailored effects, such as increased fallout, or energy bursts for knocking out communications.

I think President Bush and his cabinet want to do more than just threaten to use nuclear weapons. I think they want to carry the threat out, to make future threats all the more credible and to show that nuclear weapons can be used tactically against troops. In Iraq they were looking for the provocation to use a nuclear weapon. I think they would have gotten support from a majority of U.S. citizens if they had found an excuse. I don’t think the rest of the world would have responded favorably, of course. There would have been an enormous international outcry. But I don’t think Bush cares much about that, as he’s demonstrated with his amazing arrogance and insensitivity to world opinion.

Kissinger provides the model for those in the Bush administration who want to use tactical nuclear weapons in a limited nuclear war against a non-nuclear state. Kissinger’s book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, published in 1957, emphasized the use of tactical nuclear weapons in limited war. He was also willing to use them against the Russians, but in particular he was looking at Korea and Indochina, where he felt they should have been used. I will be surprised if we don’t see a nuclear weapon used in the next ten years. I think that’s likely to happen.

King: Given our violent history, why haven’t nuclear weapons been used since World War II?

Ellsberg: I think it’s been something of a miracle that they haven’t, except as a threat. The risk has been great, not small. I think the only thing that kept nuclear weapons from being used in the Iraq War was that Saddam had destroyed all of his chemical and biological weapons. But we didn’t know that going in. There was a real intelligence failure there. Very few U.S. or British intelligence estimates even hypothesized that Saddam might be telling the truth about destroying the weapons, despite the fact that the UN inspectors couldn’t find any. Captured Iraqi general Hussein Kamal said the weapons had been destroyed, but the Bush administration wouldn’t even entertain the possibility. Former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who helped to oversee the elimination of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, challenged Bush’s assertion that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but our intelligence agencies and politicians arrogantly brushed him off.

King: Was it an intelligence failure or a fabrication?

Ellsberg: I think at the lowest level, in the field, it was a failure. The higher-level intelligence agents, however, were just going along with distortions from the White House. The “certainty” of information was artificially elevated. The scale of the threat was exaggerated. The administration was putting direct pressure on the intelligence operatives, rewarding the bringers of “good” news and punishing those who brought “bad” news. CIA Director George Tenet and other leaders of the intelligence community definitely bent to that pressure. They modified the intelligence until it said exactly what the administration wanted.

King: The majority of dissenters called for the U.S. to allow the weapons inspectors to finish their job, and to get the UN on board for any military action. Were you in this camp?

Ellsberg: I personally went beyond that. I said we should not have attacked even if Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and was trying to get nuclear weapons. Certainly we should not have attacked without UN authorization, but there should not have been UN authorization. The risks of the war in Iraq were far too great, and the danger that Saddam posed was virtually negligible. Attacking Iraq only increased the likelihood of terrorism, as we saw in Spain. It helped al-Qaeda, and our country and others will pay the price for that.

Now, if the UN had come up with evidence that tied Saddam to 9/11, that would have changed my mind. If the country that had engineered 9/11 had chemical weapons and biological weapons and were trying to get nuclear weapons, then it would be a different story. And the country that comes closest to fitting this description is Pakistan. A real case could be made for invading Pakistan. Of course, if we did, the war would be terrible, they might use a nuclear weapon against our troops, and we’d have a hell of a time occupying the country. But at least the case for invading them could be made. There was no case for invading Iraq.

The case for a preventive war is never strong, war being war. The uncertainties and human costs make a very, very heavy argument against it. With a preventive war, you’re not facing a situation in which war is imminent. You’re putting an end to peace. Under those circumstances it’s very hard to make the case that there’s no better alternative to war.

King: What’s your sense of where the Bush administration is heading?

Ellsberg: First, Bush and his advisors clearly held unrealistic notions of how easy the occupation of Iraq would be. They are now, along with the rest of the country, disillusioned. I would like to think this would slow them down, but Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, doesn’t think it has slowed them down at all. He thinks that the people in charge still have the same ambitions, as evidenced by the new book An End to Evil, by David Frum and Richard Perle, in which the authors talk about Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in imperialistic terms.

Al-Qaeda operatives are smart enough to realize that Bush is the best U.S. president they could have. Al-Qaeda wanted a U.S. attack on Iraq, and they got it from Bush. . . . Bush’s reelection would be good for all the terrorists in the world. A vote for Bush is a vote for Osama.

King: Do you think Bush can be defeated this year?

Ellsberg: I think there’s a good chance Kerry will win a popular vote, the way things are going. But I don’t think Bush and the rest intend to allow themselves to be voted out of office. That means two things. It means voting fraud, and it means another terrorist attack, whether Osama bin Laden is behind it or not. It could well be a Bush terrorist attack, because it would help him get reelected.

I think al-Qaeda operatives are smart enough to realize that Bush is the best U.S. president they could have. Al-Qaeda wanted a U.S. attack on Iraq, and they got it from Bush. Every day we stay in Iraq is a good day for al-Qaeda. They are in no rush for us to pull our troops out of there. It’s one thing to get Spain to pull out — that’s a symbolic victory. But they do not want the U.S. out of Iraq, and they do not want Bush out of office. Bush’s reelection would be good for all the terrorists in the world. A vote for Bush is a vote for Osama.

I think that Kerry has to come up with a good, solid anti-terrorism program to convince voters that Bush is not the best candidate to fight terrorism. Terrorism is a true problem; Saddam was not. Al-Qaeda is a true danger to this country; Saddam was not. Invading Iraq was the opposite of fighting terrorism. Kerry should press that point so he is not knocked out of the race by the next terrorist attack in the U.S.

We have to be aware that any terrorist act on U.S. soil will almost certainly be intended to keep us in Iraq. And there’s a strong potential that the Bush administration itself will bring about such an attack, because it would serve them so well. That is where al-Qaeda’s and the Bush administration’s interests converge. All Bush has to do is get out of the way, which may be what happened on 9/11.

King: Do you think Bush allowed the World Trade Center to be attacked?

Ellsberg: I’m not saying the administration actually engineered or facilitated 9/11, although it’s quite possible, but Bush and his security advisors did not do everything they could have done to prevent such an attack, because they saw that it could work to their advantage. It’s hard for me to imagine that Bush could have foreseen losing three thousand people in the attack on the Twin Towers. Who could have? Osama did not expect it. He said on tape he thought at most the upper floors would go.

But suppose Bush imagined not the towers coming down, but 150 deaths in the upper floors. Could he have accepted that? Absolutely. Other presidents would have done it, too. That’s the history of the world. Provocation is the name of the game.

King: You have been addressing these issues for a long time. Are you at all disillusioned now? Can you be optimistic?

Ellsberg: Our efforts can be and have been effective in postponing catastrophe, but you can look only so far ahead. I know people who do not think we have a chance. Their position is a respectable one, but nothing is that certain. I’m an optimist in the sense that I think we do have a chance.