Monday, June 19, 2023

Some thoughts concerning the legacy of Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023)

First, I consider Daniel Ellsberg a hero. He broke the law. but did so not out of desire for personal gain but to expose to the public a pattern of deception concerning U.S. involvement in Vietnam that spanned both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. He was willing to face the legal consequences of his action, which could have included a long prison sentence. Largely because of prosecutorial misconduct, the charges against him were dismissed. He spent the rest of his long life in a campaign to warn against the danger of nuclear war. 

My first reaction on learning of Ellsberg's death was sorrow. Soon after, though, it struck me that his re-emergence into public consciousness could provide an argument, in the form of "whataboutism," for those defending the former President's purloining of classified documents. I believe the cases are easily distinguishable. Ellsberg's motive was clear, and while his disclosure didn't reflect well on some government and military officials, "there was not a single secret damaging to national security" anywhere in the Pentagon Papers, as is admitted by Gabriel Schoenfeld in a New York Times opinion piece that is otherwise critical of Ellsberg's disclosure. Schoenfeld puts his thumb on the secrecy-as-"crucial"-adjunct-to-statecraft side of the scale; I put mine on the transparency-except-where-vitally-necessary side.

Former President Trump's motive for taking classified documents isn't clear. Bill Barr, his own Attorney General, attributes it to Trump's narcissism. Mark Esper, who served as Trump's Secretary of Defense, said that Trump's action not only endangered national security but put service members' lives at risk.

"Whataboutism" aside, what troubled me more deeply was the contribution that Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers had made, if unwittingly, to a corrosive cynicism about the very legitimacy of our liberal small "d" democratic system of government. As David Brooks puts it in his Times essay:
"This cynical attitude has become pervasive in our society. Proper skepticism toward our institutions has turned into endemic distrust, a jaundiced cynicism that says: I’m onto the game; it’s corruption all the way down."

Ellsberg responded to this concern when he was interviewed by Christiane Amanpour three months ago: 

"I.F. Stone, the journalist, used to say, 'All governments lie, and nothing they say is to be believed.' That doesn’t mean that everything they say is a lie. It does mean that anything they say could be a lie, and it’s not the last word. You have to look for other sources of information and check it against your common sense."

If the National Weather Service tells me a hurricane is headed my way, "common sense" tells me to take precautions without looking "for other sources of information." Still, I think Ellsberg's advice is generally correct. We should be skeptical without being cynical.