A joint resolution referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) calls for the withdrawal of all American military forces from Iraq by Dec. 31. Boxer’s “redeployment” bill cites in its preamble a January poll finding that 64% of Iraqis believe that crime and violent attacks will decrease if the U.S. leaves Iraq within six months, 67% believe that their day-to-day security will increase if the U.S. withdraws and 73% believe that factions in parliament will cooperate more if the U.S. withdraws.
If that’s true, then what are we doing there? If Iraqis don’t believe that we’re making things better or safer, what does that say about the legitimacy of prolonged occupation, much less permanent American bases in Iraq (foreseen by 80% of Iraqis polled)? What does it mean for continued American armored patrols such as the one last November in Haditha, which, we now learn, led to the deaths of a Marine and 24 unarmed civilians?
It was questions very much like these that were nagging at my conscience many years ago at the height of the Vietnam War, and that led, eventually, to the publication of the first of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, 35 years ago this week. That process had begun nearly two years earlier, in the fall of 1969, when my friend and former colleague at the Rand Corp., Tony Russo, and I first started copying the 7,000 pages of top-secret documents from my office safe at Rand to give to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That period had several similarities to this one. For one thing, Republican Sen. Charles Goodell of New York had just introduced a resolution calling for the unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. armed forces from Indochina by the end of 1970. Unlike the current Boxer resolution, his had budgetary “teeth,” calling for all congressional funding of U.S. combat operations to cease by his deadline.
Two other similarities between then and now: First, though it was known to only a handful of Americans, President Nixon was making secret plans that September to expand, rather than exit from, the ongoing war in Southeast Asia — including a major air offensive against North Vietnam, possibly using nuclear weapons. Today, the Bush administration’s threats to wage war against Iran are explicit, with officials reiterating regularly that the nuclear “option” is “on the table.”
Second, also in September, charges had been brought quietly against Lt. William Calley for the murder 18 months earlier of “109 Oriental human beings” in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai 4. This went almost unnoticed until mid-November of that year, when Seymour Hersh’s investigative story burst on the public, followed shortly by the first sight for Americans of color photographs of the massacre. The pictures were not that different from those in the cover stories of Time and Newsweek from Haditha: women, children, old men and babies, all shot at short range.
What was it that prompted me in the fall of 1969 to begin copying 7,000 pages of highly classified documents — an act that I fully expected would send me to prison for life? (My later charges, indeed, totaled a potential 115 years in prison.) The precipitating event was not Calley’s murder trial but a different one. On Sept. 30, I read in the Los Angeles Times that charges brought by Creighton Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam, against several Special Forces officers accused of murdering a suspected double agent in their custody had been dismissed by the secretary of the Army.
The article, by Washington reporters Ted Sell and Robert Donovan, made clear that the reasons alleged by Secretary Stanley Resor for this dismissal were false (and that the order to dismiss the charges had most likely come directly from the White House). As I read on, it became increasingly clear that the whole chain of command, civilian and military, was participating in a coverup.
As I finished the article, it hit me: This is the system I have been part of, giving my unquestioning loyalty to for 15 years, as a Marine, a Pentagon official and a State Department officer in Vietnam. It’s a system that lies reflexively, at every level from sergeant to commander in chief, about murder. And I had, sitting in my safe at Rand, 7,000 pages of documentary evidence to prove it.
The papers in my safe, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, constituted a complete set of a 47-volume, top-secret Defense Department history of American involvement in Vietnam titled, “U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68.”
I had exclusive access to the papers for research purposes and had been reading them all summer; they made it very clear that I, like the rest of the American public, had been misled about the origins and purposes of the war I had participated in — just as are the 85% of the troops in Iraq today who still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and that he was allied with Al Qaeda.
The papers documented in stunning detail a pattern of lies and deceptions by four presidents and their administrations over 23 years to conceal their war plans — along with internal estimates of the high costs and risks of these plans (and their low probabilities of success), never meant to reach the public and provoke debate. They showed very clearly how we had become engaged in a reckless war of choice in someone else’s country — a country that had not attacked us — for our own domestic and external purposes.
It seemed to me that to be doing that against the intense wishes of most of the inhabitants of that country was not just bad policy but morally wrong. Moreover, it became clear to me that the justifications that had been given for our involvement were false. Vietnam was not a just war, and never had been. And if the war itself was unjust, then all the victims of our firepower were being killed without justification. That’s murder.
As I read the story in The Times that morning about the coverup of the Special Forces murder and compared it with what I’d been reading in the secret history, I came to see it as a microcosm of what had been happening since the war began. And I thought to myself: I don’t want to be part of this lying machine anymore. I am not going to conceal the truth any longer.
I called Russo, who had been fired from Rand a year earlier, in part for inconvenient field reporting about torture of prisoners by our Vietnamese allies. I asked him if he had access to a copying machine.
We began on Oct. 1. Night after night, I brought out batches of papers from my safe, and we copied them. I gave them first to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hoping that they would make the documents public. But they did not. Eventually, I gave them to the New York Times, which began publishing them Sunday, June 13, 1971.
Two days later, the New York Times was ordered by a federal judge, at the request of the White House, to stop publishing — the first injunctive prior restraint of the press in U.S. history. I then gave copies to the Washington Post and, when it also was enjoined, to 17 other newspapers, while I was being sought by the FBI. On June 28, I turned myself in and was arrested and charged with violations of the Espionage Act and theft.
Today, there must be, at the very least, hundreds of civilian and military officials in the Pentagon, CIA, State Department, National Security Agency and White House who have in their safes and computers comparable documentation of intense internal debates — so far carefully concealed from Congress and the public — about prospective or actual war crimes, reckless policies and domestic crimes: the Pentagon Papers of Iraq, Iran or the ongoing war on U.S. liberties. Some of those officials, I hope, will choose to accept the personal risks of revealing the truth — earlier than I did — before more lives are lost or a new war is launched.
Haditha holds a mirror up not just to American troops in the field, but to our whole society. Not just to the liars in government but to those who believe them too easily. And to all of us in the public, in the administration, in Congress and the media who dissent so far ineffectively or who stand by as murder is being done and do nothing to stop it or expose it.
It is past time for Americans to summon the civil courage to face what is being done in their name and to refuse to be accomplices. We must force Congress and this president, or their successors if necessary, to act upon the moral proposition that the U.S. must stop killing men, women and children in Iraq, and must not begin to do so in Iran.
Neither the lives we have lost, nor the lives we have taken, give the U.S. any right to determine by fire and airpower who shall govern or who shall die in countries we have wrongly attacked.
Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial in 1973 for leaking the Pentagon Papers, but the case was dismissed after four months because of government misconduct.