Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets, lies—and when to tell them

Daniel Ellsberg discusses the ethics of truth-telling 40 years after the Pentagon Papers

Daniel Ellsberg speaks at a World Without Nuclear Weapons forum last year. He’ll lecture in Sacramento this week.

Daniel Ellsberg speaks at a World Without Nuclear Weapons forum last year. He’ll lecture in Sacramento this week.


Daniel Ellsberg speaks in the Moon Lecture Series on Friday, September 9, at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, 2931 St. Mark’s Way; 7:30 p.m.; $15-$25; (916) 483-7848; www.stmarksumc.com/upcomingmoon.

St. Mark’s Methodist Church

2391 Saint Marks Way
Sacramento, CA 95864

(916) 660-7020

He’s best known as the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971, revealing for the first time how U.S. Vietnam War operations were being managed—and mismanaged. Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to blow the whistle on American misbehavior in Southeast Asia had historic consequences. He was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 (charges that were eventually dropped). His leak of the documents, and American newspapers’ fight to publish them, led to a landmark First Amendment decision by the Supreme Court. And he attracted some very dangerous enemies, including former President Richard Nixon, whose “plumbers”—the dirty tricksters that eventually broke into the Watergate building—were originally formed to go after Ellsberg.

This survivor of what former President Gerald Ford called America’s “long national nightmare” has spent decades working for transparency and truth-telling in government, and he’s also had some time to think about the ethics of whistle-blowing and secrets. Ellsberg will speak in Sacramento next week; he spoke with SN&R recently by phone.

Your talk in Sacramento will be on the ethics of secret keeping and secret telling. What’s that about?

Intimate relations—not only with partners and family, but with almost any group you’re involved in, has an expectation that we’ll keep secrets from others. We rely on those bonds, and we grow up learning that nothing will get you ostracized as quickly as telling secrets that are not meant to be told to outsiders. We have these boundaries, inside and outside.

The penalty for breaking this rule of secrecy is isolation, ostracism. That’s a big penalty if you’re closely involved in the relationship.

We’re a herd animal, we humans. Being in a group is essential to us … We need that, psychologically and sociologically, to remain and be accepted as a member in a group, organization, or even a corporation. So we learn to be very discreet and to keep secrets. And for many people, they learn that as their highest value—a moral imperative, right up there with not murdering or not committing incest.

Can you give an example of when it’s OK to tell a secret and when not?

Let’s take the government, which was the area where I operated. Giving true testimony about the secrets of your organization is the way to be fired. They can’t really prosecute you for that—for telling the truth—but it’s not the way to get ahead.

But false testimony—a refusal to testify truthfully against your organization—is to be valued highly. That’s how we get someone like Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence in the late ’60s and early ’70s, who eventually copped a plea to giving misleading testimony. He was just given a fine, and it was paid for him by a group of ex-CIA members. He was highly honored for having given that false testimony.

So, when do the ethical obligations finally prevail?

Now, let’s take someone who works for [Rupert] Murdoch, who is in some sense a journalist. So, Murdoch says he didn’t know anything about hacking—which is invading the secrets of another person. He says he didn’t know that. That’s almost certainly false.

But someone who works for him? Would Murdoch keep in his employ someone who told the truth about that secret, that hacking? That would be regarded as disloyalty. The very fact that they are beginning to tell the secrets is indicative of the rats leaving the ship, their recognition that their individual best interests are no longer being served by keeping the secrets and remaining loyal to the organization.

So discretion—silence at least, but on some occasions it does require lying to keep privacy—is an organizational value. You’re asked about someone else’s sexual life, and you don’t want to divulge this. You decline to answer, or you lie—you say “No, no,” which you know to be untrue. It’s a case of doing what’s best for the organization when there’s no real consequence outside of it.

But in the case of being asked something by Congress, do you have that option? When they ask you about a document, and you say “I don’t know,” or “I don’t recall,” when it’s lying on your desk?

What wins in the end: having a job or being a good person?

On the one hand … it’s not just a matter of keeping your job, but also of being seen as a loyal and reliable person. Your identity is at stake: “I’m a CIA agent,” or “I protect the president.” It is almost seen as a moral obligation—it would be wrong to expose this friend or this boss or this agency to prosecution. That would be wrong.

The point I want to make—and it is mine to make, really—is that there are times when you should break a promise to keep secrets. There are times when it is unethical to keep that promise or to keep that secret. That is especially true when lives are at stake. It is also true, as in the whistle-blower cases with asbestos and Vioxx, when health and life is at stake.

This is, of course, always the case in defense and intelligence: Lives are always at stake.

But that’s the argument that the defense establishment makes about all their secrets. How do you navigate that?

There are cases, legitimately, when lives depend on secrecy. The defense department tries to contend that this is true in all cases, but, in many cases, lives are actually sacrificed because of secrecy.

In my case, tens of thousands of American lives and millions of Vietnamese lives would have been saved had someone like me told the truth sooner.

There’s also the situation with Iraq: There are so many lives that could have been saved if people had broken their promise to keep secrets. It isn’t an oath, really, but a promise. The risks with secret-keeping are not only associated with telling secrets, but the risks to our lives and to our constitutional government come from keeping secrets.

And this is now an ethical dilemma.

Yes. Lives are risked if I keep a secret, but my job is at risk if I tell a secret. Unfortunately, most people will choose the job. Almost all the time. Very few will leak when it’s right. There are some leaks that ought not happen, but in general leaks happen because someone made an ethical decision.

These issues arise not just in the government, but in corporations and in journalism. It is true of every organization and relationship. There are times when secrecy is the wrong thing.

You mentioned in intimate relationships, such as domestic violence.

Wife-beating and child abuse is covered so successfully by the family secrecy that we don’t realize how bad it is—people tend not to believe it, because the secrecy is so thick around it.

Our social norms are so weighted on the side of keeping secrets; that’s what you’re told to do all the time, to get along, go along. And that’s where the harm from that behavior, the most evil-doing, the greatest, broadest participation in that is not people who are directly involved but people who know about it and who refuse to inform others.

An example of those weighted social norms about secrecy is in language. Until recently terms like “whistle-blower” and “leaker” were very bad words that only very recently began to change.

In that film about the tobacco whistleblower, The Insider wasn’t just an insider, played by Russell Crowe. He was a whistleblower, and it cost him his career and his marriage. They didn’t call him a whistleblower, though, unless they were being derogatory. There’s a new film out, actually called The Whistleblower, that is, I think, one of the first times where that word has been used in a positive fashion, to describe the hero.

And so your message is?

I think we do need new ethical education here. I advocate telling secrets when there are major risks. When lives are at stake, when constitutional principles are at stake, when great corruption is occurring. Our freedom ought to be worth telling a secret.

Often whistle-blowers and secret-tellers will be threatened with prosecution. The cost is very high, and it shouldn’t be done lightly. I can’t blame a person for avoiding it. If it’s just a question of money being wasted, a person should very well think twice before going outside the organization. But there are things that make it worthwhile, ethically.