US Culture of Secrecy & Security Overreach

Interview with Daniel Ellsberg, re-published on ZNet, by AlJazeera, February 26, 2014.

In 1971, US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of a top-secret study on the Vietnam War to the American press. The Pentagon Papers, as the leak would come to be called, revealed previously shrouded layers of deception on the part of the US executive branch regarding decades of military involvement in Indochina … //

… Al Jazeera: For a lot of Americans it seems obvious that national security requires secrecy, but you have described some of the dangers of “secrecy culture”. Why is secrecy culture problematic?

  • Daniel Ellsberg: “Well I certainly don’t take the point of view that no secrecy is justified, or that national security never required secrecy. For example, in the Second World War, the time and place of the Normandy invasion was a very well kept secret, and moreover secured by lies as well as secrecy. It’s an interesting example, by the way – which people often bring up – because, of course, the necessary secrecy for that date and place expired rather rapidly in the course of June 1944. And yet, my guess is that there still are thousands of pages, perhaps more, tens or hundreds of thousands, that are still classified from that period. I could be wrong, by this time maybe it’s all been declassified; but it could have all been declassified certainly by 1946-47, and was not until many years later, if ever.
  • “Most of the documentation still called classified by this country, and I’m talking now about billions and billions of pages, most of that has long ago lost any justification for being held secret from the American people. The need is generally measured more in weeks, months, or a year or two, and yet it remains classified indefinitely. Why?
  • “Really, if you want to know the answer to that, my best guess as someone who worked inside the system, is that they never know what part of that may become embarrassing at some point in the future. What prediction will turn out to look absurd? Not merely wrong, but discreditable. What action may appear as part of the programme that all in all is unconstitutional, or illegal? What policy will appear to have been not only unsuccessful, but undertaken for unjustifiable, self-interested motives? It’s very hard to predict that, so simply keep it all secret, if possible, forever.”

AJ: Do you think it’s easier to overcome secrecy culture now, or harder, or any different than when you leaked the Pentagon Papers?

  • DE: “It’s much harder to challenge the culture of secrecy since 9/11. Just as it’s harder to challenge clearly criminal, illegal, internationally forbidden practices such as torture. It would be very hard to imagine a government official justifying torture before 9/11. However, once the American people were placed in some sense of danger, and realistically so, unfortunately it seems not to take a great deal of danger for the public to ratify throwing overboard many of our restraints on executive action. Ever since 9/11, both parties have claimed the need for greater secrecy than before.
  • “The current administration is probably the least transparent of any administration so far, according to many observers. That is despite President Obama having campaigned on having the most transparent government in history. It’s been just quite the opposite, but that was also true in George W Bush’s case, and for much the same reason.
  • “Many of the things that both administrations have been doing, in the way of assassinating people, both Americans and mainly non-Americans, overseas with drones and by special forces, is in very many cases arguably a war crime. Certainly the torture was indisputably a war crime.
  • “To keep that secret as long as possible was very much in the interest of the people pursuing those policies. When they were revealed, piecemeal, the public was led, I’m sorry to say, to accept the word of authorities that these things were necessary. This is while reports that looked at the practices of torture in detail have concluded that the torture was not only unnecessary, but actually had no useful effect at all. Yet a 6,000-page report on torture by the Senate Intelligence Committee is being kept secret on the command of the CIA, along with a report by the CIA itself, and there is no excuse for that at all. That report should be released, and if it’s not released, it should be leaked.

AJ:  You discussed the difference between an ‘oath’ and ‘a secrecy agreement’, the tensions between the two for government employees, and how that might have played out for Edward Snowden. Could you comment on this distinction? … //

… AJ: Do you have any comments after your engagement with students and faculty at Juniata College?

  • DE: “I was very encouraged by the reaction from the students. I can even believe that Juniata will be a place that some actual initiative will come out of in terms of changing this. It would be wonderful if a student movement, activist movement, engages on this issue in a way that really has been very rare since the Vietnam War. The action against South African apartheid was very largely a student movement, with boycotts and what not, and ultimately quite effective. I would love to see students take up this constitutional challenge. After all, it’s their own physical lives that are ultimately at stake, and the kind of country they will live in for the rest of their lives.
  • “I think that in some ways they have foregone privacy so much, when it comes to Facebook and texting, and the internet in general, that they aren’t quick to perceive the difference it makes for the government to have all this information. The government can tax them, prosecute them, send them to war, which corporations can’t do by themselves. And so I think we’ve got to rethink, really, how much information we give to the internet, and to Google, and to Amazon, and to Facebook, in light of what we now know that they are giving it, or having it stolen from them, by the government.”

(full interview text).


Video: Daniel Ellsberg explains Why Edward Snowden has been asked to join Freedom Of The Press Foundation, 4.33 min, Jan 17, 2014;

Zur Bank gehen oder nicht zur Bank gehen, das ist hier die Frage, auf, von oceane99, Nov 6, 2013;

This shameful abuse of Bradley Manning, on ZNet, by Daniel Ellsberg, March 14, 2011.

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