Lied To Death:
Conversations With Daniel Ellsberg On Why We Go To War
By Arn Menconi, May 2015
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Transcript of excerpts - cache of audio
I've spent a lot of time defining what I mean by "covert": What I mean is deceptive, lying, false, in two major dimensions, I would say:
It's not just the means. The policy as a whole is covert, meaning we are doing something, different purposes, different allies, different from what we claim to the public. We have a different nature. The government is different from what we think, from what they say it is and what we believe from what they say.
I'm saying now something different from what I would have understood 10 years ago. I have known the covert aspect for 30 - 40 years, partly from a book, by the way, called "A Short Course in the Secret War" by an early OSS and then OPC and then CIA covert operator, who used the pseudoname Christopher Felix. I looked up in the web to see what the real name of Christopher Felix is. The real name [James G. McCargar] is now known. He makes the big point about the difference -that I was describing- between secret and covert. From that time on I understood that CIA does covert operations that cannot be attributed to the US, are trying not to be attributable to the US, but above all not attributable to the president. ...
Here is the simple part: What's new to me to realize is that our government is not a government with a covert operations agency named the CIA. It's a government within which has a covert foreign policy which is different from what it says. The actual policy is covert. It's lied about -with evidence, not just by assertions- in ways plausibly, that will convince people of the lies. And that is not just because it has a covert operations agency, the CIA, which on its face is assumed to be at odds with democracy, because democracy in principle is sovereignty of the public, public has to informed as to what the alternative policies are. If you have an agency that lies to the public and acts secretly: Isn't that contradictory to democracy? Well, sort of it, in a dangerous world you have to have that. You have to have it because you need to do things that can't be acknowledged because they are criminal. They are against our ideals, they can be described as evil or murderous whether they are not, and they are for a better cause, for our benefit, they are lesser evils, but they are illegal, even in our domestic law, and in international law. So, we have to lie about them.
People understand very well that in war you do things that are not legal in peacetime. It's understood. You do them to your enemies for your benefit, for your security. So you kill people, but it's not murder. In peacetime it would be murder, but in wartime it's not murder. People understood that when you\re fighting a dangerous enemy you've got to fight dirty, especially if he's dirty, and even if he doesn't fight dirty, he may be very strong and we have to fight dirty. So we can't be bound by legality. That's almost universally accepted in every country, not just ours. "In wartime no rules." You don't go by Marquess of Queensbury Rules, in wartime.
How about in peacetime, what about in peacetime? Of course, the emperors have not pretended to democracy or legality. So, they don't have anything to apologize for, if they do, whatever, bound by constraint. In peacetime or wartime they say "The king rules by divine right and whatever he does is what God wanted him to do, or wants him to do to stay in power."
What about, however, an empire that is democratic at home, that does pretend to legality, rules, and rule of law at home? ... Let's call it a "liberal empire", like the British Empire. Now, what I'm saying is: The US had a covert foreign policy. The foreign policy is not what the President or the State Department says it is. It is not ever what a public affairs officer says it is. The policy is always different from that. But I'm saying much more than the fact that I used to think (I've learnt much more than that) that it has a covert component. That's well known. They don't generally know what covert means the way I just described it. They don't understand that it means not just secret but lying, and explicitely lying. Anything secret, if it's very secret, has to be protected by some lies, such as if somebody asks you "Do you know of this report?", which you've just read or written, and you have to say "No.", because the existence of that report is secret. So to keep that secret you have to lie about what you know and what you think and so forth. But I'm saying more than that: A covert policy is not merely secret, is lying from start to finish.
I conceive of the American foreign policy as being in the service of covert empire. Covert in two senses.
Now, why that's so important, I'll come to in a moment. The point here is: When I call it covert, or when they call it covert, what they mean is: above all the president must not be held creditable (?), blamed for this policy, and in general, the US is not to be blamed altogether, if possible. If they are held, you have to prepare a series of falsehood.
That means, you don't merely swear people to secrecy, you don't merely keep the documents relating to this, like a military plan, under lock and key and make them known only to people whose security clearance has been known to be reliable etc. , the smallest number of people altogether. All of that is true, it is secret, but it goes beyond that. It means that in these cases you absolutely prepare and plan misleading evidence as to who is running this and what it is, and why they are running it. So that if it is known, as it may often be known, that something has happened here, some people have acted, you have evidence, false evidence or misleading evidence, that it was someone other than the people who actually were running it. That starts with the president.
The Church Report brought out a lot of this stuff, including in particular the Mongoose Operation, the regime change operation in 1962 under Kennedy. That came out in 1976. He [Church] did a series of reports, the commission wrote it in '75, '76. Some of these reports, including I think the assassination report, had come out in '75 and some came out in '76. And then there was a Pike Report at the same time ordered by the House, it was a similar investigation. That report was never officially released. It was leaked to Daniel Schorr. So it is available on the web. These were major exposees of our covert operations. Later again, in '75, I would say, these others were books, that was a Congressional investigation and the only real investigation of the intelligence community that there ever was.
It led to the setting up of the so-called "Oversight Committees" Church's, which essentially now have ever since operated as public relations arms of the intelligence community. They have been totally co-opted, they are black holes of information as far as the public is concerned, and in general they defend the intelligence community, just like so many regulatory agencies are captured by the industries that they're supposedly regulating, in part by offering them great jobs. Food and Drug Administration or -what is it- the trade representatives for the president, I've just noticed, nearly all become major lobbyists afterwards for the trade associations. So likewise, the intelligence committees are basically lobbyists in the government and later for the intelligence community.
We don't have a foreign policy that uses in part covert operations in peacetime as in wartime. In wartime every country has covert operations, even whether they are an empire or not. In peacetime empires have covert operations for a variety of reasons. But it goes beyond that. The purposes of our covert operations, the purposes of our foreign policy in general are different from what we say. They are not to improve our national security. To a large extent they endanger our national security by tolerating or provocing or promoting threats literally to our existence. Without our foreign policy there would not be five thousand Soviet missiles aimed at us that could destroy the world including us any day. Those wouldn't exist if our foreign policy was different. If our foreign policy was aimed primarily at preventing the United States from facing an existential -by which I mean survival, physical survival to the last human- if it were aimed at preventing threats to our physical survival, it could easily have been oriented toward preventing the existence of what at one point was about 30 000 Soviet weapons. But that existence is a collateral accepted by our policy, it's a price of our foreign policy which is for our own benefit, not based on our security. [Ellsberg specifies this in the Introduction of "The Doomesday Machine".]
It is not oriented toward democracy in the underdeveloped world. It is against democracy generally, with a few odd exceptions where democracy does survive ... (?). It is not for independence. No, our policy is aimed at buying dependence and assuring that these people are dependent on us and not independent. And if they act independently, we change their leadership. "Regime change" is another word for an imperial policy.
[J. Gruber: I edited the following paragraph at the locations marked by ...,]
In short: Clausewitz [in his book "On War"] said "War is the continuation of politics with the addition of other means.". ...
By politics he meant policy in a large sense, what is the leadership of a country trying to achieve, what's its overall policy, what is her interest in the world, not just how to win, but why you want to win, why with war at all, what you're trying to achieve by the war, what you want to happen after the war, all that. ...
He meant the political leaders of the country must determine the policy, and the military simply serves that. ...
You are trying to achieve the same kind of aims you do in peacetime, but you add -he didn't have bombing then, but now you would say bombing- you add military invasions, you add strategy, you add deployments, you add productions(?) in addition to what you do in peacetime, which is elections, alliances, marriages, you know: dynastic marriages. All the stuff you do in peacetime you do in wartime, but you add some other things. And he was thinking of, actually he was mainly an analyst of Napoleon's campaigns. Napoleon adds to dynastic marriages invasions, and he adds -by the way, he invented something new by the levee en masse, essentially a draft- he adds popular mass, not just mercenaries.
What I'm saying is: Empire is a continuation of politics with an admixture of other means, means that are not admissible in non-imperial domestic politics. They are not uncommon in the sense of murder, or bribery. They happen. But they are not legitimized, they are supposedly prosecuted or banned when you find out about them. But supposedly you have a rule of law. But in empire you add other means. Murder, invasions, other things.
I think, I have for all these years been thinking about nuclear weapons as somewhat, by themselves, isolated from the nature of our foreign policies. And this is helpful, what we were talking about, because it's new for me to realize that among the admixture of other means that is involved not just foreign policy but very specifically our imperial foreign policy, and that means: our effective dominion over other countries that are nominally independent of us, they are not states, they are not territories, but we control -or have a very strong or powerful influence- on their politics, their regimes, their policies. Our policy is an imperial policy because it has to do with control of other countries, and not influence but control, and specifically control by means that include both military means -as in Iraq- and covert means throughout, and covert involves a heavy influence of violence.
We added airplanes along with the British. So bombing, actual bombing has been a major admixture of other means, and of course the threat of air power. But not just the threat, but actually doing it. Drones, now a marvelous new invention, the kind of surveillance we have now is a new means of empire. What Ed Snowden, what Chelsea Manning showed by hundreds of thousands cables was the US as an empire, how we run much of the world, and how we find ourselves involved. But since she was only dealing with the secret level, you did get a surprising amount of assassination involved in there, and torture. But major bribery for instance, was shown at the secret level. Snowden comes along and shows that we are not only listening to our own citizens, and we are not only listening to our enemies, we are listening to the whole world. Why? Because we want to run the world. Surveillance is a tool of manipulation, and bribery and blackmail all over the world. That's of interest to us because we're an imperial power, and we want to run the world to the greatest extent possible to serve our major interests, including -as I say- corporate interests, but also bribery, the interests of politicians to stay in office, the interest of military to have bigger budgets etc. - a variety of interests, but they are not general national interests.
What I now realize my book is about is that in 1945 one other means was added to empires. And now something I've seen more clearly than I ever before saw once. It hasn't turned out despite Hiroshima in the eyes of our civilian leaders that we can actually explode nuclear weapons on people, especially once the Russians got nuclear weapons. It's just too dangerous, and it kills too many people at a time, even for our civilian leadership which is quite ruthless. We are willing to kill an awful lot of people indirectly and through bombing in general, but nuclear weapons -which are proposed and urged by the military which does not share this inhibition- the civilians have seen that the nuclear just kill too many people. As I say: Our bombing in World War II killed 1.7 million people, civilians, about the same as Auschwitz. But a nuclear weapon, one nuclear weapon dropped near 1.7 million people kills 1.7 million people, a good size nuclear weapon. We used to have 10 and 20 Mt weapons, mostly now they are smaller. But the ones we had in the 50s and early 60s, if you drop them near 10 million people, they kill 10 million people, one weapon. And we had at one point 30 000 nuclear weapons, mostly smaller than that, but thousands of that size. Too big. The military were willing to do it, some people in the military, not everybody, General Curtis LeMay, various others, so: few others, were willing to think of a nuclear war. The civilians weren't.
The means that nuclear era put in the hands of our civilian leaders was the threat of nuclear weapons, usually secretly, to support imperial purposes. Usually secretly and for reasons quite different from what they told the public, when they told the public at all, they have threatened nuclear weapons. And what's clearer to me than it was even a year ago that in the minds of our civilian leaders the threat of nuclear weapons is quite a distinctly different instrument from the actual launching of nuclear weapons. However, it contains a risk of launching nuclear weapons, which they are willing to accept. So, they do accept a risk as opposed to a zero risk that this will lead to nuclear war, but they hope it's low enough that they can accept it and it serves their purposes, it serves a variety of purposes: corporate interests, but also staying in office, having allies of various kinds, satisfying the allies. Very distinctly maintaining a major hegemonic role in Europe without being an actual European power.
Nuclear weapons are critical to our economic and political dominance in Europe. In a non-nuclear age we would have influence, as we are the biggest trading nation with the biggest investments, especially early on. But we wouldn't have the degree of influence we actually do have. That has always been true, for reasons of cover ..., for a variety of myths have led to our being the power along with France now and England, but the power that provides nuclear weapons to the NATO alliance. Has NATO alliance really needed nuclear weapons? No, but we pretended that they did, and given that they did, we were the power that provided those, and we still are. The British have some nuclear weapons on the sea, on submarines, the French have some nuclear weapons. But there is a couple of hundered land based nuclear weapons in Europe, and they are all American.
Poland likes them. They think of them as protecting them. Well, nuclear weapons can protect Poland from Russia only at the cost of ending life on earth. So the Poles are interested in our having a doomsday machine to keep Russians out of Poland. We'll never have a president, I think, I hope, who is like Curtis LeMay, who really can imagine to our profit triggering a doomsday machine. We do have, we will have, we have had presidents who for a variety of political interests, domestic and external, want a doomsday machine, because it's the only kind of nuclear machine you can have, certainly in Russia. We can have a few nuclear weapons to threaten anybody else, but Russia, with its nuclear weapons, we can only seek to influence by a big nuclear arsenal. That's a doomsday machine. They rather have it than not have it, even if the cost is the Russians having that as well. We've always made that choice, we are making it right now under Barack Obama. Certainly Hillary will make that choice, certainly any Republican will make that choice. That's true not only the next four years but I guess unless something really changes the world, eight years, ten years, sixteen years, whatever.
And so in short: The H-bomb put the doomsday machine in the hands of American leaders and later the Russian leaders, and we had it ever since. So far the French and England have not have enough to have a doomsday machine. They don't have that much of an independent policy anyway, because of our dominance.
We are not the worst empire, we are not the best, however you measure that. We are not an exceptional empire. We are an unexceptional empire with two differences: (1) air power and (2) thermonuclear weapons. The Russians have that now, too, but they are in a different situation to a large extent. They don't have a world wide empire. We do. And we have had it for a long time. Part of the way we maintain that empire is with our navy and airforce, but in particular with nuclear weapons. Other countries have nuclear weapons, too, but they don't have an overseas empire. We do. We maintain that overseas influence in part not by the likelihood that we will initiate nuclear war, but the possibility that we will initiate nuclear war, as a threat, and that threat is a major part of the president's policy. If he gave it up, he would be fired in favor of somebody who maintained it.
You have to realize that the madman theory was in the minds of all of these presidents. It is always ..., nuclear development has always depended since the second world war, and especially since the Soviets had the chance of responding with nuclear weapons, which is since 1949/1950. So for the last 60 years then, it's not just Nixon, all of the presidents have relied on the madman theory to get their way. That's the first point. Second, since -and that means they weren't as mad as if they wanted to go into nuclear war, they were just pretending to be mad enough to be willing and thus get their way. They got some benefits out of it, a number of. However, when I look at the actual risks they were running, which was not zero, and it was not one in a million either. It was not in several cases one in a thousand. May it was one in a hundred, may be it was ten in a hundred. I'm saying it was mad in a human sense, mad as a society, a mad society, a mad establishment, a mad administration, a mad president to be following that policies.
In fact it was mad to be following an imperial policy which incorporated nuclear threats in a world where there is a possibility of a nuclear response, since 1950. Even before that it was murderous. But then, empires have always been murderous. But now it was species suicidal in a way that was never possible before. And I'm saying for the last 60 years this world has been in the grip of mad men, and of a mad psychosis of the public to be willing to allow them to do that.
We would rather have Russia with the ability to destroy the United States as well as others along with our ability to destroy the world than to have neither of us able to destroy the world. That's what I'm saying. There we get right into my book [The Doomsday Machine - Confessions of a Nuclear Planner, 2017]. I say: We have always chosen a Russian nuclear massive posture along with ours, rather than to restrain ours with the benefit of restraining theirs. We don't want to restrain theirs, because it's a good excuse for having ours. We could always have chosen restraining both powers to a degree where we were no longer under a threat of total annihilation. We've never chosen that. We have always preferred them to have whatever they want, so that we could have whatever we want, which is even more.
Our foreign policy has been at the price, and the conscious price, of a development of a Soviet and now Russian capability to annihilate the US, and in fact the rest of the world. It has been at the prize of a Soviet doomsday machine, and now a Russian doomsday machine which followed ours in every respect, but is now fully the equal of ours. There are few areas of Russian economics or military or anything else, where they are the equal of ours. They don't have a navy like ours, not even remotely, they no longer have an army equal to ours, but their nuclear is equal to ours.
The Cold War was a covert policy. The Cold War was mistakenly presented as to what the alternatives were, what the aims were, what the interests were, what the means were, everything about it was a lie, as in the case of the Vietnam war [more in D. Ellsberg, "Papers on the War" (1972), excerpts].
The danger of all-out nuclear war, leading to near extinction of the human species, is significant right now, and always has been larger than people thought, probably less than what is was earlier at the height of the Cold War, but is not zero. The possibility of nuclear winter could be made virtually zero, very close to zero, by changes that would be easy to describe and easy to accomplish, if the decision were made. Much easier to deal with than for example climate change. It could be done and should be done. We've been closer to nuclear war than what mostly anybody realizes in the last 40, 50 years, 70 years really. The chance is not going away, because the motives that brought us close in the past and the interests persist as before, and are generally not recognized.
I doubt if they [the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists] would say our awareness of what's involved in nuclear war has grown very much, especially 30 years ago, but in particular the scientific awareness has grown just in the last few years, literally five years or so, and is not generally known at all. And that may be one of the things they're looking at. The likelihood of an all-out war has not grown, if anything -as I say- it's probably diminished somewhat, but not anywhere to near zero. Now, what is near zero? What probability of all-out nuclear war -which could happen any minute as we speak, we're poised for it, weapons are there, they are on hair trigger alert, a false alarm could set it off at anytime. It's not a measure of capabilities that don't yet exist. They exist and they are unstable right now, just like the next train wreck, you might say, is waiting to happen. What probablitiy of that is tolerable? It doesn't require radical measures or urgent measures to take place. Is one in a hundred something we can live in, one in a thousand, one in a million? I would say one in a million cases of all-out nuclear war next year or in the next ten years or something, almost anything higher than zero is intolerable. But then, lots of things are intolerable, you can say. What is the priority of dealing with them?
I regard it as an urgent problem now, although it is not generally so regarded. It's not on our agenda. It will not be a major subject to discussion next year  in the [election] campaign, no matter what I did this year. Other events in the world could make it a subject, but I can't make it a subject next year.
A nuclear weapon going off, or real fighting between with Russia breaking out in a big way will bring the subject up.
I don't see human species getting away with the technical ... with a lot of things, the population size, with distribution of power, especially with nuclear weapons, with climate change, while the US retains its current imperial mindset. Either the imperial mindset changes -as it has changed in various countries- or we go down. ... as it was before it's an intolerable risk to live with.
You're getting me here in my scholarly research mode, my political mode as addressing the question of "does the public and the scholars in general understand as I see it from my perspective, what was going on here". I'd say: No, these scoundrels -now I may sound in the tone of voice as though I regarded those as happy-go-lucky funny scoundrels. No, they are mass murderers that we are talking about. Sorry when I ever smile on my face here when I say this. The point of our discussion is that I'm saying "This is fucking life!" Not that it's acceptable. It's horrible, it's why the human species is drifting toward extinction, that is why we are drifting toward extinction. Do I feel happy about that? No. We are having an intellectual discussion in here -for a moment- of why I think the way I do, and my joking here is a way of fighting off despair.
[for more see D. Ellsberg, "Roots of the Upcoming Nuclear Crisis", 2007]
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