October 8, 2004

Daniel Ellsberg Speaks About Iraq, Vietnam

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Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg likened the Bush administration’s decision-making in Iraq to the Nixon administration’s in Vietnam in a discussion yesterday that was sharply critical of the current president and his Cabinet. In an informal talk that was sponsored by the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy and the Cornell Peace Studies Program, Ellsberg drew on his own experience in Vietnam and decried the application of groupthink to the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

“In my opinion, this war needs not only to be resisted, but it remains to be understood. I believe both are essential. … That remains true for Vietnam and it will remain true for Iraq for a long time,” he said. “In both cases you can see looking back on it the worst decision-making in our history. The current decision-making has not just been totally incompetent in the implementation of an imperial structure, total bungling to an extraordinary degree, but the decision-making going in was about as bad as anything I can imagine since the administration I was part of,” Ellsberg said.

He went on to say that while the policy makers of the Nixon administration may have been called “the Best and the Brightest,” they were not necessarily smarter than the policy makers of the current administration. “Extreme smartness can coexist in the same head as stupidity … anyone can be as dumb as he has to be to keep his job,” Ellsberg explained.

Ellsberg suggested that it is incorrect to use groupthink — or the theory that people in a group seize on certain focal hypotheses and begin to ignore alternative ideas while contaminating each other’s thinking — as an explanation for the discrepancies over the issue of WMD.

“I have long felt that the [Irving] Janis hypothesis of groupthink … is not a good explanation. My strong assumption here is that for virtually every case you are looking at right now, the stupidity is coming down from above. It is a hierarchical situation. You have to look at the influence of the leader of a group or the people above the group,” he said.

Ellsberg said that the “administration wants to say that it was the intelligence community’s failure only … Bush wants to take the entire responsibility of the war off his shoulders and put it on the intelligence community.”

The former Defense Department employee and RAND Corp. strategic analyst then addressed the saying and practice of “Don’t Fight the Problem,” a principle of military obedience. Ellsberg explained that the saying really means “don’t argue with the givens here,” and that the problem is the superior’s definition of the issues. He then applied the explanation of this principle to the current situation in Iraq.

“[L. Paul] Bremer fought the problem inside, as we now know this week, by saying ‘I need more troops’ but at least he kept it inside,” Ellsberg said. Ellsberg also reflected on the notoriety and treatment he has received ever since he disclosed the top-secret Robert McNamara Study of U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1945-68 — also known as the Pentagon Papers– to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971.

“Essentially starting on June 13, 1971, I was never again invited to an academic seminar, to give a talk or participate, for about the next 30 years… I used to think it was because either my politics were regarded as suspect, or that the kind of seminar I was invited to had people who had clearances, or wanted clearances, and couldn’t be in the same room as me,” he said.

Ellsberg concluded by urging people “not to achieve premature closure on some of these big questions.”

The hour-long discussion was well-received by audience members.

“He just has an enormous wealth of knowledge… It’s not the standard academic seminar. He knows so much on different topics. He can move from topic to topic and still have interesting things to say on each one,” said Prof. Matthew Evangelista, government, director of the Peace Studies Program.

“I think he is inspiring and incredibly sharp for his age,” said Allan Dafoe grad. “He was incredibly eloquent.”

In recent weeks Ellsberg has been visible in his critique of Iraq. In an op-ed in the New York Times on Sept. 28, he called on a “dedicated public servant” to leak the current administration’s documents, saying “it would be a great public service to reveal a true picture of the administration’s plans for Iraq.”

Archived article by Erica Temel
Sun News Editor