Daniel Ellsberg on the High Costs of Executive-Branch Secrecy

The president and his underlings, "given a chance to paralyze opposition by practicing secrecy and deception, will use that power."
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When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, his primary goal was changing U.S. policy in Vietnam. But he also had a "very important secondary objective" -- he hoped that Americans who read the documents would lose their tolerance for granting the executive branch the ability to act in secret. They'd see that the Vietnam War was enabled by that secrecy.

As we ponder whether the Obama Administration keeps too many secrets from Congress and the people, it's worth returning to a passage in a 1973 interview that Ellsberg did with Reason magazine (emphasis added):

Without the widespread willingness to allow the executive to keep secret the mass of information about its own operations and intentions, it wouldn't have been possible for the executive to steal away so much power from the Congress and the public and to free itself from the kinds of checks and balances that were intended in the Constitution. Precisely because Congressmen realized over the years that they lacked the information on which to criticize Executive policy or to suggest changes, they have opted out from an active role in the field of foreign policy. But by the same token, it was the executive branch itself which was denying them this information. So that what we saw was one more confirmation of the axiom on which I think our Constitution was originally built, which is, "power corrupts -- even Americans."

Power encroaches upon the challenges of the opposition, and officials in the executive branch, given a chance to paralyze opposition by practicing secrecy and deception, will use that power.

Ellsberg thought that the costs were especially apparent in 1973. "The price we paid for allowing a single branch of government to emerge as dominating almost exclusively the field of foreign-policy and defense policy has been a quarter century of the Vietnam War," he said, "which means the price has been a couple of million Vietnamese lives and over 50,000 American lives, and $135 billion dollars in the last eight years alone." In this era, manipulation and selective release of classified information certainly helped the Bush Administration to start a war in Iraq that Americans and their representatives might've rejected had they known the truth.

What are the costs of permitting the Obama Administration the ability to do so much in secret? Certainly much of Congress has opted out of an active role in the field of foreign policy. We won't know the full costs until it's too late to do anything about them. You'd think we'd have learned by now.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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