Secrecy and the Warfare State

Daniel Ellsberg is quite a remarkable man. He defied the law, his future, an entire career’s worth of brainwashing, and important friendships in order to leak the truth about the Vietnam War to the people of America. Richard Nixon so feared the man that he sent CIA hitmen to “incapacitate him totally” – whatever that means. They wimped out, and he’s been fighting the warfare state ever since. To hear my June 25 radio interview of Mr. Ellsberg, click stream or download mp3.

Ellsberg’s famous leaking of The Pentagon Papers, which covered the history of the war from the Truman years through 1968, to the American media in 1971 did much to damage the ability of the Nixon administration to continue the same lies. And lies are all they were.

Listen to Scott’s interview with Daniel Ellsberg


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As Ellsberg learned when he read the complete secret history, people in the highest levels of the U.S. government knew from the very beginning what he himself had figured out upon his initial entry to the scene in 1961 – that Vietnam was a war that couldn’t be won. Even in their rosiest assessments of what it would take to defeat the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, the prospect of Chinese intervention (as happened in Korea) always loomed. The more realistic scenarios all saw that the native resistance to foreign occupation could never be beaten, whether China got involved or not. The only questions were: what would it take to stave off defeat, and how long could they stave it off? From assessments based on that premise, the government under presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon escalated U.S. involvement while telling the American TV audience that success was right around the corner. (Few, of course, questioned the government’s right to kill anyone it wanted, so long as it led to “success.”)

How could the national government keep such secrets for 20 years?

The answer is easy: access to power.

As Ellsberg explains in his book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, people with access get drunk on secrets. They disregard the opinion of anyone who doesn’t have the same privileged clearance. They assume that fulfilling whatever their great leader wants is their only duty, and that they, because of their relationship (however tenuous) to him, are above the law. Above all, federal employees know that breaking the rules can cost them their access. Even when, as was the case with Ellsberg for a time, they disagree with the policy, most bureaucrats would rather keep their mouths shut, keep their jobs, and try to influence the policy from the inside. Maybe someday they’ll get a little higher up the ladder, have a little more pull…

The result of this is the remarkable ability of the executive branch to keep its secrets and continue policies that nearly the entire government opposes, never mind what the uninformed masses think.

The administration of George W. Bush is said to be the most secretive in American history. One of his first acts as president was to further delay the release of Reagan’s papers. Rest assured this has nothing to do with the host of Reagan-era felons in the current administration. The Republicans have done nothing but clamp down further on the release of information since then.

After 9/11, the PATRIOT Act and assorted changes to executive regulations made it much harder to get documents through the Freedom of Information Act. At one point, the ACLU was forbidden under the PATRIOT Act from revealing that it had sued the government over the PATRIOT Act.

Robert Stinnett, while researching a new book about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s deliberate exclusion of targets associated with Nazi death camps (say what?), found that the 60-year-old documents he had been reviewing had been reclassified under the PATRIOT Act.

Whistleblowers work for the state, so whatever they say should be treated with suspicion. But it’s great when politicians are exposed for the liars they are by their subordinates. There have been quite a few so far this time around, beginning with FBI agents after 9/11: Colleen Rowley from Minneapolis, Ken Williams from Phoenix, and Robert Wright from Chicago all complained publicly about their frustrated attempts to investigate terrorists.

Former FBI contract translator Sibel Edmonds has an interesting story to tell, but the government will only let her scrape the surface. She must know something we all would want to know, because she seems to want very much to tell us, and the state has bent over backward [.pdf] to keep her silent.

Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who worked the North Africa desk down the hall from the neocons’ Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon, has spilled some major beans. Her boss, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Bill Luti, was one of the OSP “Kool-Aid drinkers.” Col. Kwiatkowski helped expose the neoconservatives’ cherry-picked (out of the CIA’s trash) evidence used to support the invasion of Iraq. (Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Former ambassador Joseph Wilson told the story behind the famous 16-word lie in Bush’s State of the Union address of 2003 in which he accused Saddam Hussein of buying “large quantities of uranium from Africa.” (Karl Rove, the coward, fought back – against Wilson’s wife.)

Abu Ghraib whistleblower Sgt. Joseph Darby, risked a great deal in exposing the torture at Saddam Hussein’s former prison. The last veneer of liberation on our mission in Iraq is now gone as surely as Manadel al-Jamadi, who was murdered there. So far, his killers, like all those responsible for crafting the policy, have gotten away scot-free, but we’ll see.

Former counterterrorism director Richard Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill both revealed the administration’s early intentions to invade Iraq.

Whoever is leaking all the notes and memos to the Times in Britain deserves our thanks. Support for the debacle is lower than ever. But where are the American versions of the Downing Street memos? There must be thousands of documents that could prove the criminal nature of the Bush regime’s push for invading Iraq within various executive departments right now. A hundred bucks says they knew from the beginning that they could never win.

Dan Ellsberg spent many years on the inside before he realized the simple truth that unjustified war is mass murder, pure and simple. At that point he decided to act. Along with all the parallels between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Vietnam that are now apparent, let’s hope for some 21st century Ellsbergs to help bring this disaster to a close.

Vietnam syndrome, here we come!

Author: Scott Horton

Scott Horton is editorial director of, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from He’s the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, and the editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,500 interviews since 2003. Scott’s articles have appeared at, The American Conservative magazine, the History News Network, The Future of Freedom, The National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed a chapter to the 2019 book, The Impact of War. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna Horton. He is a fan of, but no relation to the lawyer from Harper’s. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon.