Ellsberg Sees Vietnam-Like Risks in ISIS War

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Ellsberg Sees Vietnam-Like Risks in ISIS War

Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers exposing the Vietnam War lies, is alarmed at the many parallels between Vietnam and President Obama’s new military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation πWahiawa™ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, Vietnam on 16 May,1966. ( Photo: AFP/NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

At a recent talk at the National Press Club in Washington DC, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, says he believes there’s not one person in the Pentagon who would agree that President Obama can achieve his aim of destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria with air strikes, along with training and arming local military forces.

Nor, he says, can the Administration do it even if the U.S. sends ground troops, contrary to Obama’s repeated assurances.

Ellsberg described the similarities with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the near-certainty of comparable failure. I interviewed him after his talk, and updated the discussion this week, after the U.S. airstrikes inside Syria had begun. In his Press Club talk and with me, he read from some documents, as indicated below, and cited Web-links.

Q.  Why are you urging Americans to be warned by what happened in Vietnam, half a century ago?

A.  Well, that was my war.  That makes me pretty old. And at 83, I am. This means I know what Vietnam means as well as Iraq, unlike most members of Congress. The New York Times noted on Sept. 18 that only a third of those voting on authorizing American advisers, arms and trainers for Syrian rebels were in Congress the last time there was a vote on war, which was for Iraq, in 2002. It would be interesting to know what they learned from the earlier vote.

As the Times wrote, “That 2002 vote hung heavily over the six hours of debate on Tuesday and Wednesday. Several veterans of the Iraq War stood against the President’s request. Older Democrats recalled with bitterness their vote to back the invasion of Iraq, a vote that ended many careers.”

“The last time people took a political vote like this in this House, it was on the Iraq War,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California, said, “and many of my colleagues say it was the worst vote they ever took.”

One member of the House who voted against the new authorization — Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, — was the one member of Congress who voted against the authorization of military force (AUMF) in Afghanistan in 2001, then, as now, because there was inadequate discussion and too many questions left unanswered. And the next year, with Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, she helped organize 133 votes in the House against the AUMF 2002 on Iraq.

She says the earlier request was “an overly broad authorization which I could not vote for because it was a blank check for perpetual war.”

She was right. That authorization is still on the books, and the Obama Administration still cites it (along with the AUMF 2002), 13 years later, as sufficient authority for further escalation in Syria and Iraq. Lee says it should be repealed.

Both times Lee echoed Senators Wayne Morse, D-Oregon, and Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska, the only two members of Congress who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964. Morse warned that it was an unconstitutional, undated blank check for war in Vietnam, and which President Lyndon Johnson used after deceiving other senators that he would not escalate without coming back to Congress.

In 2002, the only two senators who were in office long enough to have been deceived into voting for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution — Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, — said they were ashamed of their 1964 votes and pleaded with colleagues not to make their mistake, which they said they regretted for almost 40 years.

Twenty-one other senators listened, which, incidentally, didn’t include Kennedy’s junior colleague from Massachusetts, Vietnam veteran Sen. John Kerry, who had reason to regret his yes vote – which helped lose him the presidency – just two years later. I believe he will come to regret his present, shameful role with respect to this war for the rest of his life.

I have my own mistake to regret — not being the whistleblower I could have been in the Pentagon in 1964. Like Byrd and Kennedy in 2002, I’m calling on people in comparable positions to save themselves from such remorse, that they didn’t do what they could to warn and inform Congress and the public now, before decisive escalations occur.

Q. How do U.S. actions in Vietnam compare with what the U.S. is doing today, with advisers in Iraq and air strikes in Iraq and Syria, to destroy ISIS?

A. There are countless parallels. As in Vietnam, the U.S. is heading towards an American ground combat war under a president who assures us — before an election — that it isn’t going to happen. And as in Vietnam, his generals claim he can’t achieve his goal without boots on the ground.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff, says you can’t defeat ISIS without ground troops. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified he will recommend U.S. ground forces in Iraq if and when air power alone is not sufficient. That day is certain to come, sooner than later, although not before the November elections.

In fact, I doubt there’s a single person in the Pentagon or the CIA who believes Obama can achieve his goals to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria with air strikes and advisers alone.

High-level officers can’t contradict the President publicly, without resigning or being fired. But retired officials can, and have. A former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, put it succinctly: The President’s current strategy “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell” of succeeding. I’m sure Odierno and Dempsey give it the same odds.

It may be that people in the Pentagon are telling the President and each other that the U.S. can defeat ISIS if you let us do a bigger war, including sizeable numbers of American ground troops. If so, I believe they’re wrong, just as the JCS were in Vietnam and the first Iraq War.

On the other hand, they may not believe that. Either way, here’s where truly honest testimony to Congress is critical. And that’s not likely to happen unless it’s triggered by leaks from inside whistleblowers of internal, classified analyses, estimates and projections of the sort that should have occurred but didn’t before the escalation in Vietnam or earlier in Iraq.

In any case, as Barbara Lee said, the consequences even of Obama’s recent first steps will be to further expand our involvement in a sectarian war, without Congress considering the implications of the larger war that’s coming.

Q. When generals, like Odierno, say ground troops will be needed, whose ground troops do they mean?

A. “Ideally,” General Dempsey has said, they would be Iraqi, Kurdish or Syrian. But he’s also said that half the Iraq army isn’t competent to partner with the U.S. against ISIS. And, the other half has to be partially rebuilt and retrained. How long will that take, since the last 12 years of U.S. training failed so dramatically?

Regarding Syria, Dempsey says there will need to be 12,000 to 15,000 Syrian ground troops — properly trained by the U.S. — to take back territory from ISIS.  But the President just asked, and Congress authorized, U.S. training for only 5,000 Syrian troops — which is supposed to take six months to a year or more. Who but the U.S. is going to fill that gap?

Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, dismissed these fantasies. He insists the U.S. will not succeed against ISIS “strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga [the Kurds], or the Sunni tribes acting on their own.” He adds “some small number of American advisers, trainers, Special Forces and forward spotters, forward air controllers, are going to have to be in harm’s way.”

Q.  Doesn’t that contradict President Obama’s assurances of “no American boots on the ground”?

A. Yes. That is almost certain to happen. And a question we should ask, based on what we know about Vietnam is “When General Dempsey recommends, and the President agrees, that U.S. advisers, trainers and air spotters should leave their bases and accompany Iraqi troops in combat – getting in harm’s way – will we be told that’s happening? If so, when?

I vividly recall reading a memo in the Pentagon on April 6, 1965, from McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s national security adviser, that the President had authorized a change in mission for the Marines at Danang.  They’d been sent there — the first American combat units in Vietnam — ostensibly to defend the base from which we were conducting air operations.

Supposedly, they were politically harmless just “advisers” — which didn’t involve large U.S. casualties and get us committed the way ground combat units do. Like what we’re doing now, in Iraq and Syria. But in 1965, LBJ had secretly decided as early as April 1 to allow them to leave the base for offensive patrols in the field — precisely the kinds of actions I’d been trained to lead as a rifle company platoon leader and company commander in the Marines.

The memo said, as I noted in my 1972 book, Papers on the War, “The President desires that premature publicity be avoided by all possible precautions. The actions themselves should be taken as rapidly as practicable but in ways that should minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy. The President desires that these movements and changes in combat mission should be understood as being gradual and wholly consistent with existing policy.”

I remember writing a memo to my boss, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, that “This is dangerous. You can’t keep that secret. There are reporters over there. They’ll know what the Marines are doing and we’ll be shown to be concealing it. You know, we’re actually changing the nature of the war. We’re going to be taking over the war from the South Vietnamese. I don’t think you can keep that secret very long.”

I was wrong. That was April. And by July, about 100,000 troops were over there, doing offensive operations. But until then, there was no word or leak about this.

So on July 28, when President Johnson finally announced we were sending 50,000 more troops — it was actually 100,000, but he lied and said 50,000 to hide where this was heading — a reporter asked, “Mr. President, does the fact you are sending additional forces to Vietnam imply any change in the existing policy of relying mainly on the South Vietnamese to carry out offensive operations and using American forces to guard installations and to act as an emergency backup?”

Johnson answered, “It does not imply any change in policy whatever. It does not imply change of objective.”

And that was true! This was the end of July. He didn’t just change the policy. He changed it four months earlier. He just hadn’t announced it.

To bring us to the present, instead of saying “relying mainly on the South Vietnamese,” insert Syrians, Iraqis and Kurds. When those first steps are taken towards making this mainly an American war – steps Obama and his generals and Gates already hint at – should we expect to hear about that from the White House? Why? Because Obama is more transparent, less secretive than Johnson, Nixon or George W. Bush? He isn’t.

During the Vietnam build-up was when I could have alerted the American people about what was happening, and I didn’t. That’s why I’m calling on insiders who know that we’re being misled to do better.

However, the big issue now is not the combat role for advisers, intelligence and support units, Special Forces and air spotters. Rather, given the air war, it’s in the cards they will be in harm’s way probably before the end of the year, perhaps even before the election. The real issue will be the deployment of tens if not hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops.

And whether they total 1,600 troops on the ground — what we already have in Iraq — or 16,000 (what LBJ had in Vietnam before the start of the air war and the major ground escalation in 1965), that “small force of Americans” Gates describes won’t be remotely enough to “destroy” ISIS. Both Gates and the generals know it will take a lot more. But even if the number soared to 550,000, as in Vietnam in 1968, or even a million, I believe they still won’t eliminate ISIS permanently. They’ll be back.

Q. Does Obama realize the generals are sure to ask him for tens of thousands or more combat troops?

A. I don’t know. I suspect they’ve told him that, secretly. Just as Johnson knew his generals would ask for that in Vietnam, while he was still promising the electorate “no wider war” in 1964, and saying he wouldn’t send American boys to do what Vietnamese boys should be doing.

Does Obama foresee right now that he’s likely to grant that request? Is he, then, just kidding when he promises, over and over, that we’ll defeat ISIS without his sending American combat units? Or does he think he can and will keep his military under control despite frustrating them and saddling them, as they see it, with stalemate and failure?

That’s what Johnson sought to do, and to some extent did, though the war got much larger than he’d promised or even initially wanted. He gave the Chiefs just enough of what they wanted, in troop levels and bombings, to keep them from resigning, though never close to what they said was essential to succeed. He didn’t really believe that meeting their full demands would make the difference, and he feared war with China. And he was right on both counts. But still, he didn’t want to be accused of “losing” a region for want of “doing nothing.”

He avoided that accusation, but at the cost of a lot of lives: 58,000 American and several million Vietnamese.

I  suspect that same concern is driving Obama right now. I see him doing what he has to do to keep from being accused of doing “nothing.” But does he really mean to stop at that? Or could he, even if he wanted to?

Gates recommends that President Obama scale down his present objective of “destroying” ISIS, which Gates describes as “very ambitious,” which I translate to mean unattainable.

That’s almost sure to happen. But even with lesser aims, like containment, or — as Gates suggests — driving ISIS out of Iraq, with embedded advisers and Special Forces alone, even with forward air spotters, this won’t be enough. When Gates says it will, he’s either lying about what he believes or he’s a fool. And I don’t think he’s a fool.

I think the Joint Chiefs will recommend to Obama that he bring large numbers of American ground combat units to Iraq in the coming months. One difference from Vietnam is that in those days, when Johnson lied — saying he gave the generals everything they’d asked for and that there was no conflict between the civilians and military in the administration (as the Pentagon Papers were to reveal, year after year) —  the military kept their mouths shut. They hoped he would come around to their point of view eventually, and they didn’t want to preclude that by contradicting him and getting fired.

Now, many of them think that was a mistake, even a “dereliction of duty.” This time, the generals will do their own leaking about what they asked (as happened in 2009, when Obama confronted “top secret” recommendations for a surge in Afghanistan). Will the President, as he now implies, reject their recommendation every time they make it? I think he should, but I doubt that he will — any more than LBJ did.

The public doubts it too. The latest polls show that 72 percent of the public expects him to deploy ground combat units in Iraq, contrary to his assurances. I think the generals are of the same mind. It might be almost irrelevant, the way things work, what the President himself thinks about that, privately, at this moment.

Q. Where is Congress – and its powers to declare war – on this? Will the Administration keep it informed about its military actions and ask for a formal vote?

A. On the day Congress voted on the Administration’s request to authorize sending advisers, arms and trainers for Syrian rebel troops, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said, in supporting it, the bill “is not to be confused with any authorization to go further.” She said, “I will not vote for combat troops to be engaged in war.”

But will she ever be asked by the Administration to vote on that? Every indication is that the White House believes the President can expand this war with the authority Congress granted the Executive in earlier bills, before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan or Iraq, and feels no need to come back to Congress.

Once again, that’s reminiscent of Vietnam. Both the House and Senate approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964, which authorized President Johnson to use military force without a formal declaration of war. He said he needed it to retaliate against a North Vietnamese attack on our destroyers, which, in fact, didn’t happen.

At that time, Sen. William Fulbright, D-Arkansas, assured the Senate that the Administration did not intend to expand the Vietnam War without returning to Congress. But he was duped by the White House, which never again appealed to Congress for consent, and used the Tonkin Gulf Resolution as an open-ended declaration of war.

This time, the White House hasn’t even bothered to assure Congress, however deceptively, that it concedes the need for further authorization. To the contrary, it is asserting that the 2002 authorization of military force – which was based on the Bush Administration’s lies about WMDs, as blatantly as was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution – is sufficient for anything the President wants to do in the Middle East, along with the even earlier AUMF of 2001.

For that same reason, Rep. Lee is now demanding a real vote on the war before it expands further. She’s saying: “Don’t do this again.” Of the recent authorization, she said “I am reminded of the failure to have a thorough debate in the wake of 9/11, that act of atrocity, that act of terrorism, which frightened people into a very hasty and premature delegation of their powers; now we have two beheadings on television to do that and call for a revenge act …”

Of this recent request, though it’s much more limited than the Tonkin Gulf Resolution or the two AUMFs, she said, “The consequences of this vote, whether it’s written in the amendment or not, will be a further expansion of a war currently taking place and our further involvement in a sectarian war,” again “without adequate debate or any vote in Congress having to do with the larger issues here of the war.”

She’s right. We should be telling Nancy Pelosi to follow her counsel, and to use every constitutional power to force that vote, and precede it with adequate debate.

Q. So many ask, isn’t it better to do something against ISIS — these murderers, fanatics —  than do nothing? How do you answer that?

A. ISIS is not the only murderous, fanatic group in that region but they may well be the most extreme so far, and most successful. But that’s a reason for not doing something that actually strengthens them in their rivalry with others. But that’s exactly what we are doing, with our airpower.

Even before the Syrian airstrikes, FBI Director James Comey testified on Sept. 17 that ISIS’ “widespread use of social media and growing online support intensified following the commencement of U.S. air strikes in Iraq.”

Another news report, in the Israeli daily Haaretz, states, ‘The Islamic State jihadist organization has recruited more than 6,000 new fighters since America began targeting the group with air strikes last month, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At least 1,300 of the new recruits are said to be foreigners, who have joined IS from outside the swathes of Syria and Iraq that it controls.”

Do we think ISIS hasn’t noticed this? We have to ask, why does ISIS want to show off its public beheadings of Americans on international television? Our ally Saudi Arabia doesn’t televise its beheadings — 19 in August, one for sorcery — nor do our favored rebels, the Free Syrian Army.

But ISIS chose exactly now to boast them to the world. Why? Because they need and welcome U.S. air strikes and the flood of recruits they bring, despite the losses ISIS has to expect. Getting the U.S. to publicize ISIS as the number one American enemy — while U.S. airstrikes are killing Muslim civilians along with ISIS troops and leaders — stamps ISIS as leading the fight against the U.S. and its allied Arab regimes that ISIS believes are infidels.

I watched this happen in Vietnam. Each time we bombed a village in South Vietnam, the young men who survived the attack joined the Viet Cong. In fact, the VC would fire on American planes from a village precisely for that reason. They could count on the retaliatory bombing, and the recruits. I wrote a report for the RAND Corporation about that when I came back, with the title, “Revolutionary Judo.”

History repeated itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Matthew Hoh – the Marine and then senior State Department official who served in both countries and who resigned his post – saw exactly the same thing.

As I noted before, by doing this something, we’re strengthening ISIS and making things worse. But that’s nothing new. Indeed, all the military actions and expenditures of the last 13 years in the Middle East have led to creating, strengthening and expanding ISIS and other militant groups. It’s time to stop.

As Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, said to his colleagues, “Our past experience, after 13 years, everything that we have tried to do has not proven to be at all beneficial. … So what makes you think it’s going to be different this time? What makes you think we can ask a group of Islamists to agree with Americans to fight another group of Islamists, as barbaric as they may be?”

With the air strikes in Syria, we are radicalizing moderates who then join ISIS — as the New York Times has noted. It has also allowed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who led the fight against ISIS until now, to stop his air strikes against it and concentrate on the moderate rebels we support who oppose both Assad and ISIS. Why is he doing this?  Because the U.S. is attacking ISIS, doing his work for him. Then, if he can take moderates off the board, he calculates the U.S. will have to accept him as the only effective ally against ISIS.

Q. What can wedo that would be useful?

A. Since ISIS won’t be stopped with military actions alone — not ours or those of groups that join us, including Iraqis and Syrians — and are in fact counter-productive, we should have learned that if there’s ever to be an answer, it has to be largely diplomatic.

In particular, this could mean changing our close relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Mideast allies whose citizens and regimes have long been financing and supplying ISIS and other radical groups at the same time they provide pilots whose attacks also help strengthen ISIS. If we ceased tolerating that ideological and financial support for extremists, this would be a major step to containing and eroding ISIS. But I doubt this will happen.

Serious diplomacy would also mean changing our relationship with Russia and Iran, exploring through direct negotiations the positive contributions they could make to stabilize the region, rather than, as at present, demonizing them.

This, too, isn’t likely. But if we don’t face what we need to do to escape the madness we suffered and inflicted in Vietnam and Iraq, we will be mired in war in the Middle East for decades.

Q. There are posters of you around Washington DC urging those with inside information about the Pentagon’s plans, to leak it. The headline is: “Don’t Do What I Did.” What do you hope will happen?

A. In 1964 and 1965, the lack of whistleblowers caused Vietnam to happen. I was in the Pentagon then and didn’t come forward with what I knew. So I helped Vietnam happen. I very much regret that I didn’t provide information when it would have done the most good, when Congress was voting on this and when the escalation was occurring. In 2002 and 2003, the lack of a Manning or Snowden with high-level access caused Iraq.

Actually, in 1964, many in the Pentagon could have put out the information the public and Congress needed to know. Not random documents. Just one drawer of selected documents showing that President Johnson was deceiving people and leading them into a hopeless war that his own Joint Chiefs believed could never be won at the level he was willing to do it. (The heart of the Pentagon Papers took up about one drawer of a top secret safe in my office at RAND, or earlier in my office in the Pentagon).

I’m sure that comparable documents exist in safes in Washington and Arlington and McLean, Virginia, right now. I’m just as sure that dozens if not hundreds of insiders could provide the information in those documents from their own safes to Congress and the public, if they’re willing to take the risks.

In 1971, after I put out the Pentagon Papers, Sen. Morse told me that if I had given him the documents from my Pentagon safe while he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1964, “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have come out of Committee. And if they bypassed the committee and sent it to the floor, the resolution would never have passed.”

That put a lot of weight on my shoulders — not unfairly. I’m urging insiders now to do better than I did then, and now is the time.

Q. What do you and ExposeFacts.org aim to do?

A.  To encourage whistle-blowing that will lead people to press their congressional representatives — this month, while they’re in their home districts campaigning for votes — to demand hearings, debates and a vote in an effort to block continued and escalated U.S. military involvement in Middle East conflicts.

Just a year ago, constituents did almost exactly that, button-holing representatives at home in their districts to demand “No war on Syria!” The effect on Congress was electrifying, perhaps unprecedented.

It confronted a President who was committed to an attack at the end of August — because of gas attacks in Syria whose perpetrators are still a murky and controversial topic — and who had just remembered that he was head of the “world’s oldest republic” with a duty to get consent from Congress to go to war. Indeed, he could have lost the vote in both Houses. That caused him to make a sharp turn and embrace a Russian proposal to eliminate Assad’s gas menace by peaceful, negotiated means.

We need something like that now. Unlikely as it is, after the ISIS gains, the public beheadings, and — not mentioned by the President before our air attacks but quickly labeled a critical target — the emergence of the dreaded “Khorasan.”

On Khorasan we need serious investigative reporting — fueled by whistleblowing. Could the “classified” leaks about Khorasan just before and after the Syrian airstrikes — a group allegedly more of an imminent danger to the U.S. than ISIS — be designed to manipulate the media and public? Could they be a fraud, just as the all-too-successful fraudulent, authorized classified leaks in 2002 about Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear cylinders? Did these recent Khorasan leaks provide a self-defense motive for U.S. air attacks on Syria?

They sound eerily like the alleged Aug. 4, 1964 “attack” on our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf, 50 years ago this August — an attack that never happened — which gave us the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and 11 years of war.  Is there really solid evidence, as Administration officials have claimed and others leaked, of “an advanced state of planning” for imminent attacks on U.S. airliners, by a group called Khorasan or by any other?  Or might it have been a hoax like that floated by the Bush Administration as Dick Cheney picked up various forgeries and fantasies, to justify our aggression against Iraq 12 years ago?

Could this administration really be re-playing the Bush and Johnson script that closely? And the media applauding the performance just as credulously?

Glenn Greenwald and Murtazsa Hussain make a strong case for this with Khorasan. This cries out for leaked or congressionally-demanded documents.

As the posters put up by ExposeFacts.org say — and one is quite near the Iraq embassy, “Don’t wait until a new war has started.  Don’t wait until thousands more have died before you tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. You might save a war’s worth of lives.”

State Department, Pentagon, CIA, NSA or White House staff who follow that advice will risk unjust prosecution under the Espionage Act, as I did. Unjust because the Espionage Act was designed to deter or punish spies, not whistleblowers. It was never intended to be used against disclosures to the American public, and never used that way until my own prosecution, which was the first in American history for a leak.

Legal scholars argued then that it was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment to use the Espionage Act against whistleblowers. It’s unjust because it doesn’t allow defendants to tell the jury and public about their motives. [See Melville B. Nimmer, "National Security Issues v. Free Speech: The Issues Left Undecided in the Ellsberg Case," Stanford Law Review (vol. 26, No. 2, January 1974, 311-333).]

Treating sources of leaks, classified or not, like spies, is exactly what’s happened under President Obama, who has brought more Espionage Act indictments for leaking than any other president — in fact, more than all of them together. And he’s leaving that precedent to his successors.

The risk whistleblowers take is very great. That’s why I think they should remain anonymous, if possible. ExposeFact.org, which sponsored the Washington press conference and encourages whistleblowers, proposes to facilitate their anonymity by the use of encryption.

There will always be a risk of identification, and if classified information is involved (even if it’s evidence of Executive Branch crimes or other malfeasance), there will likely be prosecutions. Until Congress rescinds the wording of certain clauses in the Espionage Act and passes laws to defend the public interest, or as Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler proposes to call it, a “public accountability defense,” they will probably be convicted. They could suffer years in prison, perhaps a life sentence, as I faced (a possible 115 years) but escaped on grounds of governmental criminal misconduct. Chelsea Manning faced the risks and now is serving 35 years. [See Benkler’s recent article, “A Public Accountability Defense for National Security Leakers and Whistleblowers,” Harvard Law and Policy Review, Vol. 8, Summer 2014.]

A heavy prospect. Worth considering only for the grimmest of circumstances. But we face them now — when a war’s worth of lives might yet be saved by courageous, patriotic truth-telling.

John Kerry, as a young, just-returned Vietnam veteran, was admired by many as an outstanding whistleblower, with his unsparing account of U.S. war crimes in testimony on April 22, 1971, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That’s when he famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

As things are now heading, he will not have to ask that of an American soldier in Iraq or Syria while Secretary of State. Nor will President Obama The last American combat death there is not now remotely possible within the next two, four or even eight years.

The Pentagon is reported to be planning for a campaign of 36 months, but I don’t think Obama’s and Kerry’s successors will be any more ready over the next decade to admit a mistake.

The final American casualty — or last deaths inflicted in the Middle East by Americans — will not come about unless the American people tell Congress and the Executive what Lt. John Kerry said to the Senate in 1971, speaking for the newly-formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War: “We want this to stop.”

Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg was put on trial in 1973 for leaking the Pentagon Papers, but the case was dismissed after four months because of government misconduct. He is the author of "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers."

Barbara Koeppel

Barbara Koeppel is a free-lance investigative reporter based in Washington DC.

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