AS MORE and more of our young men and women come home from Iraq crippled or in body bags this election season, Americans ask, with increasing urgency, "Why did we send our children to die in Iraq? Was this war necessary?" Indeed, Tim Russert asked the president precisely that on "Meet the Press" a few weeks ago: "In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?"
President Bush replied "It's a war of necessity. . . . the man was a threat. . . . the evidence we have uncovered so far says we had no choice."
To the contrary. The evidence uncovered so far says that Saddam was not a threat, to us or his neighbors. Nor -- lacking any evidence of complicity in 9/11 or links to Al Qaeda -- was there a persuasive case that he would have been a significant threat even if he had possessed WMDs.
In order to bolster their arguments and gain congressional, public, and international support, high officials chose to conceal the fact that their belief in the existence of Iraqi WMDs was entirely inferential, reflecting flimsy evidence and testimony from sources whose reliability was highly controversial. This actual state of inadequate information, well known to the US and British intelligence community, was deliberately denied by the highest officials in repeated phrases such as, "we know . . . ," "bulletproof evidence," "beyond any doubt," "Saddam possesses. . . ," "British intelligence has learned," and "these are not assertions, these are facts." The euphemism for such descriptions of the strength of evidence favoring the need to go to war is "exaggeration." A more accurate term is "lies."
I've been here before. On my first full-time day of work as a high-level staff aide in the Pentagon, Aug. 4, 1964, I heard President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara explain our first bombing raids against North Vietnam as a response to "unequivocal evidence" of an "unprovoked" attack on our destroyers "on routine patrol" in the Tonkin Gulf. Already that night I knew, along with many other Pentagon insiders, that each of these statements was a lie.
"Unequivocal"? I had personally read, 10 hours before our bombers were launched, a "Flash" cable from Captain Herrick, commanding the destroyers, which put in doubt all of his cables that had crossed my desk earlier that day reporting up to 21 torpedoes fired at his ships. Attributing the prior reports to "freak weather effects and an overeager sonarman," Herrick recommended that no further action be taken till there had been complete evaluation, including daylight reconnaissance.
Congress was given no hint of this recommendation (which his superiors ignored) or the uncertainties emphasized by Herrick, in the top secret testimony it received from McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk before it passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution three days later with only two dissenting votes. In hearings in February 1968, Senator J. William Fulbright said that if he had known of the Herrick cable alone, he would not have managed the Senate passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, "a great disservice to the Senate" which he regretted "more than anything I have ever done in my life."
He hadn't known of that cable because I, among many others, didn't tell him. I didn't dream of doing such a thing at the time; and if the thought had occurred to me, I'm sure I would have rejected it. Now I wish fervently that I had made those cables -- along with the rest of the contents of my safe in August 1964, demonstrating the equal falsity of the other statements about "unprovoked" attacks, "routine patrols," and "we seek no wider war" -- available to Congress and the electorate that same autumn, before the bombs had started falling. When I finally did so belatedly in 1971, former Senator Wayne Morse, who had cast one of the two dissenting votes in 1964, told me that if I had given him those documents at that time, "The Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee. And if it had been brought to a vote, it would never have passed." That's a heavy burden to bear.
However, just as Senators Byrd and Kennedy, the only two remaining in the Senate who voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, learned from an error they have regretted for almost 40 years and tried to warn their current colleagues against repeating it last fall, so can insiders such as I once was do better than I did then. Individuals inside government, from low-level clerks to Cabinet members, have the power -- to be sure, at the risk of their careers -- to tell the truth. There are surely drawers full of documents in Washington right now -- the Pentagon Papers of Iraq -- that, if leaked in bulk, would drastically alter the public discourse on whether we should have sent our children to kill and to die in Iraq, and more urgently, whether we should continue to do so.
I urge patriotic and conscientious Americans who have access to these documents, and who know it is wrong for their bosses to lie to the public about why we are in this war, to consider doing what I wish I had done in 1964 or early 1965, years earlier than I did: Go to Congress and the press; tell the truth, with documents. The personal risks are real, but a war's worth of lives are at stake.
Daniel Ellsberg is the author of "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers."
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