Ellsberg: 'The US President Is Not a King'
Bankole Thompson interviews Daniel Ellsberg
DETROIT, Michigan - At 76, Daniel
Ellsberg is still vocal. The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in
1969, leading to the fall of President Richard Nixon, is speaking out
this time on the 2008 presidential election.
Bankole Thompson caught up with Ellsberg in downtown Detroit, where he
keynoted the opening of the 2008 National Lawyers Guild (NLG)
celebrated whistle-blower has reservations about the candidacies of
both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. But he still
believes an Obama presidency would better deal with the constitutional
crisis of the last eight years.
IPS: In your speech to the NLG, you said Nov. 4 will be an election between 'two monarchies.' Explain?
DE: The last seven years have expanded the powers of the president well
beyond the bounds of the American constitution. Even [McCain's running
mate] Sarah Palin said the other day 'well, it's rather flexible.'
Well, it is not flexible enough to accommodate their view of the
constitution of the president's role, which is that of a king --
exactly what the constitution meant to exclude was a ruler [who is]
essentially beyond the laws. That's what the checks and balances were
meant to reject.
With the cooperation of Congress, they really
have said in the age of terrorism the president is a law unto himself.
The fact is neither [Obama nor McCain] will inherit the limitations
that are implicit in the constitution. If that's going to change, I do
not think it will be by the efforts of the next president. No president
has voluntarily cut back on the powers that they inherited when they
came into office. It takes Congress to do that.
Again they won't
do it without the public pressing them. There is some movement now for
impeachment and for investigations that Congress has not responded to.
I can't tell you whether it's because the movement is so small, and it
is a minority or because Congress is so resistant. Why is Congress so
uninterested in defending their own rules, their own powers?
IPS: If Obama won't do much to curtail presidential powers, why do you contend that it's 'urgent' for him to be elected?
DE: I disagree with Obama on many points of foreign policy and I'm very
sorry that he has not stood up for the constitution. But in comparison
with the Republicans, except Ron Paul who took the constitution
seriously, any of the Democratic candidates [would be better].
say the Republicans are no worse or no different is absurd. They've
been consistently very much worse. I think if McCain were elected the
chances of war with Iran alone would be much higher. I don't think
there is chance with Obama. I think with McCain there is a high chance
of war with Iran. That alone is reason to make it urgent to elect Obama.
is not just a matter of his being better than McCain. That's a very low
standard. He of course in many ways looks much more promising than
people we've had.
IPS: What issues do you disagree with Obama on?
DE: On Iraq, he talks about ending the war. I don't think he intends to
end the war in Iraq, but to keep our bases there. He wants to increase
our forces in Afghanistan. I think that's a terrible mistake and could
ruin his own presidency as well as kill a lot of Afghans. He wants to
enlarge the size of the armed forces. That's the wrong way to go. He
wants to increase the defence budget -- wrong way to go.
can't achieve anything he wants to do significantly without doing
something that he has so far not talked about doing -- and that is
greatly reducing and converting the military budget. I don't even think
he's likely to do that. And yet he can't achieve his goals by keeping
the military budget at the level it is.
IPS: Has any government in the past reduced the military budget?
DE: Interestingly, the last one seriously to do it was Harry Truman
just before the Korean War. Now you may not believe this, but he was
getting the budget down to 10 billion dollars. And Korea came along and
his backers used that as an excuse to quadruple the budget in a year
and a half to two years. It went up to 40 billion dollars and never
came down again. So that was an example after World War II.
then secretary of defence [Louis Johnson] wanted to run as a president
and his campaign was going to be 'I reduced the defence budget' and
that was the last we heard of that. There was some talk of doing it
after the Cold War and that didn't last very long. Otherwise it's going
nowhere but up.
IPS: Which of the two, Obama or McCain, would be more prone to secrecy?
DE: Whether Obama would really, greatly change the system I don't know.
But he has raised the secrecy issue and proposed to look at our
regulations and not allow allegations of national security to trump
everything. I think it's possible he would be much more open.
Clintons are rather secretive themselves in their own political world.
But in terms of declassifying [President Clinton] was pretty good on
that. And that was all reversed of course by George W. Bush.
example, something Obama could do right in office is he could change
the executive order Bush put in which made it much harder to get into
presidential archives. George W. Bush, obviously in order to protect
his own father, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, made it very much
harder to get at a president's papers once he was out of office. Obama
could change that with an executive order. He has nothing personally to
worry about there. He is not related. It is not a dynasty here. Clinton
would never do that now because they have too much to hide.