For a man who once faced life in prison, Daniel Ellsberg has a surprisingly good sense of humor. Right now the 83-year-old whistleblower is unwinding after a packed lecture at Georgia State University by chatting with his wife over the phone. Earlier in the lecture, in a rare moment of humanizing folly, Ellsberg accidentally answered his wife’s phone call and her greeting of ‘Hi, Darling!’ was broadcasted to a packed audience. “I think I was a little funny afterwards, fortunately you didn't say ‘hey, shithead!’ or something like that,” he jokes to his wife.
His hotel room resembles the backseat of a college freshman’s car. Miscellaneous papers, binders, magazines, and books litter his room as if a tornado had just passed through. Ellsberg appears stressed as his wife tries to get his passport in order for his upcoming trip to Russia where he hopes to meet with whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Ellsberg’s release of a massive, 7,000-page cache of classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers showed the extent to which the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations deceived the public about the Vietnam War. At the time of his trial in 1973, Ellsberg was certain he would be convicted. Now, American history has smiled on Ellsberg, but many in the current administration have condemned his successors such as Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
Ellsberg’s age shows only in the wrinkles of his face as he talks urgently about the state of U.S. surveillance, methods for increasing government transparency, and the twilight of civilization.
Do you worry about being surveilled?
Oh, I'm sure I’m surveilled in terms of credit card, cell phone, and email, as is everyone. They collect everything but it doesn’t mean they collect it in real-time. They want to record it. I’m sure it includes content as well as meta-data. When they want to find out about somebody, they just dial it in like Google and they'll get someone’s whole life. By the way, they can listen to you via your iPhone when it's turned off. And of course the location is traceable. In short, they are more interested in me.
Now that it’s come out that I’m going to see Snowden, I imagine they’ll be a lot more interested in me. I don’t expect to take any computers or thumb drives or anything with me because they would probably confiscate it right away.
Atlanta was recently given a failing grade for spending transparency. How can local governments ensure that their expenditures and legislative processes are truly open to public scrutiny?
The big effect that whistleblowers can have is to alert the public that there is a real problem and a real abuse going on. It doesn’t solve it, but at least it alerts the public. Without that, they will say there’s no problem. They will say, ‘yeah we're not transparent, but we're doing things in your best interest. Trust us.’ And people either believe that or they don’t. Unfortunately, too many believe it, especially if it’s the president. I don’t know if that’s as true in the city. The answer is you want local sunshine laws and FOIA requests to get at the information to increase the transparency.
That actually has happened. Lots of states have done relatively well and far as I know cities could do it too, counties, any government could make it more possible and convenient to get at their records.
City councils can do it or not. If the public wants it, they’re more likely to get it - if they act. Somebody told me tonight that there was a case just now in Atlanta for a judge who tried to enjoin a newspaper from printing some information. He said the judge was embarrassed to find that what he was trying to do was unconstitutional as a result of the Pentagon Papers case. That what the county couldn’t do, he couldn’t do. And he didn’t know it. That could be changed and should be changed.
There are secrets that should be kept indeed at every level. But there’s always a risk when you do that because you have to take steps to keep it in bounds. That’s where people learn to be very discreet. Sometimes they learn to be too discreet because in order to keep the goodwill of their colleagues, bosses, agencies and fellow citizens, most people will keep their mouth shut unless they themselves need the info out for their own benefit. But if it’s for other people’s benefit, I’m sorry to say that humans can keep their mouth shut about abuses even when an enormous number of lives are at stake, when wars are at stake and when the climate is at stake. That's actually normal behavior. It’s toxic, murderous, and it’s a kind of obedience.
State ethics commission investigators looked into Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal over the alleged misuse of campaign funds in his 2010 campaign. Despite the fact that their findings were in the news and publicly available, Deal was still re-elected by a significant margin. When a whistleblower or someone serving on an ethics committee finds damaging information, how do they ensure something will come of it?
Sometimes the public is the problem. Democracy is not foolproof. It's just better than the alternatives. I mean the elected Republicans took Congress, how do you explain that? It sounds like the ethics commission did their job. Obama appointed people to investigate the NSA after Snowden. They came up with a lot of recommendations, and he almost entirely ignored it.
You can't force the person appointed to follow their recommendations, and you can’t ensure they will make good recommendations. When they do find things out about the person or the administration that appointed them, they’re less likely than before to have any of those recommendations followed. If the perpetrator is in charge of implementing these things, then it’s not going to happen. It’s hard to find the rationale for the people who elected these Republicans. Yes, the country doesn’t like the economy. And to a great degree they blame Obama probably more than his due.
The president usually gets blamed on the economy, whether it's the weather or whatever it is. If things are bad, the incumbent will get the blame. To be mad at him and to elect people who oppose him seems like an understandable thing except when you realize when they are almost certain to make matters worse. When things are bad under the incumbent, it’s irrational to elect people who are almost sure to make them worse. And yet people do that rather liberally. That shows that the theory of rationality, getting all the information they can and acting reasonably, is not something that humans should be counted on to do.
What do you say to people who, in the instance of NSA surveillance, claim they have nothing to hide, or to people who say that an ethics scandal doesn’t directly impact them?
Take the ethics scandal. Obviously it does matter to people in the state. I don't know what the motivations of Georgia’s citizens were but it doesn’t seem to be in their own security or interest from a material point of view. In a national aspect, it could be that there’s a certain amount of racism still. But I take it that it didn’t apply in the governor’s case. For the people to elect Republicans because they don’t like results under Obama is self-punishing in effect. It's ignorant. It’s counterproductive and does not do them credit.
I'm in a country that almost elected George W. Bush two times. That’s quite a charge against any nation. Even if he did steal both elections, he came close to winning. He got almost half the country.
That's not easy to explain and it does us no credit as a country and frankly it means that the chance that we will dig ourselves out of this hole of war, bad economy, unemployment, and climate, and help the world take on those things, is very small. We can do what we can and we should do it despite knowing that the actual chance of success is not high. And when I talk about success, I’m talking about survival of the species - the survival of our civilization.
As Noam Chomsky said recently, we're in the twilight of civilization. It must be hyperbolic, but it isn’t. There's a very high chance of climatic catastrophe, which ends urban civilization and large populations. It means a huge deal in the next century. By huge, I mean most humans. It could not be more serious. It could not be overstated. Yet this country and other countries are acting in total denial, as if those problems are entirely trivial. This species and this country and this civilization are in bad shape and we're not showing signs of a willing to do anything to avert catastrophe. And yet the challenge is there.
Whistleblowers have mostly not had an impact on policy, but sometimes they have. Movements have generally not succeeded, but sometimes they have. The stakes, being what they are, are definitely worth someone's life, many lives, to try and change the process.
This interview has been edited and condensed.