Q-and-A with Daniel Ellsberg: Connecting Students to the World; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley Daniel Ellsberg

High School Students'
E-Mail Exchange with
Daniel Ellsberg

May, 1999

Foreign Policy in a Democracy

You seem to support the exposure of military government secrets when the public has a right to know. How do you feel about the exposure of Clinton's personal life? Does the public have a right to know?

Doug Woodbrown's American History Class, Marin Academy High School, San Rafael

During Clinton's year of investigation and impeachment hearings, I often regretted that the media, the Congress, and the public showed more interest in what the President did with his cigars than in what he did with cruise missiles, such as the ones he sent mistakenly and without Congressional or UN authority against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Likewise, I wished that Congress, the media, and the public took far more seriously presidential cover-up and lying about matters of war and peace, life and death, which are incomparably more important than any president's personal life. All presidents lie about their personal activities just as frequently as Clinton lied about his this last year, but usually with much less challenge than Clinton received.

As for whether, individual sexual habits deserve probing and exposure at all, I don't think the evidence so far supports the belief of some that these are very relevant to politicians' official performance in office and thus that they are so relevant to voters as to deprive politicians of their right to privacy. In short, I would give them more privacy about their intimate relations and much less privacy than they get in their official capacities.

Do you think that the government has been more open since the Pentagon Papers?

Terri Rayburn's American History Class, Wallenberg Academic High School, San Francisco

The instinct of government officials to lie and keep secrets is as great as ever, but since the revelations in the Pentagon Papers and those of Watergate, there has been more skepticism and inclination to probe and investigate official statements among Congress, media, and public than before. Also, the Pentagon Papers, directly inspired amendments to the Freedom of Information Act which made it possible to get at classified information, though later administrations have done their best to resist compliance.

What moral issues are there in raising the truth to the public? Do you feel responsible for the reaction?

Terri Rayburn's American History Class, Wallenberg Academic High School, San Francisco

I have come to feel that the most widespread form of complicity with evil is in keeping silence about it. And a great deal of this silence reflects a sense of obligation to keep promises, to keep secrets. In other words, the moral obligation to prevent or expose wrongdoing or to avert a disastrous course of action often confronts the fact that you have made a promise to keep the information in question secret. To break that promise will usually be very costly to your career and in addition will be seen by many people as a wrong thing to do and a mark of bad character. Yet very often the consequences of keeping that promise may be to allow a policy to go forward that harms a vast number of people. To the extent that this is a moral dilemma, it can't be resolved in general terms. But what I learned from my own experience was that a single individual who is ready to reveal the truth about a dangerous situation at whatever cost to his own career may possess the power to save a great many lives.

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