When former Marine and Rand Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers—a secret study commissioned by Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—to the national media in 1971, he altered the public's view of that war. In mid-April, Ellsberg delivered the annual Tresolini Lecture in Law and took a few minutes to share his views with Linda Harbrecht
Do you feel that we're headed toward a war with Iran?
Well, President Bush does seem determined to attack Iran—and not only to attack, but he seems determined to use nuclear weapons. The London Sunday Times
said they thought it would be later—before Bush leaves office, but after the elections. We're seeing military officers come out now and say that they would resign if he goes ahead and does this. If he does attack Iran, it will be as great a catastrophe as Iraq, if not greater.
Why Iran? Why now?
There are certainly other threats. Pakistan having the bomb worries me more than Iran. We live with Pakistan and even North Korea, who are both far more threatening. We deter. We contain. Bush is now treating Iran as being more dangerous than Iraq, which doesn't really make sense. You can't have a norm against getting nuclear weapons, if you allow five states to acquire them. And in my view, the two countries we're singling out for attacks are the two least likely to be aligned with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda because of religious reasons.
There's nothing but double standards in life. It's true in individuals, and it's certainly true of nations. There are almost no universally applied principles.
How do you assess President Bush's performance in the war on terrorism?
At one time, we had a war on drugs. Then we went into Afghanistan, and we saw opium production increase. So we seem to be treating the war on terror the same way we're treating the war on drugs.
The president astonishingly got elected on the grounds that he was good in the war on terror. He can't spend the money protecting this country and going after the terrorists because of the money that's gone to tax cuts. We're only examining what ... 5 percent of the containers that come into this country?
He's doing nothing on the war on terror. What about chemical plants? What about nuclear power plants? They've done for power plants what Bush did for New Orleans. He's safeguarded the whole country on that level. An incredibly poor performance. Yet, he got re-elected. What does that tell you about our democracy?
With all the plans for war, and with the potential for even more conflicts, will we need a military draft?
I think there will be a draft. I think they'll need one. And I don't think it will be just men. The feminist movement took care of that. I can see men arguing that women not being drafted would constitute sexual discrimination, and they would win that argument.
Would that also serve the purpose of engaging today's youth in an anti-war movement?
I get this question all the time, and I don't know why it is so much different from previous generations. The campus activism of the mid-'60s actually came out of the civil rights movement, against a very obvious social evil in the United States. Then, the Black Power Movement came along, and had the effect of taking over the civil rights movement. Then the women's movement grew out of women feeling undervalued in the civil rights movement. They began getting together on women's issues. So you had all these groups establishing this foundation, and the draft became a major influence on it.
I do think factors explaining why there isn't the level of engagement and outrage are the fact that you don't have a draft now, you don't have a very high number of casualties in the war, and you don't have the prior movements other generations had. And, for some reason not clear to me, the anti-nuclear movement never really took hold on campus—too abstract, maybe.
Do you sense any stirring among college students lately?
In 2004, students did work hard to get out the vote. A lot of students got rightly very active in trying to defeat Bush in the last election. Of course, they were disheartened. I hope they don't stay that way because I hope that they take the November '06 elections very seriously, especially with the 15 House seats that are up.
I'm worried about the country right now, and I have been for a while. I think the next 9-11 or similar crisis will be taken as justification for shutting down democracy and removing the Bill of Rights. I don't think (the Bush administration) will tolerate dissent of any form.
What do you predict will happen?
I think there will be martial law in some places. The way they handled Katrina softened us up for that. There'll be a new Patriot Act that will make the old one look like the Bill of Rights. There will be a draft, a renewal of nuclear testing, an attack on Iran—very possibly involving the use of nuclear weapons.
I don't even like to talk about this because it makes people so suspicious and it makes life hard to live. It certainly makes it hard to organize. There may be one person in our room right now, watching .... You don't know who to trust. And this sense of unease serves their purposes very well.
You've mentioned the scandals now plaguing the White House, and made comparisons with the Nixon era. How do you feel about the prospects for justice, given the current political climate?
I think the prospect of our democracy surviving this presidency is very low, unless we get a Democratic Congress. I think, unfortunately, that we're in the twilight of democracy.
This is a different crew in there. We've never seen anything like this before in our history, and the stakes could not be greater. Make no mistake. I don't think the president is stupid. He's dangerous, very dangerous.
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