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The Long View: America's Illegal War
Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

An Interview With Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg is best-known as the former marine who gave the "Pentagon Papers" -- or secret Vietnam War plans and assessment of that conflict -- to The New York Times in the 1960s, precipitating popular opposition to that war. He has since been an outspoken anti-war opponent and was interviewed by's Steven Rosenfeld about the current invasion of Iraq. People who have opposed this preemptive war for diplomatic, political and moral reasons now find themselves watching as the invasion begins. And many people, moderates in the Democratic Party and others who are running for president, are saying it's time to stand with the president and stand with the troops. What do you say to that?

Daniel Ellsberg: Well, I'm encouraged by the fact that there is enormous opposition, both abroad and in this country. In fact, I'm proud of the Americans who have been opposing this war as actively as they have in the last couple of months, which includes a small minority of the people in Congress.

So, I would say, that the task before us -- and there clearly are a lot of Americans who are ready to do this -- the task is for us to change this imperial policy with its dangers and its wrongness.

TP.c: Where can legitimate criticisms begin, where political traction can be made?

Ellsberg: I don't think legitimate criticism ever ends. Of course, in a way, that's almost a truism. If it's legitimate, it should be expressed. They're not concealing the fact that we are going to war this time, but the reasons for going to war are totally deceitful now. And I don't think there should be any moratorium on raising those questions and challenging the government opinion on that.

For example, there's every reason to believe that an effect of this war, even if it were as successful as the administration hopes, will be an increase in the strength of Al Qaeda and their freedom from effective police and intelligence collaboration against them worldwide. In other words, there will be a price in innocent American lives as well as in innocent Iraqi lives. Those will be very closely related. It will be terror for terror. And that point is simply being ignored, virtually, by the administration and the media has not focused on it nearly to the extent they should have.

TP.c: What kind of anti-war criticism or focus do you think would be most effective right now?

Ellsberg: Well I think that point, to begin with: This is a war that increases our danger at home. But there are, by the way, still horrors that could prevented by sufficient public awareness and protest, even if the war itself can't be stopped.

Very specifically, I think the question should be raised now -- right now and very forcefully -- that we should not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances whatever. And very specifically, if weapons of mass destruction in the form of biological or chemical weapons are used against our troops -- which would be a war crime by Iraq -- that war crime should not be answered by a massive crime against humanity in the form of nuclear retaliation.

The administration has specifically threatened their willingness to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in a number of circumstances, including the use of gas or chemical weapons. I hope that Bush is wrong in saying they have effective gas or biological weapons. But if he isn't, I think there should be a U.N. resolution and congressional resolution that we would not use nuclear weapons.

So, I think there is a point where public protest should not wait until, as Bush keeps putting it, until the evidence of our intent is a mushroom cloud.

TP.c: Suppose the invasion is relatively short and George Bush emerges as a victorious American war president. Do you have concerns or fears that this will license or sanction this new doctrine of preemption?

Ellsberg: Whether it's "successful" or not, the longer-term thing that we can focus on today is the fact that we Americans, including our military, are now in the position of witnessing our government -- this country that I love -- carrying out a massive crime against the peace. That we are in the process of a clearly blatantly illegal war, and that's true for the first time in my lifetime and one could even say in this century, I think.

[Former Presidents Abraham] Lincoln and U.S. Grant denounced the Mexican War as an aggressive war, an illegal war, which it undoubtedly was. But you have to go back for that. In this century, we haven't seen any democracy, let alone our own, start a war so clearly illegal and aggressive as this.

TP.c: What do you mean by an illegal war for the first time in a century?

Ellsberg: We are the aggressors in this. That's terrible. Now Bush is proposing that the law be changed. He can't change it just by violating it, as he's doing. But he is proposing that the old law against initiating war be modified to allow this country, at least, and perhaps other countries, unilaterally, to decide for themselves when to initiate war without authorization from the United Nations and without being under attack.

I think we have to confront that challenge by Bush and oppose it and expose it. That would make the world a much more dangerous place. It would increase our dangers, as many, many Americans see, including military men, like Gen. Schwartzkopf, or Maj. Gen. Zinni, or Gen. Wesley Clark. They are not only worried about the uncertainties of this, but they're not applauding the idea of not becoming the policeman of the world, but self-appointed vigilantes of the world. That's a very dangerous change.

Meanwhile, the law not having changed, we are violating it. And when we violate the U.N. Charter, when the president violates the U.N. Charter, he's violating a law -- international law, a treaty that we've ratified, which ranks with the highest law of the land, along with the Constitution -- a ratified treaty, above statute law. And he's directly violating his oath of office, which is to uphold the law and the Constitution.

I think it's not going to happen, but he certainly earned impeachment as a result of this. But, more seriously, in a way, he is clearly indictable -- and all of his subordinates who are cooperating with him, including, whatever his private opinions, Secretary of State Powell, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. They have engaged and they are in a conspiracy to wage aggressive war for which people were convicted at [the Nazi war crime tribunals at] Nuremberg. I could say people were hanged at Nuremberg.

But my concern is not to see anybody hanged or even tried. My concern is to get off, get out of this situation, and for them, it's a little too late now. It's not that they are going to be tried. But I now see in a new perspective why this administration backed off ratifying the International Criminal Court [treaty]. I have little doubt now that when they did that, which was odd at the time, they had this invasion of Iraq in mind - knowing, by the way, that they might well not have U.N. authorization for it.

It's not that they feared being tried. That's inconceivable, as a practical matter. But they didn't want to be indicted. They didn't want people to point out in the world that they should be tried. And the fact is American troops now have been put in a tragic dilemma, whether to obey orders, which they undoubtedly will do, at whatever cost. Or, to refuse to obey a blatantly illegal order, which is what they are receiving right now.

The order to participate in this war is, I think to anybody who has looked at the context critically, must be extremely excruciating. They must know that in the absence of U.N. authorization and the refusal of that by most nations in the world, that the orders they are getting to participate in this war are blatantly illegal.

Many of them don't know that, undoubtedly. But the ones who do are confronted with a challenge that American troops -- and I identify with those as a former marine officer. They have never had to face that before.

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