The decadence of American democracy
February 7, 2003 12:31 PM   Subscribe

The decadence of American democracy is the subject of Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir. In 1971, as a disillusioned Pentagon staffer, he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. As usual for London Review of Books, it’s a long-ish essay but para 17 alone is a breathtaking confession of top brass arrogance. Link to the second half of essay at foot of page or here.
posted by skellum (12 comments total)
Check out this passage (emphasis mine), which details how truly corrupt an administration can be:
Nixon ... was, however, scared to death that Ellsberg had or was receiving more secret documents not just about previous Administrations but about his own. 'Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America. He must be stopped at all costs,' Kissinger had said in the presence of the President.

In fact, Ellsberg did not have any materials touching on the Nixon Administration, but the President and Kissinger didn't know that. Nixon therefore ordered Charles Colson, an official on his staff, to come up with a plan to 'neutralise' Ellsberg. Colson in turn enlisted the services of a former CIA officer called Howard Hunt, who had been the mastermind behind the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

Hunt had several creative ideas. One was to send his agents to break into the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr Lewis Fielding, in Beverly Hills. They were hoping to find material they could use to blackmail Ellsberg into silence and perhaps also to embarrass Dr Fielding into testifying against his patient. However, the burglary of Dr Fielding's office on 3 September proved to be, in Hunt's words, a 'dry hole'.

Some months later, on 3 May 1972, on the orders of Colson, the White House arranged to fly some Cuban-American veterans of the Bay of Pigs to Washington from Miami. They were told that Ellsberg (now released on bail) would be attending an anti-war rally on the steps of the Capitol and were instructed to assault him - to 'break his legs'. The thugs did not go through with the plan when they realised that the crowd was too big to allow them to escape.

Meanwhile, the White House had invited Judge Matthew Byrne, the presiding magistrate at Ellsberg's trial, to Nixon's home in San Clemente, California. There Byrne met the President and his aide John Ehrlichman, who offered him the position of director of the FBI. It was an unspoken bribe to put Ellsberg away. But by then the Watergate investigation was gathering steam, and on 27 April 1973 the Watergate prosecutor sent Judge Byrne a letter telling him about the Fielding break-in.

On 30 April the judge received an FBI report of an interview with Ehrlichman, in which he admitted that the White House had ordered the burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. That evening Ehrlichman and Haldeman resigned from the President's staff. Simultaneously, Richard Helms, the director of the CIA, revealed that on the President's orders the CIA had prepared a profile of Ellsberg, which by law it was forbidden to do where an American citizen was concerned. By now it was beginning to dawn on Judge Byrne that if this went much further, he rather than Ellsberg might end up in a Federal penitentiary. On 11 May, he accepted a motion for the dismissal of all charges against Ellsberg.
posted by Holden at 1:46 PM on February 7, 2003

i'm surprised more people haven't commented. what shocked me the most as well was that 17th paragraph, and i think it brings up an issue which is very relevant to most of the discussions about government policy that we see on this website. as fond as we all are of making grand pronouncements about what should or should not be done politcially in this or that arena, we are all severely underinformed as to the realities of just about every situation.

that isn't to say one shouldn't comment, but just that our comments are almost of necessity incorrect, if not in conclusion at least in the premises. since we are in that position, and we are forced from that position to make choices about which polictian or other we should be voting for we have little or nothing to go on. so it seems the only real question we can answer with our vote, and the only one we are addressing when we comment is: 'can we trust so and so?'
posted by callicles at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2003

This is a great find. I've always been interested in the Pentagon Papers and the steps that got us into the Vietnam conflict. David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest is the gold standard research tome for this story. Thanks for the link!
posted by vito90 at 2:25 PM on February 7, 2003

Yeah, I'm surprised too. Great post. I will be looking for Johnson's next book.
posted by MetalDog at 4:03 PM on February 7, 2003

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ellsberg came to understand that it isn't personality that makes Presidents habitual liars but 'an apparatus of secrecy, built on effective procedures, practices and career incentives, that permitted the President to arrive at and execute a secret foreign policy, to a degree that went far beyond what even relatively informed outsiders, including journalists and members of Congress, could imagine'. The imperial Presidency concentrates power in the executive branch, subverting the elaborate structure of checks and balances contained in the Constitution. Its political effect is to focus nearly all responsibility for policy 'failure' on one man, the President, who is thus at all times concerned not with doing the right thing but with the next election and whether his decisions are supplying the opposition with the weapons needed to unseat him.

All of this has only got worse since the days of Watergate. The current Administration is obsessed with secrecy. Forty per cent of the US defence budget and all of the intelligence budget is secret (in direct contravention of the constitutional stipulation that the public be honestly told how its tax dollars are being spent). The President revels in secrecy and has lied so often about the need for a pre-emptive war against Iraq that most people have stopped listening to him. But individual character hardly matters: what drives the need for official secrecy is imperialism and its indispensable handmaiden, militarism. That was true during the Vietnam War and is much more true today.

posted by madamjujujive at 5:30 PM on February 7, 2003

one can only hope that there are more Ellsbergs in the system.
posted by redhead at 8:00 PM on February 7, 2003

i'm surprised more people haven't commented

Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened.

--- Winston Churchill
posted by larry_darrell at 9:37 PM on February 7, 2003

i'm surprised more people haven't commented

I think it's just there isn't much to say, except, wow, I forgot how fucked up people can be; I really should keep this in mind... but that's what you say to yourself, not the comments.

All I can say here is, thanks, this is a great link, & really the only reason I'm posting is to bump this back to the top in case people who'd find it interesting passed it by before :)
posted by mdn at 2:38 PM on February 8, 2003

I finally got around to reading the essay and was appalled all over again, as I was 30 years ago when it all happened. And I'm afraid Johnson is right -- the likelihood of an Ellsberg existing in the Administration today, or of his revelations affecting the progress of events, is pretty slim. Great post.
posted by languagehat at 5:54 PM on February 8, 2003

Manipulation - by government - of public sentiment has been a steadily advancing field of knowledge since the emergence of Ed Bernays. But the learning curve of the practice has risen far faster than the general public appreciates....hold on tight.

I'm afraid that the technology of US (and world) totalitarian government - halting and hamfisted in during the Nixon years - has metasticized into something quite sophisticated and deadly, which is now barreling down at us with the force of a freight train -- Lord grant us a dozen Ellsbergs, and more!
posted by troutfishing at 8:23 PM on February 8, 2003

From the second part of the essay-I guess if the military does have plans for battlestations in space, we can definitely expect the manned space program to continue. This was a good link.
posted by piskycritter at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2003

How much better would any society be if paranoia did not rule the day?
posted by Dick Paris at 12:24 PM on February 9, 2003

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