How our government sees its relationship with the American people

More than 40 years ago, Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked as an aide to government officials and an analyst for the RAND Corporation, achieving security clearance beyond top secret in the process, leaked the Pentagon Papers to the public. Decades later, in 2003, Ellsberg released his memoir Secrets, which discussed his work for the government and the RAND Corporation, including his participation in concealing essential facts about the Vietnam War from the American people.

Reading Secrets makes clear the American people’s conception of how government serves them — that it serves them — is fundamentally incorrect. The book is a trove of material illuminating how our government in Washington really conceives of its relationship with us.

Here’s what Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., said behind closed doors when he was cautioning his fellow officials not to hold democracy efforts in Vietnam to too high a standard, as the United States wouldn’t meet such a standard, either:

“You’ve got a gentleman in the White House right now [LBJ] who has spent most of his life rigging elections. I’ve spent most of my life rigging elections. I spent nine whole months rigging a Republican Convention to choose Ike as a candidate rather than Bob Taft….”

Ellsberg, Daniel (2003-09-30). Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (p. 107). Penguin. Kindle Edition.

Reporters would tell me how ‘open’ my boss was, compared with others they ran into, this after I had listened to an hour of whoppers. It became clear to me that journalists had no idea, no clue, even the best of them, just how often and how egregiously they were lied to. The lies themselves didn’t bother me, but there were several cases that year when I thought a false story was so likely to be found out that it made me nervous. My worry was nearly always misplaced; the cover story held surprisingly long.

(pp. 40-41)

Even within the executive branch, self-discipline in sharing information—lack of a “need to tell”—and a capability for dissimulation in the interests of discretion were fundamental requirements for a great many jobs. There was an abundance of people who, like John and me, could and did meet those requirements adequately. The result was 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.

It is a commonplace that “you can’t keep secrets in Washington” or “in a democracy,” that “no matter how sensitive the secret, you’re likely to read it the next day in the New York Times.” These truisms are flatly false. They are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well. Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society. Bureaucratic rivalries, especially over budget shares, lead to leaks. Moreover, to a certain extent the ability to keep a secret for a given amount of time diminishes with the number of people who know it. As secret keepers like to say, ‘Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.’ But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public. This is true even when the information withheld is well known to an enemy and when it is clearly essential to the functioning of the congressional war power and to any democratic control of foreign policy. The reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest import to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.

(p. 43)

Once I was inside the government, my awareness of how easily and pervasively Congress, the public, and journalists were fooled and misled contributed to a lack of respect for them and their potential contribution to better policy. That in turn made it easier to accept, to participate in, to keep quiet about practices of secrecy and deception that fooled them further and kept them ignorant of the real issues that were occupying and dividing inside policy makers. Their resulting ignorance made it all the more obvious that they must leave these problems to us.

(p. 44)

On the day the electorate, as expected in polls, was voting in unprecedented numbers against bombing North Vietnam or otherwise escalating the war, we were working to set such a policy in motion.

How could we possibly have justified doing this? We served the president and our immediate bosses. It was our understanding that it was the president’s job to make foreign policy, with the advice of our bosses, not, in any serious sense, with the advice of Congress. It didn’t matter that much to us what the public thought.

(p. 51)

If you believe what you do in the ballot box can reliably effect change, if you believe many people in government care a great deal about what you think, if you see broad government authority as anything other than a noose that might someday be tightened around your neck, you are very sadly mistaken.

Written by Jason Vines

I'm Jason Vines, a web developer at a research institution in Washington, DC. I graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in political science, with a minor in journalism. I enjoy philosophy and web scripting, as well as reading, writing, history, video games, travel, and photography.