Secrecy Oaths: A License to Lie?

By Ellsberg, Daniel | Harvard International Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Secrecy Oaths: A License to Lie?


Ellsberg, Daniel, Harvard International Review


Between 1968 and 1971, I repeatedly broke a solemn, formal promise that I had made in good faith: not to reveal to any "unauthorized persons" information that I received through certain channels and under certain safeguards, collectively known as the "classification" system.

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I have never doubted that, under the circumstances facing me, I did the right thing when I revealed the contents of the top-secret Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War to the US Senate and the press. Although it involved breaking the promises I had made to various government agencies and the Rand Corporation, it was the only way to inform the

US Congress and the US public of information that was being wrongfully withheld from them; I had considered many other options and tried most of them. The information was vital to Constitutional processes of decision-making on an ongoing war in which tens of thousands of US citizens and many more Vietnamese had been--in effect--lied to death.

Moreover, this had occurred with the complicity of a generation of officials--myself among them--who had placed loyalty to their oaths of secrecy (and to their bosses and careers) above their loyalty to the US Constitution and to their opportunity to avert or end an unnecessary, wrongful, hopeless, and vastly destructive war. By 1971, it was clear to me that it was my earlier complicity with the secrecy system that was mistaken and censurable, not my later choice to tell the truth.

I signed many secrecy "oaths," or contractual agreements, over the years: as a US Marine officer, as an employee of the Rand Corporation, as a consultant to the offices of the US Secretary of Defense, the US Department of State, and the White House, and later as an employee of the US Department of Defense and the US Department of State. All of them were blanket promises that I would never give any information that was identified as safeguarded, "secret," or "classified" to a person who had not been otherwise authorized to receive it by the person or agency that gave me the information.

Implicit in my promises not to reveal such information to "unauthorized" persons was that I would follow them no matter what this information might be: whether it revealed evidence of official lies, crimes, planning for wars in violation of ratified treaties or the US Constitution, violations or planned violations of laws made by the US Congress; whether the unauthorized persons or agencies were officials of the legislative and judicial branch who vitally needed the information to carry out their constitutional functions and had a legitimate right to learn the truth; whether an election, congressional investigation, or vote that decided issues of war and peace were affected by the silence and obedient lies about the government's plans and actions; and whether countless people had died and were continuing to die because the information was being wrongfully withheld by my own colleagues and superiors under a policy of secrecy and deception.

That is how I was meant to understand those promises. And for many years, I followed the rules. Of course, they were not explicitly spelled out in the papers I signed, nor were they told to me in briefings. If they had been, they would have given me a good deal of pause, to say the least. I suspect this is the reason why they are not spelled out, since a contract so pervasive and perilous would make prospective employees much more hesitant to sign it.

Would I have signed those contracts regardless? Probably--at least in the beginning, which was in the mid- and late 1950s. Government secrets had been so well kept for a long time, that as a young citizen, I was unaware of ever having to handle such problematic information in the service of the government. I would not have believed that the circumstances or conflicts suggested were ever likely to arise. However, within a year after I first signed such an agreement in 1958, I knew better, though it was still a decade after that before I began copying secret information that had been wrongfully withheld and giving it to the US Congress and the press. …

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