Nuclear Hero’s “Crime” Was Making Us Safer

[Daniel’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, 4/21/04]

Mordechai Vanunu is the preeminent hero of the nuclear era. He consciously risked all he had in life to warn his own country and the world of the true extent of the nuclear danger facing us. And he paid the full price, a burden in many ways worse than death, for his heroic act — for doing exactly what he should have done and what others should be doing. Continue Reading

Call to Mutiny

[Daniel’s introduction to Protest and Survive, 1981]

“It has never been true that nuclear war is ‘unthinkable.’  It has been thought and the thought has been put into effect.” E.P. Thompson refers here, in the brilliant and moving essay that opens this volume, to the deliberate destruction of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. What he does not mention is that the Americans who conceived and ordered this project, like those who prepared it and carried it out and the great majority of the public who learned of it after the event, regarded the effects of the first nuclear war as marvelously successful. Such thoughts get thought again, and acted on. Continue Reading

When the Leaders Are the Problem

[This is Daniel’s Afterword to the book Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental by Marc Gerstein with Michael Ellsberg]

Dr. Gerstein’s final chapter has given guidelines for leaders on how they might avert the kinds of catastrophes described in this book. It would be good for society (and all organizations) if more leaders exhibited this kind of concern and followed the suggestions he gives.

However, in my own experience in government, and in my study of national security policy catastrophes in the decades since, I have come to believe that the most dangerous practices in the national security realm reflect priorities, in general, that are set by top officials: getting reelected, avoiding condemnation for past actions, or other political or bureaucratic objectives. Those priorities generally take great precedence over safety or preventing public harm. Continue Reading

The Next War

[Daniel’s article in the October 2006 issue of Harper’s.]

A hidden crisis is under way. Many government insiders are aware of serious plans for war with Iran, but Congress and the public remain largely in the dark. The current situation is very like that of 1964, the year preceding our overt, open-ended escalation of the Vietnam War, and 2002, the year leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In both cases, if one or more conscientious insiders had closed the information gap with unauthorized disclosures to the public, a disastrous war might have been averted entirely. Continue Reading

Learning from Past Disasters, Preventing Future Ones

[Daniel’s foreword to Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental by Marc Gerstein, with Michael Ellsberg.]

I have participated in several major organizational catastrophes. The most well known of them is the Vietnam War. I was aware on my first visit to Vietnam in 1961 that the situation there – a failing neocolonial regime we had installed as a successor to French rule – was a sure loser in which we should not become further involved. Yet a few years later, I found myself participating as a high-level staffer in a policy process that lied both the public and Congress into a war that, unbeknownst to me at the time, experts inside the government accurately predicted would lead to catastrophe. Continue Reading

Eulogy for Tony Russo

Tony Russo came to be my best friend at Rand after I came back from Vietnam in 1967, and we became even closer after he left. He was fired from Rand, despite my efforts to keep him, for the best of reasons: He had, in classified reports, analyzed the class basis of the Vietnam conflict, and he had exposed the widespread use of torture by our Vietnamese forces, with American involvement. I learned more from Tony than from anyone else about the nature of the National Liberation Front, some members of which had impressed him deeply when he interviewed them about a Rand research project. He was brilliant and funny, with a very original and creative mind. He was also very warm — more likeable than me, as many who attended our trial discovered.

Just before I decided to copy the Pentagon Papers, with Tony’s help, he made a suggestion that played a key role in my decision. Tony did not know that the Pentagon Papers were being held at Rand, or were in my safe, or even that I had worked on the study, because I was under orders not to tell anyone. But I did tell him in late September 1969 that I had been reading a study (which later became the basis of the Pentagon Papers) that revealed a lot of high-level lying. He said to me, “You ought to put that out.” This was an extraordinary thing for someone who had until recently held a top secret clearance to say to anyone, least of all to someone who still had a clearance. In fact, I never heard of such a suggestion being made before or since (except of course by me, later). A week after this conversation, with other events working on my mind, I called him up and said, “Tony, do you know a study that I mentioned last week? Well, I’ve got it, and I think I will put it out. Can you help?” Continue Reading