The following file of excepts of testimony by Daniel
Ellsberg to the US
Senate in 1973 gives an insider's perspective on government secrecy. I
hope that readers find this of interest.
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Daniel Ellsberg was a high foreign policy official and one who
challenged government policy on secrecy. He testified before the Joint
Senate Hearings held on May 17, 1973 by the Committees on the Judiciary
and Government Operations. Ellsberg spoke of the manner in which the
classification system is used, the hierarchy of security clearances,
and the effect that "privileged information has upon the minds of those
who share in its access.
Material listed here is from FAIN, ET AL., THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY
since this was Congressional testimony, references to Ellsberg's remarks
can also be found in the appropriate transcript(s) of Congressional
testimony given on that date.
"I have really been dismayed to discover how quickly to the minds of
Americans come questions that reveal their fear of openness.
The risks of no secrecy are the risks of democracy.
The question is: Are the Bill of Rights, and the constitutional checks
balances obsolete in the 20th century?
Have nuclear bombs made it impossible for an American Government to
to its own people, as so few governments in the world are today?
What are the costs and risks of executive secrecy, however beneficial
...I believe that the price of executive secrecy...spell[s] the subversion
of our form of government.
The fact is that our Constitution was written in a spirit of cynicism,
suspicion and distrust, and every clause reflects those attitudes, every
clause reflects the attitudes that humans in authority and power cannot be
trusted to become angels by virtue of their office; cannot be trusted at
all, as a matter of fact, and need to be set watching each other.
In particular, I speak not as a lawyer, but as someone who has had a
expensive education in the law of secrecy over the last five months and
before that as someone who had an expensive education in the practice and
attitudes of secrecy, who lived in the world of secrets for 12 years
before that, a period when I certainly did not know much of the law of the
Constitution because I worked for the executive branch. I worked for the
President and thus THOUGHT I WAS BEYOND THE LAW, LIKE ALL OTHER EXECUTIVE
SERVANTS. [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
The Pentagon Papers...revealed to me, above all, a conspiratorial style
executive decisionmaking, a style that I was part of in the 12 years that
I have worked with it.
Why have our executive officials been led to act as if they are members
a conspiracy? Because I think that does describe it.
I repeat and will repeat it again, I am sure, what we are seeing in
Watergate is the same attitudes, the same style, the same conspiratorial
attitude we have used for generations to subvert self-determination in
other countries in the world.
Perhaps I could cut through it best by just relating to you some advice
gave to a man who entered Government 4 years ago, and I might as well name
him -- Henry Kissinger -- someone I had known academically or professionally
for 10 years.
It seemed to me it was appropriate to pass on some thoughts to him in
advance and perhaps inoculate him against the transformation that I
feared was going to come over this person.
It was appropriate to do it to this person because I felt he was going
be initiated into the most esoteric and sinister parts of this system.
He was not only going to have a top secret but perhaps a SCORE OR TWO
for all I know, OF THE CLEARANCES HIGHER THAN TOP SECRET [emphasis added AB]
of which I had held an even dozen when I worked as special assistant to the
Assistant Secretary of Defense.
...in December of 1968 in the Hotel Pierre...I said to him, 'You are
to get 10,15, or 20 clearances of a sort that you never knew existed. Their
very names are classified.'
Code words that identify them on pieces of paper are classified. They
referred to by the first letters of their codewords; [cf. MAJIC material
and Cooper material e.g. TS: ORCON etc.] they are never to be photographed.
That applies only to the lowest of these clearances to which I refer.
Secretary McNamara had at least a few more. I wouldn't suggest how many
each person had in the Defense Dept. Persons in the White House could have
many more in the NSA and CIA and many places I didn't deal with.
[Ellsberg talked to Kissinger about the latter's book NUCLEAR WEAPONS
FOREIGN POLICY and said to HK:]' You will feel like a fool for having
written all that without having this special information on which to
judge....But that feeling will only last for a week or two, because
after a week or so of having four star generals bring you in special brief
cases, special pouches, books that are available only to you and your boss
and a few other people...and certainly not to members of the public, you
will forget that you were once a fool and remember only that everyone else
is a fool who does not have this information.
Moreover, in signing agreements to have this information, you will come
understand that the only way of keeping secrets this well IS TO LIE.'
[EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
A contract to observe these clearances, and these are essentially contractual
agreements in the executive branch, conditions of employment, IS A CONTRACT
TO LIE; [emphasis added AB]
When I say lie, on the first hand, if you are asked if you have this
clearance, you are not allowed to say, no comment. [see p.65 WISE/LYING]
YOUR DUTY IS TO LIE AND SAY YOU DO NOT HAVE IT [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
If you are asked about the contents, YOU ARE TO LIE and say you know
nothing about the contents [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
If you are asked whether you have aparticular piece of information,
MUST LIE and say you do not. [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
The effect of that is that you will HAVE TO LIE and will succeed
and you will FOOL YOUR FORMER ACADEMIC COLLEAGUES.[EMPHASIS ADDED AB Cf.
material relating to Menzel being/not being a member of MJ12. Also see
material below from p.508] You will discover, in collaboration with
thousands of other executive officials all telling the same cover story,
that it is easy to fool people.
And that is what the President learns.
In fact if I have learned one thing in 5 months in court, it is TO RESPECT
THE WISDOM OF ALLOWING 12 ORDINARY CITIZENS TO BE THE JUDGES OF TRUTH OR
HONESTY on the witness stand. I believe they are shrewd an extremely
effective weighers of lying on that stand....
But you will find if any of you go into the executive branch, you will
discover that given the benefit of the doubt that accrues to the President
or anyone who works for him, it is easy to fool people. THERE REALLY ARE
SECRETS AND THEY ARE VERY WELL KEPT. [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
The notion that everything comes out in the NEW YORK TIMES is
is a cover story meant to keep people from prying too closely.
You will learn as Kissinger would, as I told him, you will learn there
secrets that are very well kept, that people can, in effect be easily
fooled if you work for the President....
The security system is an education in contempt for law, because you
be held accountable to law, at least we used to think we could not....
You are then beyond the law if you do the President's wishes, and the
President is thought to be beyond the law. [cf also ch.5 of WISE/LYING "The
President is Sort of outside the Law" AB]
Moreover, you cannot be accountable to Justice or even the public if
secrets of your advice and your actions are bound to be well kept.
You are safe from accountability. Contempt follows for the public that
so easily fooled, and that contempt is the death in that individual for the
Indeed, we cannot, our democracy cannot be served or guarded by people
whose core belief is contempt for the democratic process and for the
citizens who elect them and to whom they supposedly are responsible.
This was the image in my mind on the effects of secrets on a high level
official; not the low level because MERE TOP SECRETS [emphasis added AB]
don't have this effect, they are so low, so close to what you read in the
NEW YORK TIMES....
So you live in a different world of information. You come to think of
yourself as a resident of a different world with different powers and
As I say, I thought of that access like the potion that Circe gave Ulysses'
men that turned men into swine, and made fools of them.
The secrets are kept not only by this conspiratorial type of honor among
thieves, but by the entire apparatus of conspiracy and that is the last
point I want to touch on here.
I am saying, I have to reiterate, THE SECRETS ARE BETTER KEPT THAN YOU
KNOW. [EMPHASIS ADDED AB].
I have NEVER [EMPHASIS ADDED AB] met in 12 years a newspaperman...who
imagine how often and how easily he WAS LIED TO [emphasis added AB] by my
In the field of foreign affairs we have come to expect this from the
President; it is his job and we don't need to know.
The President shares that belief: That the public does not need to know
cannot be trusted with the information -- the two requirements of sharing
information with him, in the regulations.
...they have...an apparatus to keep these secrets EVEN FROM THEIR OWN
SECRETARIES...OR THEIR OWN DEPUTIES OR W I V E S, people who work
closely with them. p.508
If you had worked all your life with top secret material in the Pentagon
Assistant Secretaries, unless you were one of the elect, you would not be
aware that there are entire rooms in the Pentagon with safe doors outside,
with a guardian, with a computer list up to date hourly and daily as to
who is admitted in that room, and unless you know the codeword and are on
that list, you cannot enter that room or know of its existence.
It will have a very nondescript door in the hall that will not suggest
is inside. You can go in that room and discover yourself in something like
the reading room of the New York Public Library, not a closet, not a safe,
but a room with charts, with library shelves of material, no word of which
you were previously aware existed.
You did not know how it was gotten. You did not know the President had
kind of information at all. Of course, the effect of that is very euphoric
at first. You go around and take things off the shelves and begin reading
and imagine you are about to learn all the answers, that Godlike knowledge
is now available to you.
Now, you can be introduced into one of those rooms and still have NO
THAT THERE EXIST STILL OTHER ROOMS WITH OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION, OTHER
ACCESS LISTS JUST AS LARGE AND JUST AS SECRET. [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
I would say it is not until you have four or five such clearances, that
NEXT LEVEL is revealed to you. Then you become aware that THERE IS NO LIMIT
TO THIS; that these clearances can be generated very quickly in a day or
two; and such types of information CAN BE SEGREGATED -- I am not saying
only from the public or Congress, BUT EVEN FROM OTHER PEOPLE WHO HAVE TWO
OR THREE OTHER CLEARANCES -- very effectively. [Emphasis added AB]
Once you have a dozen, from then on, you live in the knowledge there
others you don't have.
Could there be clearances the President doesn't know about? Of course,
certainly, without any doubt....Could it, however, be withheld from him? The
answer is 'Yes,' and even by close associates.
Top Secret, you have heard in testimony, top secret is accessible to
400,000 to 500,000 people....Comint clearance is far more secret, far more
Members of Congress or their staffs...can't be trusted, but ... 120,000
sergeants, warrant officers, generals and Cabinet secretaries [can].
The next clearance above that cuts way down to about 14,000 to 20,000.
I am saying is that the world of secrets is lived in by a very large number
of people, though a very small part of our our electorate and only one branch
of our Government.
Henry Kissinger lives in a much smaller world, a world that for SOME
OF INFORMATION might be inhabited only by a couple of people.
...one White House staffer told me...'I wonder if Henry realizes there
certain things known only to him, the President, and the Army General
But I am saying, as many as 100,000 or 400,000, nevertheless keep secrets
very well because of this apparatus of conspiracy, special channels,
special couriers for each clearance.
The couriers for one clearance do not know the existence of the other
Special briefings, special access lists, special libraries, each separate,
the apparatus of an espionage ring; a Government that consists of cells but
with the President at the top.
Certainly when I say there are clearances that the President may not
I say that only to make a point. The more important point is, the President
DOES KNOW VIRTUALLY ALL OFL OF THIS....
[A year later Ellsberg] wanted to tell [Kissinger] that his Vietnam
was not necessarily a secret. It was a policy of escalation in my opinion,
although too many people that it was a policy of withdrawal.
A mass hoax was played on the American public. A preplanned policy of
escalation likely to bring us into Laos and Cambodia and North Vietnam,
into the bombing of North Vietnam [Note: made possible in part by Task Force
[Kissinger told Ellsberg:] 'Cambodia, you must understand, was made
complicated reasons.' Secret reasons which could not be exposed to the Senate
or the Congress, and therefore couldn't be discussed or argued with, reasons
so foolish, and yet their foolishness could not be discussed.
That is why men can live with moronic policies for years, because THEY
SECRET [EMPHASIS ADDED AB]
Sen. Muskie: Thank you Dr. Ellsberg...I assume you have heard of, if
read, David Wise's book?
Ellsberg: I have received an advance copy, but I haven't had a chance
Muskie: THE POLITICS OF LYING. Well, I haven't had a chance to read
altogether, but I have readd two or three chapters that touch the same
points, some of the same points that you did this morning...First of all,
the classification system has no basis in statutory law?
Muskie: It is entirely a Presidential system?
Ellsberg: That is correct.
Muskie: What standards should be devised for defining the need for secrecy?
Ellsberg: I put first emphasis on standards that would keep the system
within the bounds of democratic government.
I might say, by the way, that I was frequently and ruthlessly accused
years ago , when the Pentagon Papers came out, of threatining
communications data or codes, threatening codes.
I knew that not a page of those documents compromised codes for the
reason they didn't have the right words. Had they in fact threatened codes I
knew very well they would have had one to a dozen other words on that cover
that would have warned me very effectively, and I had no desire to
But the key points here are that, in principle, any secrecy about
Government operations is to some extent an abridgment of our First Amendment.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and implicitly behind it the
freedom to know and gather information is, above all, given to us in the
hopes of maintaining this a republic, so that citizens shall know how
their officials are working.
It is athe absolute core of our Government. So any abridgment, of course,
has to be regarded with the utmost skepticism and worry.
But as I say, Congress has to make some allowance for someand so does
The key characteristics that make that viable in a democracy are: the
of secrets must be very samll; but above all, the system must be monitored
as it goes on to see that the guideleines are being met.
Third, there must be a form of appeal both in the executive branch,
Congress, and in the courts.
Not one of these three characteristics is currently possessed by our
Everything is routinely classified.
There is essentially no monitoring of the process by anybody, or anything
leading to the same result, and almost nothing gets declassified.
In fact, you can't challenge that classification in the courts. Most
have refused to question the validity of the classification.
In short, there must be the possibility of questioning the validity
mark and the motives of it.
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"Humor is the contemplation of the finite from the point of view of the
infinite." - Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914)