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A Short History of Plumbers

The Devil and Daniel Ellsberg

by PETER LEE

Even liberals are calling for Edward Snowden to “do an Ellsberg” i.e. demonstrate his patriotic lovingkindness by surrendering to US authorities.

In his memoir Secrets, Ellsberg details the dirty tricks projects the Nixon administration initiated against him and speculates their purpose was to blackmail him into shutting up, or drive him into exile or even suicide.

Ellsberg writes, “I feel sure, knowing myself at that time, that nothing could have induced me to do any of those things.” (pg. 443)

Nevertheless, as my recent piece in Asia Times points out, Ellsberg feels that Snowden is in a different situation:

But meanwhile, the treatment of him, and the pronouncements by everybody here, like – I’m talking about Snowden now – have convinced Snowden, and I think very realistically, that if he wanted to be able to tell the public what he had done and why he had done it and what his motives were and what the patterns of criminality were in the material that he was releasing, it had to be outside the United States. Otherwise he would be in perhaps the same cell that Bradley Manning was, and that’s a military cell.

Ellsberg returned to this issue on July 7 in an opinion piece for the Washington Post.  He pointed out that he had, like Snowden, gone into hiding and accepted fugitive status in order to complete his distribution of the Pentagon Papers before surrendering.

Ellsberg also noted that while under indictment he was able to stay out of jail for two years to agitate for the end of the Vietnam War and, in the process, make the case for himself in the court of public opinion, on the strength of a less than backbreaking $50,000 bond—a luxury that Edward Snowden would be unlikely to enjoy:

I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.

Secrets also describes Ellsberg’s spiritual journey from parfait knight of the US foreign policy round table to anguished and increasingly indignant whistleblower.  His privileged access to the government, think tank, and media elites is worlds away from Edward Snowden and his anonymous grubbing in the data mines of the post-9/11 security state.

While working on the Nixon transition in late 1968, Henry Kissinger asked RAND to review the Vietnam situation.  RAND nominates Daniel Ellsberg:

Kissinger approved, though with one reservation…Kissinger was happy to have me do the study, but he had one worry about me, my “discretion.”

I was astonished…My whole career was based on a well-founded trust in my discretion. (Secrets, pg. 230).

A few pages later, Ellsberg completes a document framing the crucial Vietnam issues for comment by the various US executive branch stakeholders; it is circulated as “NSSM-1” i.e. National Security Study Memorandum 1, the first document of its series put out by Nixon’s National Security Administration.  The various stakeholders provide 500 pages of extremely revealing responses.

Fast forward to pg. 241-2:

[Mort Halperin, the DoD staffer responsible for assembling the Pentagon Papers] took me aside…one morning and said, “I’m going to ask you not to show any of this material to anybody at Rand or take any copies back with you.”…I took it for granted from Mort’s unemphatic, secrets_coverpro forma tone that what he meant was simply to go on record as telling me not to do this, thereby signaling that it should not get back to the White House that Rand had his material…if Mort had really been serious about keeping me from sending this back to Rand, he could have conveyed that very reliably…

So having registered Mort’s warning and agreeing with him, I took care to copy all the documents myself in the copying alcove of the NSCD, rather than hand them to a secretary to copy, as I would otherwise have done.  When I took them back to Rand, I convened a rather large meeting…Having made and passed out a number of copies, I repeated the warning that Halperin had given to me…I said that this was presumably so he could disclaim responsibility…

“Discrete” indeed.  Not to worry:

…Some months later…I asked [Halperin] if I had been right…Halperin said, “Of course.”

In Daniel Ellsberg’s estimation his leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 did little, if anything to end the Vietnam War as conducted by Richard Nixon. The U.S. war only ended because of Nixon’s downfall soon after his re-election in 1972, thanks to the antics of his plumbers, the team of extra-legal leak-plugging zealots that Nixon’s coterie unleashed on his enemies.

The wonderful, ironic element is the role of Henry Kissinger—and Daniel Ellsberg–in Nixon’s fall.

According to Ellsberg, Kissinger had a low opinion of Nixon; on the occasion of RMN’s election, he told an audience at MIT that Nixon was “not fit to be president”.  That was not the Kissinger line once Nixon appointed him as his National Security Advisor, but one can speculate that Kissinger’s doubts precluded a comfortable atmosphere of trust and understanding between Nixon and his national security Richelieu.

Nixon was not too disturbed by the leak of the Pentagon Papers at first.

The Papers concluded their narrative with the Johnson administration and painted a pleasing picture of Democratic duplicity and cluelessness under Kennedy and LBJ.

Nixon, eager to undercut the stature of Edward Kennedy, his expected Democratic challenger in the next election, instructed his minions to push out the Pentagon Papers story of the US role in the deposition and liquidation of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

Diem, in addition to being an incapable president, was also an ardent Catholic who lived a virtually cloistered existence.  Nixon felt that highlighting Kennedy betrayal of a fellow Catholic would weaken Edward Kennedy’s appeal to his core religious base.

Doubt and anxiety pervaded Nixon’s mind, however, when a key document from his own administration, NSSM-1 , the memorandum referenced above, made its way into the hands of a Senatorial critic, Mark Mathias, and Mathias revealed some of its pessimistic conclusions.

The prospect of a leak in his own national security apparatus appalled Nixon, because he had hid the details of the secret bombing of Cambodia even from his own secretaries of state (William Smith) and defense (Melvin Laird).

The irony is that NSSM-1 leaked, not because the current denizens of the Nixon White House couldn’t keep a secret, but because Daniel Ellsberg had copied the document while he was working for Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger, the dissembling courtier (or, if you prefer, the terrified capo secretly writhing before Nixon’s Don Corleone) dared not short circuit the leak investigation by admitting that he had nourished the Ellsberg viper in the bosom of the new administration:

…there was no awareness throughout that period that what I had given Mathias was (simply) NSSM-1.  Moreover, it’s clear from numerous taped discussions that Kissinger never did reveal to Nixon the embarrassing information that I had worked directly for him in February and March of 1969…Since no one knew both those pieces of data, [Attorney General John] Mitchell’s conclusion…that there must be a conspiracy was inescapable…[Secrets, pg. 435]

And so the operation to find the anti-war movement’s non-existent co-conspirators inside Nixon’s NSC—the march of folly of the plumbers who blundered through the Watergate operation and eventually brought down the Ellsberg case and the Nixon presidency—was born.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Japan’s Resurgent Militarism, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.