Scientists and government officials have a pressing responsibility to create transparent public debates about our use of technology, the noted former military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said in a public lecture at MIT on Monday afternoon.
Citing Francis Bacon’s dictum that “science should exclusively benefit humanity,” Ellsberg noted that the presence of nuclear weapons and the ongoing threat posed by climate change now mean that we must also confront the potentially harmful consequences of progress. And yet, he asserted, a culture of secrecy prevents a fully informed public from weighing in on vital matters such as nuclear proliferation.
“This secrecy threatens our extinction, or, I would say, near-extinction,” Ellsberg declared.
Ellsberg’s talk, on “The Future of Secrecy, Democracy, and Humanity,” was the annual Morison Prize Lecture sponsored by MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). He gave his remarks before a crowd of about 200 people in Wong Auditorium.
Speaking at great length about nuclear arms, Ellsberg sharply criticized war planning that involves exchanges of hundreds of missiles — which, he said, often assumes hundreds of millions of civilian deaths, at a minimum. Ellsberg said that scientists who understand the planet-altering effects of such scenarios should continue to voice their concerns about the issue, and expressed disappointment that no government officials with access to such military plans had brought the scenarios directly into the public eye.
“Let’s see the actual plans and see what the [public] impact would be,” Ellsberg said.
Public disapproval of such scenarios, Ellsberg added, could help reduce arms stockpiles and make all nuclear scenarios, including responses to false alarms, less likely.
“If democracy doesn’t have a future, then humanity doesn’t have a future,” Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg was a visiting research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies when, in 1971, he leaked to The New York Times classified material about the Vietnam War now known as the “Pentagon Papers.” The documents helped reveal the government’s own understanding of the difficulties inherent in winning the war. Ellsberg was arrested for leaking the information, but the case against him was dismissed in 1973.
However, Ellsberg included himself as one of those who has not pushed hard enough for transparency in civic life. He told the audience that his greatest regret in life was not making public, during the 1964 presidential campaign, information about President Lyndon Johnson’s aims in Vietnam. Ellsberg was then an analyst in the Department of Defense.
“I knew the president was planning a wider war,” Ellsberg claimed on Monday. Had he released those documents, he said, “ I do not believe there would have been a Vietnam War.”
What a difference 40 years makes
Ellsberg’s public profile has risen recently in connection with highly publicized incidents involving former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released a trove of documents on the Iraq War, and former government contractor Edward Snowden, who released documents about the National Security Agency’s ability to monitor electronic communications.
When he leaked the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg said, “I expected to go to prison for the rest of my life.” In Manning and Snowden, Ellsberg added, he recognized the same kind of expectation. However, Ellsberg added, he had advantages that today’s informants lack, including a greater federal tolerance for informants — Ellsberg was released from prison while awaiting trial — and less governmental capacity to monitor communications.
He sounded a wary note about the latter issue. While “we don’t live in a police state,” Ellsberg said, people should be concerned about living in a society in which all the communications of citizens, including lawmakers, can potentially be reconstructed.
“Can there be independent branches [of government] when one branch knows every detail of everybody … in the other branches?” Ellsberg asked. Abstract though such concerns might sound, he added, the public should be invested in preserving its liberties to the fullest extent possible.
“If there is a chance of changing this situation, it can be done by pressure from the public on Congress,” he added.
The annual lecture is named after Elting Morison, an MIT faculty member for 35 years and a founder of the STS program, who wrote extensively about technology and military history. It is funded by a gift from Morison’s family along with the Hitchiner Manufacturing Company.