I have been rereading one of the most instructive government-insider books of our time: Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: a Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.
For me its overarching lesson is that even when we remember history, we can’t avoid repeating it. We are governed by the hard-wiring in the human brain that led us to be wrong the first time. How else explain that our leaders have felt it necessary to lie us knowingly into the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — and that we have let them do it?
I’ll be running excerpts these next few weeks, and at the end will try to tie it all together. In today’s installment, it is the summer of 1964 and Ellsberg has just been named special assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton, a former Harvard law professor:
Once at lunch a State Department official who obviously didn’t know John very well told me that my boss was the most straightforward man in Washington. I told that to John after lunch and assured him, “I defended your reputation. I told him you were the most devious man in town.” John smiled warmly and said, “Thank you.”
I often watched McNaughton with reporters, because he called me into his office whenever he had to give an interview. This was a way of covering himself — it may even have been a requirement in the department — so he could have a witness confirm that he was not the source of any classified or sensitive information in the ensuing story. I watched and marveled. John was great at this.
As he got into areas where he had to be especially untruthful or elusive, his Pekin, Illinois, accent got broader till he sounded like someone discussing corn at a country fair or standing at the rail of a river boat. You looked for hayseed in his cuffs. He simply didn’t mind looking and sounding like a hick in the interests of dissimulation. My future boss in Vietnam, Edward Lansdale, had the same willingness to appear simpleminded when he wanted to be opaque, as he did with most outsiders. In both cases it was very effective.
Reporters would tell me how “open” my boss was, compared with others they ran into, this after I had listened to an hour of whoppers. It became clear to me that journalists had no idea, no clue, even the best of them, just how often and how egregiously they were lied to…
One morning just before eight o’clock John came back from McNamara’s office minutes after he’d gotten a call and dashed out. He said to me, ‘‘A Blue Springs drone has gone down in China. Bob is seeing the press at eight-thirty. We have ten minutes to write six alternative lies for him.” It was the only time I remember the actual word “lies” being used…
Blue Springs was the code name for an espionage program of reconnaissance photographic flights by unmanned drone planes. John threw me a yellow pad, and I pulled up a chair to the opposite side of his desk. We sat across from each other and wrote as fast as we could for ten minutes. There was no time to exchange thoughts, to avoid overlap.
The first ones were obvious, probably the same for each of us. If the Chinese had already announced the incident, one, we had no idea whose plane it was; it wasn’t one of ours. Two, it was a Chinese Nationalist plane. I asked as we scribbled, “Does it have U.S. markings on it?”
“Who knows?” John didn’t look up.
Three, it was an experimental drone, off course. Four, it was taking weather readings when it went off course. I remembered that one from Gary Powers’s U-2, which went down in Russia in 1960. That cover story hadn’t worked so well because the Soviets had captured the pilot live and Khrushchev hadn’t told us at first.
This didn’t have any pilot, but what if the Chinese could display U.S. cameras? I had to think harder for the next couple of stories. McNaughton looked at the clock, ten minutes, grabbed my pad and started to run out, looking down at my six entries. As he was leaving the outer office, I called after him, “Why doesn’t [McNamara] just say ‘No comment’?”
John said over his shoulder, “Bob won’t say ‘No comment’ to the press.” A few minutes later he was back and waved me down to his desk again. He tore off the pages we’d written on and pushed one of the pads back to me. He said, “Bob liked these. He wants four more. We have five minutes.”
We wrote fast again. I had thought of another one while he was away, but the rest took more imagination than before. I can’t remember them. As he tore off the new pages after exactly five minutes, I said, “Look, really, I think he ought to give serious consideration to ‘No comment’ on this one.” I’d been thinking about it while John was out of the office. “The Chinese probably have enough wreckage that they can prove any of these stories are lies. The reporters understand about intelligence gathering, and they’re sick of being lied to. I think they’d rather be told we won’t talk about it.”
In his hurry John listened intently, as always, and he nodded. “I don’t think he’ll do it, but I’ll tell him what you said.” He was gone. It was eight twenty-five.
A little after nine o’clock John came back from the press conference. I asked him how it had gone. He said, “I was amazed. Somebody brought up the Chinese report, and he actually used your line. He said, ‘I have no comment on that,’ and took the next question. I never thought he would.”
“How’d it go over?”
“They actually seemed to like it! They didn’t press him at all.” A few minutes later one of the regular Pentagon reporters dropped into our outer office after leaving McNamara’s conference room. I was standing there, and he said to me, “Listen, tell your boss that that ‘No comment’ in there was very refreshing. I didn’t think McNamara had it in him.”
Actually, what had made that line usable, as I had suspected, was that it pointed toward an area of covert intelligence collection whose secrecy our own reporters would almost surely respect without trying to penetrate further. That wasn’t generally true. You couldn’t say “no comment” when you needed to discourage follow-up questions, which was most of the time. Then there was no substitute for what the uninitiated would call a lie. In those days it almost always worked.
Even within the executive branch, self-discipline in sharing information — lack of a “need to tell” — and a capability for dissimulation in the interests of discretion were fundamental requirements for a great many jobs. There was an abundance of people who, like John and me, could and did meet those requirements adequately. The result was an apparatus of secrecy, built on effective procedures, practices, and career incentives, that permitted the president to arrive at and execute a secret foreign policy, to a degree that went far beyond what even relatively informed outsiders, including journalists and members of Congress, could imagine.
It is a commonplace that “you can’t keep secrets in Washington” or “in a democracy,” that “no matter how sensitive the secret, you’re likely to read it the next day in the New York Times.” These truisms are flatly false. They are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well.
Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society. Bureaucratic rivalries, especially over budget shares, lead to leaks. Moreover, to a certain extent the ability to keep a secret for a given amount of time diminishes with the number of people who know it. As secret keepers like to say, “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public. This is true even when the information withheld is well known to an enemy and when it is clearly essential to the functioning of the congressional war power and to any democratic control of foreign policy. The reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest import to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.