Ellsberg Discusses Decline of Democracy


Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg discussed the threat of National Security Agency surveillance and the decline of American democracy in a late-night interview that he gave after a lecture at George State University in Atlanta.

Do you worry about being surveilled?

Oh, I’m sure I’m surveilled in terms of credit card, cell phone, and email, as is everyone. They collect everything but it doesn’t mean they collect it in real-time. They want to record it. I’m sure it includes content as well as meta-data. When they want to find out about somebody, they just dial it in like Google and they’ll get someone’s whole life. By the way, they can listen to you via your iPhone when it’s turned off. And of course the location is traceable. In short, they are more interested in me.

Now that it’s come out that I’m going to see Snowden, I imagine they’ll be a lot more interested in me. I don’t expect to take any computers or thumb drives or anything with me because they would probably confiscate it right away. …

Daniel Ellsberg on the cover of Time after leaking the Pentagon Papers

Sometimes the public is the problem. Democracy is not foolproof. It’s just better than the alternatives. I mean the elected Republicans took Congress, how do you explain that? It sounds like the ethics commission did their job. Obama appointed people to investigate the NSA after Snowden. They came up with a lot of recommendations, and he almost entirely ignored it.

You can’t force the person appointed to follow their recommendations, and you can’t ensure they will make good recommendations. When they do find things out about the person or the administration that appointed them, they’re less likely than before to have any of those recommendations followed. If the perpetrator is in charge of implementing these things, then it’s not going to happen. It’s hard to find the rationale for the people who elected these Republicans. Yes, the country doesn’t like the economy. And to a great degree they blame Obama probably more than his due.

The president usually gets blamed on the economy, whether it’s the weather or whatever it is. If things are bad, the incumbent will get the blame. To be mad at him and to elect people who oppose him seems like an understandable thing except when you realize when they are almost certain to make matters worse. When things are bad under the incumbent, it’s irrational to elect people who are almost sure to make them worse. And yet people do that rather liberally. That shows that the theory of rationality, getting all the information they can and acting reasonably, is not something that humans should be counted on to do. …

For the people to elect Republicans because they don’t like results under Obama is self-punishing in effect. It’s ignorant. It’s counterproductive and does not do them credit. I’m in a country that almost elected George W. Bush two times. That’s quite a charge against any nation. Even if he did steal both elections, he came close to winning. He got almost half the country.

That’s not easy to explain and it does us no credit as a country and frankly it means that the chance that we will dig ourselves out of this hole of war, bad economy, unemployment, and climate, and help the world take on those things, is very small. We can do what we can and we should do it despite knowing that the actual chance of success is not high. And when I talk about success, I’m talking about survival of the species – the survival of our civilization.

As Noam Chomsky said recently, we’re in the twilight of civilization. It must be hyperbolic, but it isn’t. There’s a very high chance of climatic catastrophe, which ends urban civilization and large populations. It means a huge deal in the next century. By huge, I mean most humans. It could not be more serious. It could not be overstated. Yet this country and other countries are acting in total denial, as if those problems are entirely trivial. This species and this country and this civilization are in bad shape and we’re not showing signs of a willing to do anything to avert catastrophe. And yet the challenge is there.

Whistleblowers have mostly not had an impact on policy, but sometimes they have. Movements have generally not succeeded, but sometimes they have. The stakes, being what they are, are definitely worth someone’s life, many lives, to try and change the process.

The interview was originally posted by Paul DeMerrit at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *