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’A Coup Has Occurred’
By Daniel Ellsberg

Published 2 October 2007

Editor’s Note: Daniel Ellsberg, the former
Defense Department analyst who leaked the secret
Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War,
offered insights into the looming war with Iran
and the loss of liberty in the United States at
an American University symposium on Sept. 20.

Below is an edited transcript of Ellsberg’s remarkable speech:


I think nothing has higher priority than averting
an attack on Iran, which I think will be
accompanied by a further change in our way of
governing here that in effect will convert us
into what I would call a police state.

If there’s another 9/11 under this regime ... it
means that they switch on full extent all the
apparatus of a police state that has been
patiently constructed, largely secretly at first
but eventually leaked out and known and accepted
by the Democratic people in Congress, by the Republicans and so forth.

Will there be anything left for NSA to increase
its surveillance of us? ... They may be to the
limit of their technical capability now, or they
may not. But if they’re not now they will be after another 9/11.

And I would say after the Iranian retaliation to
an American attack on Iran, you will then see an
increased attack on Iran - an escalation - which
will be also accompanied by a total suppression
of dissent in this country, including detention camps.

It’s a little hard for me to distinguish the two
contingencies; they could come together. Another
9/11 or an Iranian attack in which Iran’s
reaction against Israel, against our shipping,
against our troops in Iraq above all, possibly in
this country, will justify the full panoply of
measures that have been prepared now,
legitimized, and to some extent written into law. ...

This is an unusual gang, even for Republicans.
[But] I think that the successors to this regime
are not likely to roll back the assault on the
Constitution. They will take advantage of it, they will exploit it.

Will Hillary Clinton as president decide to turn
off NSA after the last five years of illegal
surveillance? Will she deprive her administration
her ability to protect United States citizens
from possible terrorism by blinding herself and
deafening herself to all that NSA can provide? I don’t think so.

Unless this somehow, by a change in our political
climate, of a radical change, unless this gets
rolled back in the next year or two before a new
administration comes in - and there’s no move to
do this at this point - unless that happens I
don’t see it happening under the next
administration, whether Republican or Democratic.

The Next Coup

Let me simplify this and not just to be
rhetorical: A coup has occurred. I woke up the
other day realizing, coming out of sleep, that a
coup has occurred. It’s not just a question that
a coup lies ahead with the next 9/11. That’s the
next coup, that completes the first.

The last five years have seen a steady assault on
every fundamental of our Constitution, ... what the
rest of the world looked at for the last 200
years as a model and experiment to the rest of
the world - in checks and balances, limited
government, Bill of Rights, individual rights
protected from majority infringement by the
Congress, an independent judiciary, the possibility of impeachment.

There have been violations of these principles by
many presidents before. Most of the specific
things that Bush has done in the way of illegal
surveillance and other matters were done under my
boss Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War: the use
of CIA, FBI, NSA against Americans.

I could go through a list going back before this
century to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus
in the Civil War, and before that the Alien and
Sedition Acts in the 18th century. I think that
none of those presidents were in fact what I
would call quite precisely the current
administration: domestic enemies of the Constitution.

I think that none of these presidents with all
their violations, which were impeachable had they
been found out at the time and in nearly every
case their violations were not found out until
they were out of office so we didn’t have the
exact challenge that we have today.

That was true with the first term of Nixon and
certainly of Johnson, Kennedy and others. They
were impeachable, they weren’t found out in time,
but I think it was not their intention to in the
crisis situations that they felt justified their
actions, to change our form of government.

It is increasingly clear with each new book and
each new leak that comes out, that Richard Cheney
and his now chief of staff David Addington have
had precisely that in mind since at least the
early 70s. Not just since 1992, not since 2001,
but have believed in Executive government,
single-branch government under an Executive
president - elected or not - with unrestrained
powers. They did not believe in restraint.

When I say this I’m not saying they are traitors.
I don’t think they have in mind allegiance to
some foreign power or have a desire to help a
foreign power. I believe they have in their own
minds a love of this country and what they think
is best for this country - but what they think is
best is directly and consciously at odds with
what the Founders of this country and Constitution thought.

They believe we need a different kind of
government now, an Executive government
essentially, rule by decree, which is what we’re
getting with signing statements. Signing
statements are talked about as line-item vetoes
which is one [way] of describing them which are
unconstitutional in themselves, but in other ways
are just saying the president says “I decide what
I enforce. I decide what the law is. I legislate.”

It’s [the same] with the military commissions,
courts that are under the entire control of the
Executive Branch, essentially of the president. A
concentration of legislative, judicial, and
executive powers in one branch, which is
precisely what the Founders meant to avert, and
tried to avert and did avert to the best of their ability in the Constitution.

Founders Had It Right

Now I’m appealing to that as a crisis right now
not just because it is a break in tradition but
because I believe in my heart and from my
experience that on this point the Founders had it right.

It’s not just “our way of doing things” - it was
a crucial perception on the corruption of power
to anybody including Americans. On procedures and
institutions that might possibly keep that power
under control because the alternative was what we
have just seen, wars like Vietnam, wars like Iraq, wars like the one coming.

That brings me to the second point. This
Executive Branch, under specifically Bush and
Cheney, despite opposition from most of the rest
of the branch, even of the cabinet, clearly
intends a war against Iran which even by
imperialist standards, standards in other words
which were accepted not only by nearly everyone
in the Executive Branch but most of the leaders
in Congress. The interests of the empire, the
need for hegemony, our right to control and our
need to control the oil of the Middle East and
many other places. That is consensual in our establishment. ...

But even by those standards, an attack on Iran is
insane. And I say that quietly, I don’t mean it
to be heard as rhetoric. Of course it’s not only
aggression and a violation of international law,
a supreme international crime, but it is by
imperial standards, insane in terms of the consequences.

Does that make it impossible? No, it obviously
doesn’t, it doesn’t even make it unlikely.

That is because two things come together that
with the acceptance for various reasons of the
Congress - Democrats and Republicans - and the
public and the media, we have freed the White
House - the president and the vice president -
from virtually any restraint by Congress, courts, media, public, whatever.

And on the other hand, the people who have this
unrestrained power are crazy. Not entirely, but they have crazy beliefs.

And the question is what then, what can we do
about this? We are heading towards an insane
operation. It is not certain. It is likely. ... I
want to try to be realistic myself here, to
encourage us to do what we must do, what is
needed to be done with the full recognition of
the reality. Nothing is impossible.

What I’m talking about in the way of a police
state, in the way of an attack on Iran is not
certain. Nothing is certain, actually. However, I
think it is probable, more likely than not, that
in the next 15, 16 months of this administration
we will see an attack on Iran. Probably. Whatever we do.

And ... we will not succeed in moving Congress
probably, and Congress probably will not stop the
president from doing this. And that’s where we’re
heading. That’s a very ugly, ugly prospect.

However, I think it’s up to us to work to
increase that small perhaps - anyway not large -
possibility and probability to avert this within
the next 15 months, aside from the effort that we
have to make for the rest of our lives.

Restoring the Republic

Getting back the constitutional government and
improving it will take a long time. And I think
if we don’t get started now, it won’t be started under the next administration.

Getting out of Iraq will take a long time.
Averting Iran and averting a further coup in the
face of a 9/11, another attack, is for right now,
it can’t be put off. It will take a kind of
political and moral courage of which we have seen very little...

We have a really unusual concentration here and
in this audience, of people who have in fact
changed their lives, changed their position, lost
their friends to a large extent, risked and
experienced being called terrible names,
“traitor,” “weak on terrorism” - names that
politicians will do anything to avoid being called.

How do we get more people in the government and
in the public at large to change their lives now
in a crisis in a critical way? How do we get
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for example? What
kinds of pressures, what kinds of influences can
be brought to bear to get Congress to do their
jobs? It isn’t just doing their jobs. Getting
them to obey their oaths of office.

I took an oath many times, an oath of office as a
Marine lieutenant, as an official in the Defense
Department, as an official in the State
Department as a Foreign Service officer. A number
of times I took an oath of office which is the
same oath office taken by every member of
Congress and every official in the United States
and every officer in the United States armed services.

And that oath is not to a Commander in Chief,
which is not mentioned. It is not to a fuehrer.
It is not even to superior officers. The oath is
precisely to protect and uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Now that is an oath I violated every day for
years in the Defense Department without realizing
it when I kept my mouth shut when I knew the
public was being lied into a war as they were
lied into Iraq, as they are being lied into war in Iran.

I knew that I had the documents that proved it,
and I did not put it out then. I was not obeying
my oath which I eventually came to do.

I’ve often said that Lt. Ehren Watada - who still
faces trial for refusing to obey orders to deploy
to Iraq which he correctly perceives to be an
unconstitutional and aggressive war - is the
single officer in the United States armed
services who is taking seriously in upholding his oath.

The president is clearly violating that oath, of
course. Everybody under him who understands what
is going on and there are myriad, are violating
their oaths. And that’s the standard that I think
we should be asking of people.

Congressional Courage

On the Democratic side, on the political side, I
think we should be demanding of our Democratic
leaders in the House and Senate - and frankly of
the Republicans - that it is not their highest
single absolute priority to be reelected or to
maintain a Democratic majority so that Pelosi can
still be Speaker of the House and Reid can be in
the Senate, or to increase that majority.

I’m not going to say that for politicians they
should ignore that, or that they should do
something else entirely, or that they should not worry about that.

Of course that will be and should be a major
concern of theirs, but they’re acting like it’s
their sole concern. Which is business as usual.
“We have a majority, let’s not lose it, let’s
keep it. Let’s keep those chairmanships.” Exactly
what have those chairmanships done for us to save
the Constitution in the last couple of years?

I am shocked by the Republicans today that I read
in the Washington Post who yesterday threatened a
filibuster if we ... get back habeas corpus. The
ruling out of habeas corpus with the help of the
Democrats did not get us back to George the First
it got us back to before King John 700 years ago
in terms of counter-revolution.

We need some way, and Ann Wright has one way, of
sitting in, in Conyers office and getting
arrested. Ray McGovern has been getting arrested,
pushed out the other day for saying the simple
words “swear him in” when it came to testimony.

I think we’ve got to somehow get home to them [in
Congress] that this is the time for them to
uphold the oath, to preserve the Constitution,
which is worth struggling for in part because
it’s only with the power that the Constitution
gives Congress responding to the public, only
with that can we protect the world from mad men
in power in the White House who intend an attack on Iran.

And the current generation of American generals
and others who realize that this will be a
catastrophe have not shown themselves - they
might be people who in their past lives risked
their bodies and their lives in Vietnam or
elsewhere, like [Colin] Powell, and would not
risk their career or their relation with the president to the slightest degree.

That has to change. And it’s the example of
people like those up here who somehow brought
home to our representatives that they as humans
and as citizens have the power to do likewise and
find in themselves the courage to protect this
country and protect the world. Thank you.

Daniel Ellsberg is author of Secrets: A Memoir of
Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.

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