Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gabriel Schoenfield, the Pentagon Papers and democratic self-governance

Gabriel Schoenfield, writing in the summer issue of National Affairs, revisits the Pentagon Papers incident and makes an extraordinary claim: Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker, undermined democracy by showing the American public how their government worked.

No really:
Whatever one thinks of Ellsberg's motives — and however one might appraise the harm his actions inflicted on American foreign policy — the fact is that, at its root, Ellsberg's leak was not just an assault on orderly government. In a polity with an elected president and elected representatives, it was an assault on democratic self-governance itself.

For better or worse, the American people in the Vietnam years had elected Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; they had acted at the ballot box to make their leadership and policy preferences clear. Yet here was a mid-level bureaucrat, elected by no one and representing no one, entrusted with secrets he had pledged to the American people to protect, abusing that trust to force his own policy preferences upon a government chosen by the people.
Here's the problem. Earlier in the piece, Schoenfield admits that the "government chosen by the people" was elected by lying to the people.
Given its size and complexity, the (Pentagon Papers) collection defies easy summary. But it did show, among other things, that officials throughout the 1960s presented the public a much rosier picture of events in Vietnam than was justified by the intelligence policymakers were receiving. The papers demonstrated, for instance, that President Johnson had every intention of beginning a bombing campaign against North Vietnam before the 1964 election, even though he strenuously denied it during the election season. They showed that American intelligence officials told the Johnson administration in advance of its 1965 escalation of the war effort that the move was not likely to succeed. And they documented how the internal justification for the war shifted over time from the containment of communism to the protection of America's own prestige abroad.
A couple of thoughts:

* Seems to me our Constitution recognizes, through creation of the judicial branch, that democratic self-governance cannot rely entirely upon elected officials to safeguard democratic self-governance. Elected officials are to be given substantial deference, of course, but that deference isn't unlimited.

* If democratic self-governance is to mean anything at all, though, it must be informed governance. The people must have a reasonable idea of what it is that elected officials are doing on their behalf. I won't argue that there's no need at all for state secrets -- but there's probably substantially less a need than what's usually invoked. Democratic self-governance does not mean, however, that people elect officials to go do the job and then close their eyes and hope for the best. As the Pentagon Papers case proves, sometimes the White House will classify information precisely in order to avoid being held accountable by voters.

It's silly to argue that Ellsburg was "forcing" a policy outcome through his leaks: As Schoenfield notes, Ellsburg wasn't an elected official -- he had no power at all to change American policy. But Ellsberg did give Americans insight into how the policy had been made, and how what they'd been told by their leaders differed from the reality of the war in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, then, enabled real democratic self-governance -- he didn't short-circuit it.

The logic of our Constitution is that we can't always depend on elected officials to make correct decisions. It's up to citizens to hold them accountable. Schoenfield claims to be upholding democratic self-government, but it's hard to see how his critique does anything but enable Nixonian lawbreakers to govern in ways the people who elected them never intended.

No comments: