Serving the Constitution

/ 4 March 2008

One of the reasons I support Barack Obama is that I have a glimmer of hope that he might be the kind of leader that reminds his staff that they are sworn the United States of America, not the President. Now that’s not everybody, many White House staff do serve the President, but many key figures in any administration are actually sworn to uphold our Constitution, not to protect the President.

I was reminded of this today while listening to a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg at the University of Minnesota last week (here’s the MP3 audio). In responding to a mea-culpa written by Robert McNamara about the mistakes that led to Vietnam War (look for it at just about the midpoint of the interview), Ellsberg stresses that the failure was much deeper than what McNamara owns up to. He describes how clearly many advisors saw the looming disaster and how they told the President about what they thought would happen, but they never told anyone else (see 00:49:26 in the audio).

Should [Clark] Clifford have kept his mouth shut about that advice all those years? Ball, Hughes, Humphrey, told the President what they thought, but when they were overruled told nobody else. Like me in 1964-65 or all that period. Actually, if I’d heard that advice in ’65 at my level I would have been very struck by it. I don’t think I would have volunteered to go to Vietnam as I did later that summer. So the lesson I would draw to people like McNamara, who by ’65 and ’66 […] had learned all of those lessons: we’re running into a nationalism that will not quit, they’re not going to give up, they’re going to kill and die, they’re going to die at a rate of ten to one, ten of them to one of us, but as Ho Chi Minh said to the French “but in the end it is you that will tire” (he said that in 1946, almost 30 years before the end of the war).

If you know that you are heading for a disaster, as McNamara did by ’66, then think again about putting your promise to your President to keep secrets, and your promise to yourself about your career […], think again about putting that ahead of your oath to the Constitution. McNamara didn’t take an oath to the President, he acts as if he did, and neither did I, and neither did the soldiers, the officers, neither did Congress; they took an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States. And I and McNamara and Clifford and Ball and all the congressmen who knew better were violating that oath every time, after they became aware, and they all became aware, that the Constitution was being flouted, that laws were being violated, and that these crimes were heading into a national disaster.

So, the advice […] that I’ve been giving the last couple of years to people in my old position is: don’t do what I did. Don’t wait till the war has started, or a new war has started as in Iran. Don’t wait till the bombs are falling or thousands more have died before you go to the press and to Congress with documents, with your own name where you can be cross-examined, your credibility can be tested. You will lose your clearance if you were to do this. You will lose your career. You will lose your job. But you might save hundreds of thousands of lives, and that’s worth it.

What future President would be willing to sit his Cabinet down on day one and play Ellsberg’s advice for them? Can anyone in that position of power recall that this is about our country, not ourselves? Right now Obama seems to be building a movement that is about more than just himself. Will it be a movement that helps our country remember itself and the greatness of its Constitution and people?

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