Daniel Ellsberg on Donald Trump and Nuclear Doomsday
January 11, 2017
David Talbot / San Francisco Chronicle<
The freak show that is American politics got even freakier last week. Mercury was definitely in retrograde, as Sean Hannity got up close and personal with Julian Assange, Sarah Palin hailed him as a national hero (and urged people to see Oliver Stone's "Snowden," and Donald Trump, who once called for the "death penalty or something" for Assange, suddenly embraced the WikiLeaks founder as a trusted source.
Daniel Ellsberg Hopes Trump, Putin
Can Avoid Doomsday Scenario
David Talbot / San Francisco Chronicle
(January 7, 2017) -- The freak show that is American politics got even freakier last week. Mercury was definitely in retrograde, as Sean Hannity got up close and personal with Julian Assange, Sarah Palin hailed him as a national hero (and urged people to see Oliver Stone's Snowden), and Donald Trump, who once called for the "death penalty or something" for Assange, suddenly embraced the WikiLeaks founder as a trusted source.
On Friday, Trump had a sit-down with top intelligence chiefs at Trump Tower, which he proclaimed as "constructive" -- the same way a president describes a meeting with an enemy power. But he made it clear he still wasn't buying the spooks' story about foreign interference in an election that he won fair and square, not counting those 3 million or so votes.
The source of all this madness, of course, was the alleged Russian hacking of the US presidential election. On Thursday, James Clapper, the director of national "intelligence" -- as President-"elect" Trump air-quotes it -- appeared before a Senate committee to confirm his belief in Moscow's nefarious interference.
Yes, this is the same Clapper who once lied bald-faced to Congress about NSA surveillance of the public. But the Senate, in rare bipartisan frenzy, declared the intelligence chief totally credible this time.
The US intelligence report finally released Friday was dismissed by skeptics as underwhelming in its evidence of Russian hacking but was embraced by political partisans like House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who found it "stunning" in its persuasiveness. Computer security experts I contacted have been convinced of Putin's guilt for some time.
"Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but at this point it's no longer healthy and bordering on 'jet fuel can't melt steel," Nicholas Weaver, a UC Berkeley computer science lecturer, emailed me. "There is simply a ton of evidence showing that Russia hacked the Democrats and released that information. And those 'serious' (people) who state otherwise are simply defending the special snowflake of a president-elect whose ego is so fragile that to admit that Putin helped him out is untenable to him."
But even if the Russian government was responsible for handing the Democratic National Committee's emails to WikiLeaks -- possibly through other parties -- is this really an "act of war," as ever-belligerent Sen. John McCain has called it?
And should we be throwing "rocks," as Sen. Lindsey Graham demanded, even though the stones on both sides are nuclear-tipped? Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald is not the only one who finds the media's Putin fever to be "reckless."
For some much-needed perspective, I consulted with Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistle-blower and a former nuclear war planner. Ellsberg, who was a Pentagon consultant under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, is completing a book based on his experiences titled "The Doomsday Machines: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner."
At 85, Ellsberg is still active on the political front and has visited Assange, who has been under house arrest for six years at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. He refuses to take a position on the Russian hacking question, which he finds "too fraught and complex." But he was outspoken about the increasingly tense relationship between Washington and Moscow.
Ellsberg, who lives in Kensington, did not vote for Trump, whom he regards as a "disaster" in every way but one. "I'm against conflict with Russia, so on this one issue, I'm on Trump's side. Even if the Russians are guilty of hacking, I don't think we should risk war with them. Even if the Russians intervened in our election, as we ourselves have done in many countries on an even bigger scale.
"Look," Ellsberg continued, "I think we're about to see a fascist regime take office in Washington. And I'd rather see these two authoritarian regimes -- led by Trump and Putin -- not fighting. At this point, I don't see either regime as expansionist in the Hitler mode. Trump seems less interventionist than the Washington establishment, although his rhetoric about China and Iran is alarming. But on Russia, he looks like a deal maker."
This is a good thing, Ellsberg observed, particularly given rising tensions in Europe, which could become a nuclear battlefield. NATO, which is committed to defending frontline countries like Poland and the Baltic states against any incursion, maintains a dangerous first-use nuclear policy. Despite Putin's strong protests, a destabilizing antiballistic-missile system was installed in Romania and another is planned for Poland.
If Trump is serious about reducing tensions with Moscow, Ellsberg said, he should begin by removing those ABM systems and by negotiating reductions in the two countries' nuclear arsenals to the level where a nuclear exchange would not result in the end of human life on the planet.
"A nuclear exchange involving even a fraction of the weapons that the US and Russia now have on alert status alone would result in nuclear winter, with the smoke from burning cities widely dispersing and blocking sunlight for over a decade. That means years without harvests on Earth. Just one year pretty much does the job of eliminating the human race. So maintaining nuclear arsenals this size is insane and immoral and unjustifiable."
The old, terrifying Cold War scenarios still loom over the planet as the voices of hysteria clamor for a new Cold War. Ellsberg said that he and his fellow nuclear planners used to regard the mad doomsday satire "Dr. Strangelove" as "a documentary."
In his opinion, Hillary Clinton would have done little to restore sanity in the nuclear relationship with Russia. And Trump is "a cipher. We don't know what we'll get from him. And his off-the-cuff remarks are disturbing."
For this reason, Ellsberg hopes that Trump and the intelligence agencies can establish a healthy working relationship. "He shouldn't be getting into a war with the intelligence community -- it's bad for him and for the country. There's no question that he could be putting himself at risk by doing this. Nixon didn't trust the CIA either. And look what happened to him."
I didn't bring up JFK, who threatened to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds" after the agency's Bay of Pigs disaster, but of course, the bitter split between that president and his national security team still shadows American history.
In any case, we can only pray that sanity, in extremely short supply these days, can somehow be restored in Washington.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Talbot appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.