Finding Candidates Who Pass the Ellsberg Test

Daniel Ellsberg in a June 2004 photo. AP (file)

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.


Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who risked his career and his freedom to reveal the lies and abuses that led to and maintained the undeclared wars of southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, knows a thing or two about what it means to defend the Constitution.

When Ellsberg delivered what became known as the "Pentagon Papers" to members of Congress and the media, he began a process of holding the executive branch to account that was precisely in keeping with the intents of the founders.

Ellsberg's accomplishment was best summed up by an aide to the president whose administration tried to prevent the publication of the details of its wrongdoing, Richard Nixon.

In an Oval Office recording from Nixon's Oval Office tape from June 14, 1971, H. R. Haldeman can be heard telling Nixon: "To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment; and the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do even though it's wrong, and the President can be wrong."

There is no notion more deeply rooted in the ideals and values of the American experiment than that the president can be wrong, and that he or she can be held to account. It is this principle that makes the chief executive a servant of the people, rather than the "king for four years" that Madison and Jefferson feared.

While whistleblowers like Ellsberg have a role to play in the processes of accountability, the founders intended for the legislative branch to check and balance the executive. Unfortunately, most members of Congress put partisanship, ideology and, above all, self-interest ahead of their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution by checking and balancing the executive.

So when Ellsberg says he has found a candidate for Congress who might actually take seriously his or her oath of office, that's a big deal.
Ellsberg has found such a candidate in a woman who actually assisted him as a legal researcher during the Pentagon Papers trial.

It happens that the candidate, Marcy Winograd, is mounting a primary challenged to California Congresswoman Jane Harman, a conservative Democrat who has served as an apologist for the war-making and intelligence-gathering abuses of the Bush-Cheney administration and who has failed entirely when it comes to demanding accountability from the Obama-Biden White House.
Ellsberg makes the case for Winograd in a letter he recently issued on her behalf.

It reads: 


As someone who took a stand against the Vietnam War, I ask you to support peace candidate Marcy Winograd in her campaign to replace Jane Harman in southern California's 36th District.
I know Marcy personally. She worked as a legal researcher on the Pentagon Papers trial. She was in college then, on a summer break, when she answered the call for volunteers to work on one of the most controversial cases in history. She believed the American people had a right to know the truth about the war in Vietnam.

Today I am reminded of Vietnam when I consider our government's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mass civilian casualties that function as a recruiting tool for a growing insurgency. Thousands of years of history of ejecting foreign invaders. Overconfident military leaders who promise success in a hopeless situation. This sounds like Vietnam to me. In fact, I think of it as Vietnamistan.

Unfortunately, our government lacks the courage to avoid the mistakes we made in Vietnam as it continues a totally counterproductive and unwinnable war in Afghanistan. But one person who understands the hard lessons of that tragic mistake is Marcy Winograd. Like you, she won't stay silent while our country continues on a disastrous course with endless misguided wars. Please join me in supporting Marcy Winograd's campaign to replace Jane Harman in southern California's 36th District.

Congress members like Jane Harman went along with one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history despite the fact that Harman had a duty to provide oversight on the House Intelligence Committee. She had ample evidence that we were headed for disaster. We must send a message to Harman and others whose complicity brought us where we are today.

Marcy Winograd isn't afraid to speak out when our government is squandering innocent lives. She'll have the courage to vote against wasting billions of tax dollars on wars and occupations that multiply our enemies. We need Marcy Winograd to get us out of this mess. She needs you to support her campaign.

In the end, I was compelled by my oath to the Constitution and loyalty to the American people to reveal the Pentagon Papers. My decision, of which I am proud, helped end the war in Vietnam. Unlike most politicians, Marcy Winograd will stay true to her convictions, regardless of the political consequences. Please join me in supporting her brave effort.


It is difficult to imagine that any candidate is running this year with a more meaningful endorsement than this one.

(The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.)



By John Nichols:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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