Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: "Secrets" by Daniel Ellsberg

Do you always do the "right" thing, or do you take the path of least resistance? "Secrets", by Daniel Ellsberg reveals the life of a person who did the right thing.

Daniel Ellsberg is the person who leaked The Pentagon Papers, a secret study about the lessons learned during the Vietnam war. Leaking the study required a lot of personal courage. He was tried for acts of treason, though he was later acquitted. I find the lives of people like Daniel fascinating. They knew the path of least resistance, and yet they actively worked against it because of their conviction about the "right" thing to do. I wonder if I will have the strength that people like Daniel did.

Secrets starts of with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Daniel talks about his observations when he was posted in Vietnam. This section of the book was very riveting: Daniel has incisive observations about the war that he saw. Later, Daniel was a scholar for the RAND corporation, studying the Vietnam war. The Pentagon Papers are the result of this study. Daniel talks about his experience with the secrecy in RAND and the Department of Defense.

I found Daniel's observation about the effect of access to secret clearance beautifully insightful. He warned Kissinger what the access to secret information will do. (Page 237 in the paperback version). I'll paraphrase Daniel's commentary:
At first, you'll feel exhilarated by the volume and extent of information. Then, you'll feel like a fool for having analyzed these topics without even knowing that these secret documents existed. Then, you'll be aware of others who don't have this information, and you'll think that these people are fools. Finally, you'll become incapable of learning from people, because most people don't have access to these secret documents. No matter how great their experience compared to yours, you'll be incapable of learning from them. 
This passage should be read in the original. It is a beautifully crisp understanding of the impact of secret clearances, and power in general.

Daniel talks about his thought-process, and why he decided to release the confidential study. He talks about the impact of the study, and the impact to his freedom. It makes a very interesting read.

It reads like a war thriller, but it carries deep lessons about how difficult it is to do the right thing.