U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper demanded the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, one week after President Trump overruled military leaders and cleared three U.S. servicemembers accused or convicted of war crimes. The men included Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who has been accused of multiple war crimes, including shooting two Iraqi civilians and fatally stabbing a captive teenager in the neck. Gallagher was convicted of posing with the teenage corpse but was acquitted of premeditated murder. Trump criticized the Navy on Thursday for moving toward holding a review hearing to decide if Gallagher should be ousted. The New York Times reported Navy Secretary Spencer then threatened to resign after Trump’s backlash but there are also reports that Spencer attempted to reach a backroom deal with Trump that would have allowed Gallagher to keep his Trident pin. In a statement on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was “deeply troubled by this conduct.” We speak with Daniel Ellsberg, one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers. In 1971, he was a high-level defense analyst when he leaked a top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and played a key role in ending the Vietnam War.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has fired the Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. His ouster comes a week after President Trump overruled military leaders and pardoned three U.S. servicemembers who have been accused of or convicted of war crimes. The men included Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who has been accused of multiple war crimes, including shooting two Iraqi civilians and fatally stabbing a captive teenager in the neck. Gallagher was convicted of posing with the teenage corpse, but acquitted on premeditated murder.
On Thursday, Trump criticized the Navy for moving toward holding a review hearing to decide if Gallagher should be ousted from the elite SEAL commando unit. Trump tweeted, quote, “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” The New York Times reported Navy Secretary Spencer then threatened to resign after Trump’s tweet, but there are also reports Spencer attempted to reach a backroom deal with Trump that would have allowed Gallagher to keep his Trident pin. A backroom deal meant he was going outside the chain of command, outside of the Defense Secretary Mark Esper. In a statement on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he was, quote, “deeply troubled by this conduct.” Esper went on to state, “Unfortunately, as a result I have determined that Secretary Spencer no longer has my confidence to continue in his position.”
Still with us in Berkeley, California, is Dan Ellsberg, one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers. In 1971, he was a high-level defense analyst when he leaked a top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other publications that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and played a key role in ending the Vietnam War.
Can you make sense of what took place? What’s very clear is that President Trump wanted to — that President Trump pardoned those that were accused of or convicted of war crimes, and wanted to restore the level of Eddie Gallagher in the Navy SEALs. The Navy SEALs wanted to oust him. Dan Ellsberg, what’s going on here?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I react to this, Amy, not from my last 40 years as an antiwar activist or an anti-nuclear activist, but in 15 years before that, which included three years in the Marine Corps, when I was a company commander — I’m very proud of that — a rifle company commander, was a first lieutenant; before that, a training officer of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines; before that, a platoon leader of infantry, rifle platoons. I came to teach the laws of war, and I believed in them very strongly.
In the Marine Corps, before I was in, I entered that very much imbued with the notion of just war, something that President Trump has never been exposed to because he’s had no military experience whatever. He’s never worn the uniform. But his fake bone spurs have kept him from learning how stupid and absolutely off-the-wall his statement is that these men, all of these men, including the accused ones, have been trained to be killing machines, and therefore should not be prosecuted when they kill.
That’s not what he would have learned, what he would have learned in the Army or the Marines or the SEALs. Those people are trained to kill discriminately. They are trained not to kill noncombatants or prisoners. And the three men involved here, among them, are accused — and one has been convicted so far — of doing exactly that, of killing prisoners and killing — ordering the death of noncombatants. Very serious charges. The president shows that he has no interest in what the realities of this were. He sought from the beginning to stop any inquiry.
And the latest move yesterday, which appalled me and I think should be — it corresponds to a turning point in my own life, and it should be a turning point for a lot of senior officers in the Pentagon right now. There are a lot of lies been going on. And it reminds me of an incident 50 years ago last month, which exactly triggered my copying the Pentagon Papers on October 1st, 1969. And that was the day after I read in the paper that President Nixon had stopped, had terminated an almost unprecedented murder trial of Special Forces officers, then an elite corps, just as they are — and one of the prisoners here, one of the defendants, was a Special Forces, Green Beret. And, of course, the SEALs are involved, and if anything, an even more elite force, I’d have to say even more elite than the much larger Marine force, Marine Corps. I must say I’ve never believed I could have physically measured up to the training course that SEALs have to go through.
But I do know and they do know that the military honor has as its core the notion that indiscriminate killing is murder, that you kill people who — under orders, when they are endangering our country or a country’s security, not the people these people have very credibly been accused of killing. So, I would say that the president is a domestic enemy of the [Uniform] Code of Military Justice, the heart of military law, just as I perceive him as a domestic enemy of the Constitution, in the sense in which all of these people, in Congress, in the officials, in the White House, have all taken — and the Marines — have all taken the same oath. And that is an oath not to a führer and not to secrecy, not to unquestioned obedience to illegal orders. It is an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
I repeat, I think the senior officers of the military right now who have been trying to persuade President Trump over the last week and more, all together, that this action he is — set of actions he is undertaking is dishonorable and undermines discipline, honor, loyalty and the entire armed forces — it is up to them to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they can honorably serve this commander-in-chief. I would say they could not. And that means that the very next resignation should be that of Rear Admiral Green, the commander of the SEALs, who knows that this is in direct contradiction of his efforts to improve morale and morals and ethics in the SEALs. It destroys that. He cannot honorably serve the president under these conditions, nor can the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, any of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of defense, Esper, all of whom are reported to have perceived how disastrous this counter-military ethos, culture, would be if it’s continued.
And the president has a legal right as commander-in-chief to do what he’s done. They do not, I would say, have either an obligation or a moral basis for accepting such orders rather than resigning and doing something else, taking with them — taking with them the documents that will show the realities of this situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2, post it online at democracynow.org. Dan Ellsberg is Pentagon Papers whistleblower, author of The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! Thanks so much for joining us.