We go to press this month in the midst of turbulent developments concerning the Watergate scandal. The explosive disclosures—which are emerging on a daily basis—show a flagrant contempt for truth on the part of the highest level officials of the Nixon Administration. After months of complacency, leading Republicans—including Senator Goldwater and Vice President Agnew—have joined the rising chorus critical of Nixon's handling of the Watergate case.
Juxtaposed against the incredible Watergate revelations—which includes the identification of former Attorney General John Mitchell's involvement in the Watergate coverup—is the trial of Daniel Ellsberg in the federal district court in Los Angeles. In criminal proceedings initiated under the direction of John Mitchell, Ellsberg is accused of stealing top-secret government papers concerning the Vietnam war and disclosing information which the Executive Branch sought to conceal from the American public and their elected representatives in Congress.
Senator Ervin recently observed that "Throughout history, rulers have invoked secrecy regarding their actions in order to enslave the citizenry." It is disturbing to witness the Nixon Administration's arrogance towards disclosure of "government" information to the public. In the course of the Watergate investigation by Congress, the Nixon Administration has defiantly made a sweeping claim of executive privilege—asserting that Congress has no power to require any of the more than 2,500,000 employees of the Executive Branch to appear and testify before a Congressional committee. At the same time, the Nixon Administration has asked Congress to broadly expand its power to censor information by amending the federal criminal code to make it a crime to disclose classified information—whether or not the classification is at all proper or appropriate.
Both the Watergate case and the Ellsberg trial involve issues of Executive Branch secrecy, hypocrisy and deception. The federal government is spending millions of taxpayers' dollars in its prosecution of Ellsberg for disclosing the government's own study of our Vietnam involvement. Yet an impressive array of defense witnesses—including U.S. Congressmen and Defense and State Department officials—have testified to the strategic unimportance of Ellsberg's disclosure of the Pentagon Papers study. And the Pentagon Papers themselves disclose a disquieting record of deceit and deception practiced by the Executive Branch throughout America's involvement in the Vietnam war.
How has the government reacted toward disclosures of information which should never have been suppressed? One of Ellsberg's witnesses, CIA Agent Samuel A. Adams—who testified that the military had been pressured to juggle figures on the size of enemy forces—was told by CIA officials after his courtroom appearance that he had been declared "excess" on the CIA payroll and he presently stands to lose his job. The same type of reprisal was recently used against A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a Pentagon cost-analyst who was fired from his job after testifying before Congress about cost-overruns on government contracts. Fitzgerald, now chairman of the National Taxpayers Union, recently won a court battle to require an open hearing on his dismissal.
In the wake of the Nixon Administration's attempts to cover up the Watergate wiretapping and to lash out at the press for investigating and disclosing the "hearsay" stories concerning Nixon's re-election committee's criminal conduct, it is no wonder that Americans are becoming cynical as to White House credibility. Still, a goodly number of people tend to harbor a general reverence for politicians once they are elected to public office.
The intellectual prejudice which many have against the free enterprise system has led to a disposition to believe in a virtual omniscience of government officials and a preference to seek governmental solutions to pressing social and economic problems. This prevalent syndrome should be shaken by recent events. Let us hope that the ugly Watergate scandal and the disclosures accompanying the Pentagon Papers trial may cause the American public to shed its gullibility, its blind faith in government and the electoral process. The need now is for the nation to see the truth about the fallibility of those that work within the government, and to perceive the limitations of the institution of government.