Daniel Ellsberg: Discovering and Exposing Flaws in Decision Theory and Government Policy
I met Dan Ellsberg briefly when I was a graduate student at Harvard; he was a graduating senior whose senior thesis—supervised by John Chipman, a prominent theorist—was so good that parts of it were published in two articles, both in leading economics journals. My impression of him, circa 1954, was that of a brilliant student, yet naïve in some of the ways of governments in the use of military power. Dan was exceptional in the intensity of his commitment to understanding the foundations of decision theory, and equally intense in his personal patriotism, and commitment to the Marine Corp and to the American military mission. After a stint in the Marines as a first lieutenant he returned for a PhD in economics, becoming an expert in decision theory and applications.
Some people, perhaps most, have a common theme throughout their career. Dan’s single theme emerged from his pursuit in the understanding of human action: he uncovered fundamental flaws at the foundation of the theory of decision under uncertainty, and proceeded to publish exposés of those flaws, to set right the truth-content of the theory.
The circumstances were much the same, but with far higher political and personal stakes, when he leaked The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. Dan Ellsberg worked in the Pentagon, 1964-5, under Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson). He was a special assistant, where he helped craft secret plans to escalate the war in Vietnam. He then went to South Vietnam working for the military command as a member of the State Department On his return in 1967 he resumed working for the Rand
Corporation where he contributed to the research and writing of a top-secret history, ordered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called “U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-1968.” Known as “The Pentagon Papers,” it was a 7,000-page, 47-volume study later dubbed by Ellsberg as “evidence of a quarter century of aggression, broken treaties, deceptions, stolen elections, lies and murder.” He also worked as a consultant on Vietnam to President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1969. Ellsberg grew increasingly frustrated with their policy of expanding the previous administrations’ military escalation in Vietnam. By 1969 he was prepared to face imprisonment, and to photocopy the report that he had helped to research and write. In 1972 he leaked it, and it was published, by the New York Times.
President Nixon deeply feared that Ellsberg had documents showing his administration’s secret plans to escalate the Vietnam War, including contingency plans to use nuclear weapons. He authorized a government break-in of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist searching for materials to blackmail him. This action led eventually to Nixon’s resignation.
Ellsberg was charged with violating the Espionage Act, but his case was dismissed as a mistrial because of the government-ordered eavesdropping and break-ins. Citizens have rights that cannot be so summarily violated by any president. Nixon’s presidential misbehavior provided him with enough rope essentially to hang himself politically.
As in Ellsberg’s scientific papers, his Pentagon Papers mission was one of exposé—the essential first step in his eyes if great and unspeakable wrongs were to be made right, when so great were the infractions of human decency. If anyone other than the paranoid Richard Nixon had been President, Dan surely would have been the first person in recent times to be convicted under the wartime Espionage Act of 1917.
National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was quoted as telling his staff that Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs.” Nixon effectively certified Ellsberg’s entire mission of exposure with the stamp of “Truth.” Never was there such a commitment to the principle that the end justifies any and all means, nor a better demonstration of the principle’s inherent power to corrupt, than Nixon’s intervention in the Ellsberg case.
I see Ellsberg, like Debs in 1918, as a loyal American patriot. The only change since I first met him is that he is no longer a naïve young idealist. He is a mature, seasoned, and knowledgeable idealist! Here are some notes from his 2010 interview for the documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Now it is the Obama administration’s war. One of the interviewers wondered “how you talk to a seven year-old, an inquisitive child who is starting to ask questions about the war, about the current situation, without sounding unpatriotic.”
Ellsberg’s response: “It’s easier than it may seem. For an American to be patriotic is to be loyal to the principles of our Constitution, and the First Amendment. The truth is that the policies of the government are sometimes in conflict with that. In our country, patriotism should not be defined as obedience to an authority….Tell the 7 year old that presidents are very often wrong…And when they are, it’s our right and responsibility to do our best to set them right.”
Many of the same issues have arisen concerning Edward Snowden. Unlike Ellsberg, however, he ran from the charges, and that sends a far different message in my opinion, than did Ellsberg.
The Guardian reports the following (Ackerman and Pilkington, March 16, 2013) concerning the Obama administration:
Since Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, his government has waged a war against whistleblowers and official leakers. On his watch, there have been eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act – more than double those under all previous presidents combined.
Yes, the plain truth seems to be that on First Amendment issues, Obama turned out to be more dangerous than Nixon. But what is to be considered “dangerous to freedom” in the light of terrorist attacks on the very existence of the idea of an open society? Hitler’s Nazi onslaught was much the same, but you knew the source and what had to be stopped.
Lessons for Today’s Students
I want to summarize all of this with some lessons for today, as I see it, especially for students to think about.
The simplicity of Gene Debs’ defense of free speech has become much more complex, but no less central to our mission—to you and me—in defending freedom today.
Students have always been at the forefront of change, from opposition to the Vietnam War to Tiananmen Square. But your first priority is not activism; its study. You have a treasured four years to learn to become a lifelong learner; to understand the great themes and issues in human history; to re-evaluate everything you think you know. That charge does not change with current political fads. Expressing your political emotions is important—it is ok for you to care—but it is not a first or only priority.
Be skeptical of your own beliefs. Learn to be open to finding, to proving, yourself wrong. There is no greater well-source of learning, and change, than testing and finding that your beliefs are wrong.
Some believe that our current president is a clear and present danger to our form of government, and that his administration is already at the crossroads. This may be true, but let us not behave in ways that make that a self-fulfilling expectation. Focus your support or opposition on particular actions, programs and issues, not Twitter signals only. Otherwise, your influence may be diluted and ineffective.
Presidential misbehavior is not new in America. In my lifetime, many presidents committed grave wrongs for political advantage.
Franklin Roosevelt, considered a leading liberal president, failed to intervene in 1939 when a boatload of Jewish refugees were prevented from landing in a US port, and returned to danger and death in Europe; he tolerated extreme forms of racial discrimination to pacify the South, also U.S. and California Asia-phobia; loyal Japanese American citizens were incarcerated and through forced sales they were dispossessed of their property and businesses.
Johnson and Nixon prosecuted an enormously unpopular war via a pattern of lies and deceptions exposed by Dan Ellsberg.
Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice but the Senate acquitted him of the charges. Nixon resigned over the likely prospect of losing the impeachment vote in the House and subsequent Senate trial.
What is new today is that the President’s controversial verbal expressions are broadcast on Twitter. Subsequently, his follow through may do the opposite, as with China and Japan. I fear that the effect is to simply defuse and dilute substantive opposition or support where it is critical; hence, maintaining political energy at levels that tire and exhaust. Better not to go ballistic over every tweet, wait for concrete actions that step across boundaries of law, not boundaries of offensive language. And where you agree with particular appointments or policies, support them on their stand-alone merits.
Our form of government, with its checks and balances, and First Amendment freedoms for the individual, have been victorious in the past, and have survived for us, the living, to use and to defend.
Freedom of speech is not only about the speakers, it is also about the listeners. Hence, this first amendment freedom is about both speaking and listening; both rights should be defended.
Remember always that if you have to become like your enemies in order to defeat them, what have you gained?
Above all keep faith in our freedom and its traditions.
Thank you, and peace be with you.
 This is the transcript of a keynote address delivered at a “Free Speech on Campus” conference on February 25, 2017 on the campus of Chapman University. The conference was sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and the Federalist Society.
 Dr. Vernon L. Smith was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his groundbreaking work in experimental economics. He is George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics and Professor of Economics and Law at The George L. Argyros School of Business and Economics and the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University. Dr. Smith has authored or co-authored more than 300 articles and books on capital theory, finance, natural resource economics and experimental economics.
 The first draft of this account was written largely from memory, and includes some text from my book now in manuscript form, Narratives of Discovery. I have since searched for documentation to confirm or edit and buttress this report. No one else from the early era discussed here, still alive and known to me, exists. The motivation for preparing this draft was entirely due to the invitation from the Institute for Human Studies to prepare a keynote address for this conference. I am very much in debt to the IHS for the existence of this account.
 The incisive first article, Chapter 1 of his thesis, published as Ellsberg, Daniel (1954) “Classic and Current Notions of Measurable Utility” The Economic Journal, 64: pp 528-556 was a penetrating examination and critique of the literature stemming from von Neumann-Morgenstern.
His second piece, Ellsberg, Daniel (1956) “Theory of the Reluctant Duelist” The American Economic Review, 46: 909-923, shows why MinMax (loss) cannot be a “general” solution to zero-sum games. He asks: “Why bother to play the game at all, if one prefers the certainty of zero to the chance of winning or losing? This question once was put to a prominent game theorist; his unconsidered reply, presumably intended as no more than a partial answer, was that in many situations one must play a game, even against one’s wishes.”
Hence, because of uncertainty in the play of one’s opponent, a MinMax (loss) player would always be at least as well off by refusing to play! And so the author concludes: “A theory of reluctant duelists is not a small achievement. But it could not be reliable in predicting behavior in situations corresponding to the zero-sum two-person game; nor is it plausible that players should be advised to conform to it against their inclinations. It is certainly not a theory of games. It is not a theory of rational behavior under game-uncertainty; that theory lies in the future.”
His third and best known academic contribution to decision theory/behavior is part of his PhD thesis: Ellsberg, Daniel (1961) “Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75: 643-669. Here is where he famously offered some simple exercises in decision which were presented to the leading theorists of the day. Many of his “theorist-subjects” tended to violate the Savage axioms in these exercises; moreover, the behavior of some of these is not readily reversed upon reflection. This paper was followed by many published comments over the years.
His fourth “publication” was the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times, published without the permission of his co-authors at Rand!
John Chipman once told me he recommended Dan for various decision conferences that included leaders in the field like von Neumann and Morgenstern, Alchian, Friedman, Savage, Samuelson, Howard Raiffa, and so on. He found logical or behavioral flaws in every paper presented at these meetings.
 See Ellsberg’s biography at http://www.biography.com/people/daniel-ellsberg-17176398#life-as-a-whistleblower