By Democracy Now · 2 Dec 2010
In an exclusive interview, Democracy Now speaks with world-renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky about the release of more than 250,000 secret U.S. State Department cables by WikiLeaks. In 1971, Chomsky helped government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg release the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret internal U.S. account of the Vietnam War. Commenting on the revelations that several Arab leaders are urging the United States to attack Iran, Chomsky says, "latest polls show Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel, that’s 80 percent; the second threat is the United States, that’s 77 percent. Iran is listed as a threat by 10 percent," Chomsky says. "This may not be reported in the newspapers, but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and U.S. governments and the ambassadors. What this reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership."
Chomsky is author and Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, where he taught for over half a century. He is author of dozens of books. His most recent is Hopes and Prospects.
For part two of Democracy Now's interview with Chomsky, where he talks about climate change, Cancun, Haiti and more, please click here.
AMY GOODMAN: We have lost David Leigh, investigations editor from The Guardian. He was speaking to us from the busy newsroom there. The Guardian is doing an ongoing series of pieces and exposes on these documents. They are being released slowly by the various news organizations, from The Guardian in London, to Der Spiegel in Germany, to El Pais in Spain, to the New York Times here in the United States. For reaction to the WikiLeaks documents, we’re joined by world renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books including his latest Hopes and Prospects. Forty years ago, Noam and Howard Zinn helped government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg edit and release the Pentagon Papers that top-secret internal U.S. history of the Vietnam War.
Noam Chomsky joins us from Boston. It is good to have you back again, Noam. Why don’t we start there. Before we talk about WikiLeaks, what was your involvement in the Pentagon Papers? I don’t think most people know about this.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Dan and I were friends. Tony Russo, who also who prepared them and helped leak them. I got advanced copies from Dan and Tony and there were several people who were releasing them to the press. I was one of them. Then I- along with Howard Zinn as you mentioned- edited a volume of essays and indexed the papers.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain how, though, how it worked. I always think this is important- to tell this story- especially for young people. Dan Ellsberg- Pentagon official, top-secret clearance- gets this U.S. involvement in Vietnam history out of his safe, he Xerox’s it and then how did you get your hands on it? He just directly gave it to you?
NOAM CHOMSKY: From Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo, who had done the Xeroxing and the preparation of the material.
AMY GOODMAN: How much did you edit?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, we did not modify anything. The papers were not edited. They were in their original form. What Howard Zinn and I did was- they came out in four volumes- we prepared a fifth volume, which was critical essays by many scholars on the papers, what they mean, the significance and so on. And an index, which is almost indispensable for using them seriously. That’s the fifth volume in the Beacon Press series.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were then one of the first people to see the Pentagon Papers?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Outside of Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo, yes. I mean, there were some journalists who may have seen them, I am not sure.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts today? For example, we just played this clip of New York republican congress member Peter King who says WikiLeaks should be declared a foreign terrorist organization.
NOAM CHOMSKY: I think that is outlandish. We should understand- and the Pentagon Papers is another case in point- that one of the major reasons for government secrecy is to protect the government from its own population. In the Pentagon Papers, for example, there was one volume- the negotiations volume- which might have had a bearing on ongoing activities and Daniel Ellsberg withheld that. That came out a little bit later. If you look at the papers themselves, there are things Americans should have known that others did not want them to know. And as far as I can tell, from what I’ve seen here, pretty much the same is true. In fact, the current leaks are- what I’ve seen, at least- primarily interesting because of what they tell us about how the diplomatic service works.
AMY GOODMAN: The documents’ revelations about Iran come just as the Iranian government has agreed to a new round of nuclear talks beginning next month. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the cables vindicate the Israeli position that Iran poses a nuclear threat. Netanyahu said, "Our region has been hostage to a narrative that is the result of sixty years of propaganda, which paints Israel as the greatest threat. In reality, leaders understand that that view is bankrupt. For the first time in history, there is agreement that Iran is the threat. If leaders start saying openly what they have long been saying behind closed doors, with can make a real breakthrough on the road to peace," Netanyahu said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also discussed Iran at her news conference in Washington. This is what she said:
HILARY CLINTON: I think that it should not be a surprise to anyone that Iran is a source of great concern, not only in the United States. What comes through in every meeting that I have- anywhere in the world- is a concern about Iranian actions and intentions. So, if anything, any of the comments that are being reported on allegedly from the cables confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors and a serious concern far beyond her region. That is why the international community came together to pass the strongest possible sanctions against Iran. It did not happen because the United States said, "Please, do this for us!" It happened because countries- once they evaluated the evidence concerning Iran’s actions and intentions- reached the same conclusion that the United States reached: that we must do whatever we can to muster the international community to take action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. So if anyone reading the stories about these, uh, alleged cables thinks carefully what they will conclude is that the concern about Iran is well founded, widely shared, and will continue to be at the source of the policy that we pursue with like-minded nations to try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Secretary to Hillary Clinton yesterday at a news conference. I wanted to get your comment on Clinton, Netanyahu’s comment, and the fact that Abdullah of Saudi Arabia- the King who is now getting back surgery in the New York- called for the U.S. to attack Iran. Noam Chomsky?
NOAM CHOMSKY: That essentially reinforces what I said before, that the main significance of the cables that are being released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. The results are rather striking. They show the Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel- that’s 80. The second major threat is the United States- that’s 77. Iran is listed as a threat by 10%.
With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority- in fact, 57–say that the region would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. 80, 77, say the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. 10 say Iran is the major threat. This may not be reported in the newspapers here- it is in England- but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and U.S. governments, and to the ambassadors. But there is not a word about it anywhere. What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and the Israeli political leadership. These things aren’t even to be mentioned. This seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. The cables to not have any indication of that.
When they talk about Arabs, they mean the Arab dictators, not the population, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the conclusions that the analysts here- Clinton and the media- have drawn. There’s also a minor problem; that’s the major problem. The minor problem is that we don’t know from the cables what the Arab leaders think and say. We know what was selected from the range of what they say. So there is a filtering process. We don’t know how much it distorts the information. But there is no question that what is a radical distortion is- or, not even a distortion, a reflection–of the concern that the dictators are what matter. The population does not matter, even if it’s overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy.
There are similar things elsewhere, such as keeping to this region. One of the most interesting cables was a cable from the U.S. ambassador in Israel to Hillary Clinton, which described the attack on Gaza- which we should call the U.S./Israeli attack on Gaza- December 2008. It states correctly there had been a truce. It does not add that during the truce- which was really not observed by Israel- but during the truce, Hamas scrupulously observed it according to the Israeli government, not a single rocket was fired. That’s an omission. But then comes a straight line: it says that in December 2008, Hamas renewed rocket firing and therefore Israel had to attack in self-defense. Now, the ambassador surely is aware that there must be somebody in the American Embassy who reads the Israeli press- the mainstream Israeli press- in which case the embassy is surely aware that it is exactly the opposite: Hamas was calling for a renewal of the cease-fire. Israel considered the offer and rejected it, preferring to bomb rather than have security. Also omitted is that while Israel never observed the cease-fire- it maintained the siege in violation of the truce agreement- on November 4, the U.S. election 2008, the Israeli army invaded Gaza, killed half a dozen Hamas militants, which did lead to an exchange of fire in which all the casualties, as usual, were Palestinian. Then in December, Hamas- when the truce officially ended- Hamas called for renewing it. Israel refused, and the U.S. and Israel chose to launch the war. What the embassy reported is a gross falsification and a very significant one since- since it has to do the justification for the murderous attack- which means either the embassy hasn’t a clue to what is going on or else they’re lying outright.
AMY GOODMAN: And the latest report that just came out- from Oxfam, from Amnesty International, and other groups- about the effects of the siege on Gaza? What’s happening right now?
NOAM CHOMSKY: A siege is an act of war. If anyone insists on that, it is Israel. Israel launched two wars- '56 and ’67- in part on grounds its access to the outside world was very partially restricted. That very partial siege they considered an act of war and justification for- well, one of several justifications- for what they called "preventive"- or if you like, preemptive- war. So they understand that perfectly well and the point is correct. The siege is a criminal act, in the first place. The Security Council has called on Israel to lift it, and others have. It's designed to- as Israeli officials have have stated- to keep the people of Gaza to minimal level of existence. They do not want to kill them all off because that would not look good in international opinion. As they put it, "to keep them on a diet." This justification, this began very shortly after the official Israeli withdrawal. There was an election in January 2006 after the only free election in the Arab world- carefully monitored, recognized to be free- but it had a flaw. The wrong people won. Namely Hamas, which the U.S. did not want it and Israel did not want. Instantly, within days, the U.S. and Israel instituted harsh measures to punish the people of Gaza for voting the wrong way in a free election.
The next step was that they- the U.S. and Israel- sought to, along with the Palestinian Authority, try to carry out a military coup in Gaza to overthrow the elected government. This failed- Hamas beat back the coup attempt. That was July 2007. At that point, the siege got much harsher. In between come in many acts of violence, shellings, invasions and so on and so forth. But basically, Israel claims that when the truce was established in the summer 2008, Israel’s reason for not observing it and withdrawing the siege was that there was an Israeli soldier- Gilad Shalit- who was captured at the border. International commentary regards this as a terrible crime. Well, whatever you think about it, capturing a soldier of an attacking army- and the army was attacking Gaza- capturing a soldier of an attacking army isn’t anywhere near the level of the crime of kidnapping civilians. Just one day before the capture of Gilad Shalit at the border, Israeli troops had entered Gaza, kidnapped two civilians- the Muammar Brothers- and spirited them across the border. They’ve disappeared somewhere in Israel’s prison system, which is where hundreds, maybe a thousand or so people are sometimes there for years without charges. There are also secret prisons. We don’t know what happens there.
This alone is a far worse crime than the kidnapping of Shalit. In fact, you could argue there was a reason why was barely covered: Israel has been doing this for years, in fact, decades. Kidnapping, capturing people, hijacking ships, killing people, bringing them to Israel sometimes as hostages for many years. So this is regular practice; Israel can do what it likes. But the reaction here and the rest of the world of regarding the Shalit kidnapping- well, not kidnapping, you don’t kidnap soldiers- the capture of a soldier as an unspeakable crime, justification for maintaining and murders siege... that’s disgraceful.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, so you have Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children, and eighteen other aide groups calling on Israel to unconditionally lift the blockade of Gaza. And you have in the WikiLeaks release a U.S. diplomatic cable- provided to The Guardian by WikiLeaks- laying out, "National human intelligence collection directive: Asking U.S. personnel to obtain details of travel plans such as routes and vehicles used by Palestinian Authority leaders and Hamas members." The cable demands, "Biographical, financial, by metric information on key PA and Hamas leaders and representatives to include the Young Guard inside Gaza, the West Bank, and outside," it says.
NOAM CHOMSKY: That should not come as much of a surprise. Contrary to the image that is portrayed here, the United States is not an honest broker. It is a participant, a direct and crucial participant, in Israeli crimes, both in the West Bank and in Gaza. The attack in Gaza was a clear case in point: they used American weapons, the U.S. blocked cease-fire efforts, they gave diplomatic support. The same is true of the dai