In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg decided to make available to the New York Times (and then to other newspapers) 43 volumes of the Pentagon Papers, the top- secret study prepared for the Department of Defense examining how and why the United States had become embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. But he made another critical decision as well. That was to keep confidential the remaining four volumes of the study describing the diplomatic efforts of the United States to resolve the war.
Not at all coincidentally, those were the volumes that the government most feared would be disclosed. In a secret brief filed with the Supreme Court, the U.S. government described the diplomatic volumes as including information about negotiations secretly conducted on its behalf by foreign nations including Canada, Poland, Italy and Norway. Included as well, according to the government, were “derogatory comments about the perfidiousness of specific persons involved, and statements which might be offensive to nations or governments.”
The diplomatic volumes were not published, even in part, for another dozen years. Mr. Ellsberg later explained his decision to keep them secret, according to Sanford Ungar’s 1972 book “The Papers & The Papers,” by saying, “I didn’t want to get in the way of the diplomacy.”
Julian Assange sure does. Can anyone doubt that he would have made those four volumes public on WikiLeaks regardless of their sensitivity? Or that he would have paid not even the slightest heed to the possibility that they might seriously compromise efforts to bring a speedier end to the war?
Mr. Ellsberg himself has recently denounced the “myth” of the “good” Pentagon Papers as opposed to the “bad” WikiLeaks. But the real myth is that the two disclosures are the same.
The Pentagon Papers revelations dealt with a discrete topic, the ever-increasing level of duplicity of our leaders over a score of years in increasing the nation’s involvement in Vietnam while denying it. It revealed official wrongdoing or, at the least, a pervasive lack of candor by the government to its people.
WikiLeaks is different. It revels in the revelation of “secrets” simply because they are secret. It assaults the very notion of diplomacy that is not presented live on C-Span. It has sometimes served the public by its revelations but it also offers, at considerable potential price, a vast amount of material that discloses no abuses of power at all.
Mr. Abrams should know what he’s talking about. He represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case.
So Abrams says that WikiLeaks is not the Pentagon Papers. I’ll go even farther and say that the Pentagon Papers is not the Pentagon Papers.
Some people think the Pentagon Papers were key to ending the war in Vietnam. But they were released in 1971, three years after the Tet Offensive which was the major turning point in public opinion. People today forget that Nixon ran for President in 1968 on a promise to end the war. By 1971 the Paris Peace Talks were well under way.
The Pentagon Papers were officially titled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” They were commissioned in June 1967 by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara:
McNamara claimed that he wanted to leave a written record for historians, but kept the study secret from the rest of the Johnson administration. Neither President Lyndon Johnson nor Secretary of State Dean Rusk knew about the study until its publication; they believed McNamara might have planned to give the work to his friend Robert F. Kennedy, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.
Instead of using existing Defense Department historians, McNamara assigned his close aide and Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton, McNaughton’s aide Morton H. Halperin, and Defense Department official Leslie H. Gelb to lead the task force. Thirty-six analysts—half of them active-duty military officers, the rest academics and civilian federal employees—worked on the study. The analysts largely used existing files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and did no interviews or consultations with the armed forces, the White House, or other federal agencies to keep the study secret from others, including National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow.
The Pentagon Papers were the military’s version of history. They were prepared for political purposes and many of the “secrets” they revealed weren’t really secrets.
The Papers revealed that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US.
The Cambodians and the Laotians knew we were bombing targets in their country. So did thousands of pilots and other military personnel. The North Vietnamese knew about the bombings and the raids on their coast. The Chinese and Soviets knew all these things too.
These things were being reported in the media outside the United States. Just like in 2002 and 2003 when the international media were telling a different tale about Iraq.
So once again we have our media “revealing” things that would have been revealed long before if they were doing their jobs.
BTW – Ellsberg didn’t go straight to the New York Times:
Now opposing the war, Ellsberg and his friend Anthony Russo photocopied the study in October 1969 intending to disclose it. He approached Nixon National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Senators William Fulbright and George McGovern, and others, but nobody was interested.