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40 years after leak, the Pentagon Papers are out
Monday - 6/13/2011, 4:52pm EDT
By CALVIN WOODWARD and RICHARD LARDNER
WASHINGTON (AP) - Call it the granddaddy of WikiLeaks. Four decades ago, a young defense analyst leaked a top-secret study packed with damaging revelations about America's conduct of the Vietnam War.
On Monday, that study, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, finally came out in complete form. It's a touchstone for whistleblowers everywhere and just the sort of leak that gives presidents fits to this day.
The documents show that almost from the opening lines, it was apparent that the authors knew they had produced a hornet's nest.
In his Jan. 15, 1969, confidential memorandum introducing the report to the defense chief, the chairman of the task force that produced the study hinted at the explosive nature of the contents. "Writing history, especially where it blends into current events, especially where that current event is Vietnam, is a treacherous exercise," Leslie H. Gelb wrote.
Asked by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to do an "encyclopedic and objective" study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1967, the team of three dozen analysts pored over a trove of Pentagon, CIA and State Department documents with "ant-like diligence," he wrote.
Their work revealed a pattern of deception by the Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and prior administrations as they secretly escalated the conflict while assuring the public that, in Johnson's words, the U.S. did not seek a wider war.
The National Archives released the Pentagon Papers in full Monday and put them online, long after most of the secrets spilled. The release was timed 40 years to the day after The New York Times published the first in its series of stories about the findings, on June 13, 1971, prompting President Richard Nixon to try to suppress publication and crush anyone in government who dared to spill confidences.
Prepared near the end of Johnson's term by Defense Department and private analysts, the report was leaked primarily by one of them, Daniel Ellsberg, in a brash act of defiance that stands as one of the most dramatic episodes of whistleblowing in U.S. history.
As scholars pore over the 47-volume report, Ellsberg said the chance of them finding great new revelations is dim. Most of it has come out in congressional forums and by other means, and Ellsberg plucked out the best when he painstakingly photocopied pages that he spirited from a safe night after night, and returned in the mornings.
He told The Associated Press the value in Monday's release was in having the entire study finally brought together and put online, giving today's generations ready access to it.
The Pentagon Papers chronicle failures of U.S. policy at seemingly every turn. One was a focused attempt from 1961 to 1963 to pacify rural Vietnam with the Strategic Hamlet Program, combining military operations to secure villages with construction, economic aid and resettlement.
The report concludes the U.S. had not learned lessons of the past, namely that peasants would resist attempts to change the pattern of their lives. The hamlet program "was fatally flawed in its conception by the unintended consequence of alienating many of those whose loyalty it aimed to win," it said.
At the time, Nixon was delighted that people were reading about bumbling and lies by his predecessors, which he thought would take some anti-war heat off him. But if he loved the substance of the leak, he hated the leaker.
He called the leak an act of treachery and vowed that the people behind it "have to be put to the torch." He feared that Ellsberg represented a left-wing cabal that would undermine his own administration with damaging disclosures if the government did not make him an example for all others with loose lips.
It was his belief in such a conspiracy, and his willingness to combat it by illegal means, that put him on the path to the Watergate scandal that destroyed his presidency.
Nixon's attempt to avenge the Pentagon Papers leak failed. First the Supreme Court backed the Times, The Washington Post and others in the press and allowed them to continue publishing stories on the study in a landmark case for the First Amendment. Then the government's espionage and conspiracy prosecution of Ellsberg and his colleague Anthony J. Russo Jr. fell apart, a mistrial declared because of government misconduct.
The judge threw out the case after agents of the White House broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to steal records in hopes of discrediting him, and after it surfaced that Ellsberg's phone had been tapped illegally. That September 1971 break-in was tied to the Plumbers, a shady White House operation formed after the Pentagon Papers disclosures to stop leaks, smear Nixon's opponents and serve his political ends.