Monday, June 13, 2011
Understanding The Pentagon Papers
Today, Monday, June 13, 2011, the 40th anniversary of the leak, marks the first time the Pentagon Papers will be revealed in its entirety without censorship or redaction. Though very little is left to be revealed, the significance of today’s revelation is of importance.
Because of President Obama’s government transparency initiative, many of the government’s Top Secret documents will be declassified. Though the process of declassification will be long and drawn-out, because of the millions of documents classified as top secret each year, it should, in theory, lead to a higher level of accountability on the part of our government and ultimately help to rebuild the trust that was lost during this tumultuous time in America’s history.
The activities surrounding the Pentagon Papers both set and bolstered precedents including reinforcing the media’s first amendment rights as well as the right of the government to prosecute those who leak confidential information.
To understand the present, one must understand the past.
Daniel Ellsberg went from being a key part of the government’s Vietnam advisory team to being considered “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” His 1971 actions were blamed for the decrease in Vietnam’s popularity among Americans, though peace protests started as far back as 1965.
Ellsberg didn’t set out to leak this classified document. At one time he had believed in the mission he was assigned, or at least believed his recommendations would be followed. But after being on the ground in Vietnam, believing the war unwinnable and recommending proper strategies, he realized that the war had been built and was being run on a web of lies that would ultimately span five different Presidents, each making his own contribution to the quagmire. Sound familiar? History usually repeats itself.
Many of the nations top officials shared Ellsberg’s sentiment that the war was unwinnable but none spoke out. Many perpetuated the official stance that victory was just around the corner.
At the time the Pentagon Papers were commissioned in 1967, the US Military’s commitment in manpower had risen to over 500,000 soldiers. Over 2.5 million Americans would serve in Vietnam and over 50,000 would lose their lives.
Considering the mounting numbers of lives lost and lies being told to the American public, Ellsberg became disillusioned. The guilt he felt for his part in Vietnam became too much to bear and he decided the American people must know about what was really happening.
Ellsberg photocopied the Pentagon Papers, volume by volume and released them to The New York Times. When the Nixon administration realized the Top Secret information had been leaked, they sought and won a restraining order against the Times to stop publication.
Ellsberg released parts of the documents to The Washington Post. The restraining order was then applied to them. Determined to have this information revealed, Ellsberg sent excerpts to 18 different papers across the country.
In a precedent setting case, the Supreme Court overturned the injunction allowing publication to proceed, in essence reinforcing all the power the press had been promised in the First Amendment.
The Nixon Administration considered Ellsberg’s actions a criminal breach of wartime security. Ellsberg was charged but the executive branch’s subsequent actions leading up to the Watergate scandal was enough to have the charges dismissed due to the government’s misconduct.
The decision did, however, reinforce the prosecutory response to those who leak information, a practice enforced to this day. But now, government actions like Nixon’s are supported by modern legislation, namely, the Patriot Act.
By the time Nixon left office in 1974, many of the American people’s long-standing belief in government had been broken, replaced by a feeling of naivety and overall distrust. This cultural change in attitude has continued, gaining strength ever since.
The American people had been conned and many lives were lost. Those responsible for our nation’s decision making were not held accountable by the public because the public didn’t know what was really happening.
Political distrust has become the status quo but the transparency that Obama has initiated could, one day, make this sentiment towards the government a thing of the past, requiring those in power to be held responsible for their actions - including the current administration. But with the back log of reports still left to be declassified, initiatives taken today may not be revealed for many years to come.
In a quote from the New York Times, Ellsberg said there were still plenty of lessons to be drawn. “It seems to me that what the Pentagon Papers really demonstrated 40 years ago was the price of that practice,” he said. “Which is that letting a small group of men in secret in the executive branch make these decisions — initiate them secretly, carry them out secretly and manipulate Congress, and lie to Congress and the public as to why they’re doing it and what they’re doing — is a recipe for, a guarantee of Vietnams and Iraqs and Libyas, and in general foolish, reckless, dangerous policies.”