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40 Years After Leak, Weighing the Impact of the Pentagon Papers

June 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 1971, parts of a secret Pentagon report began to surface in The New York Times calling the Vietnam War's validity into question. Forty years later, the Pentagon Papers were declassified and released in full Monday. Jeffrey Brown discusses the leak's significance with historian Michael Beschloss and journalist Sanford Ungar.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, the impact of the Pentagon Papers, then and now.

June 1971: Vietnam dragged into its sixth year of major combat. Tens of thousands of Americans were already dead, and still thousands more protesting on the home front asked why. But to the world’s surprise, the Pentagon itself had already secretly posed that question and others years earlier.

And, on June 13, 1971, parts of its answers from a multivolume history of the war began to appear in The New York Times. It was a seismic event, the publication of a covert version of the war that ran counter to much of the optimistic talk that had permeated official statements for years.

The Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, were leaked to The Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst. President Nixon and his administration went to the courts, which ordered The Times to cease publication.

FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Let me explain very carefully that the principle of confidentiality, it either exists or it doesn’t exist.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Washington Post picked up publication. The paper’s late publisher Katharine Graham described her difficult decision to publish them on the NewsHour in 1997.

KATHARINE GRAHAM, The Washington Post: But the editor said, “We have to maintain the momentum.” The issue here was the government’s ability to prior restrain a print newspaper. And they felt so strongly about it, that I came down on the side of the editors.

JEFFREY BROWN: But a 6-3 decision in the Supreme Court soon said the government had no right to stop the publication, a landmark First Amendment decision.

Forty years later, that ruling comes into play in classified leaks, such as the recent effort spearheaded by the controversial anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. And, today, 40 years to the day after the world got its first glimpse of parts of the Pentagon Papers, the National Archives released them in their entirety, completely uncensored for the first time.

Though there is little expectation that much new information will be sifted from the trove, in this era of instant document dumps, one of the first of its kind still resonates.

And for more on their, we turn Sanford Ungar, author of “The Papers & The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers” — a longtime journalist and editor, he’s now the president of Goucher College — and to presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Welcome to both of you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, take us back to that moment in 1971. How would you describe the immediate impact of the Papers, particularly on the politics of the Vietnam War?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, people had — many people who were critics of the war had a lot of their worse suspicions confirmed, that the Johnson administration had been very secretive and had not told the truth about key episode, and also learned about other things, like the Kennedy administration’s involvement in the coup that led to the assassination of President Diem in November of 1963.

But the more shocking thing was this. You know, before 1971, there was a feeling that government documents that were leaked or stolen or published against the will of the government, that was something the Soviet foreign agents did. That was something Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs did.

In fact, the Pumpkin Papers is one reason why the Alger Hiss archive, one reason why this was called the Pentagon Papers, so there was that connection. But this was the first time that this was really seen as an episode of patriotism. And ever since 1971, we have begun to believe the idea of a crusader who finds government secrets that shouldn’t be secret, gives them to the public.

Shortly after this was Watergate. We saw what bad secrets government can really keep.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Sandy Ungar, you looked into this. The decision to publish by The Times was a hard one.

SANFORD UNGAR, “The Papers & The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers”: It was a very carefully considered decision, three months locking people up in a hotel room, in hotel rooms in New York, review them. They wanted to be responsible, try to establish that the information wasn’t going to harm the U.S. national security.

It seems almost quaint now to think that people would spend so much time making that decision. And then, of course, when the first — when a stay was granted to prevent continued publication, that’s when Ellsberg took the Papers to the — the then 40-year-old Daniel Ellsberg then took the papers to The Washington Post and, eventually, 19 newspapers over the — the whole period of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did it have an immediate impact in the — in the culture, in the politics of the time?

SANFORD UNGAR: Well, I think the key thing, Jeff, was that this moment came in the midst of this intense hatred between the Nixon administration and the media.

There were investigations of reporters sources that were being taken before grand juries. Spiro Agnew, remember him, was giving speeches against the press, the — you know, his alliterative references to the limousine liberals, the nattering nabobs of negativism and so on.

And, so, in a sense, the Pentagon Papers fell into the lap of the Nixon White House. It didn’t hurt the Nixon administration. It was not about their…

JEFFREY BROWN: It wasn’t really about them, right?

SANFORD UNGAR: Wasn’t about them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

SANFORD UNGAR: Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, was negotiating for the opening to China. And he said, if we don’t do something about this — of course, he happened to have an intense personal dislike for Daniel Ellsberg and some other people involved with him.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But those things are never involved in history, of course.

SANFORD UNGAR: No. That’s right.

(LAUGHTER)

SANFORD UNGAR: He said, if we don’t do something about this, the Chinese will never trust us.

So, reluctantly, almost with blinders on, the Nixon administration went into court, made claims about the danger to national security. The solicitor general at the time, Erwin Griswold, later said that he didn’t believe the claims that he himself was advancing in the courts on behalf of the Nixon administration. It was essentially a political prosecution.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you — and, Michael, you referred to Watergate earlier. There was a tie with the creation of the Plumbers, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Of the Plumbers, this squad that the Nixon administration organized to go after leaks like this.

And it is almost poetic. Almost exactly a year after the Pentagon Papers were published was the Watergate break-in, June of 1972. Richard Nixon has this famous meeting with H.R. Haldeman in which he’s using government secrecy to cloak a crime. He is telling Haldeman, use the — tell the CIA and the FBI to stay the hell out of this.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: This was national security — exactly what people feared would happen and exactly the argument that they made for opening these secrets.

SANFORD UNGAR: The whole reason the Plumbers were created was that — and this is a very arcane piece of this — but the White House didn’t trust J. Edgar Hoover, who was then director of the FBI, to pursue this aggressively, because Hoover was a friend of Dan Ellsberg father-in-law, who was a toy manufacturer who used to give toys to Hoover to give to his employees for their children at Christmastime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

SANFORD UNGAR: Now, it turns out Dan Ellsberg and his father-in-law didn’t have a particularly close relationship.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The FBI…

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s an unexpected part of this.

SANFORD UNGAR: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SANFORD UNGAR: So, they decided they needed another group to plug the leaks, and they created the Plumbers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when — now, bring us forward here, 40 years later. I mean, when you consider the impact, one certainly — you started to talk about it, the relationship between the government, which is seeking to — citing the demands of national security, and the press…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: … citing a more informed citizenry.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, the irony that it was The New York Times that first did this, because, in 1961, exactly a decade earlier, John Kennedy went to the publisher of The New York Times, who had told him that we have got this information that you are planning an attack on Castro’s Cub at the Bay of Pigs. Do you want us to publish or not? Kennedy said, please don’t. The Times said, OK, we won’t.

Later on, Kennedy said, I wished you had published it, because it would have stop head this fiasco from happening.

That is how much things have changed.

SANFORD UNGAR: Right.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Nowadays, I would say that, for a publisher who is a boss of editors and reporters who come across information like this, the burden is much more on the government to show why something like this will cost lives or directly jeopardize American national security.

And, oftentimes, if the government makes that argument, they do not win. In the old days, they almost always did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, yet, the struggle does go on.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, even on Friday, we had a segment about the Obama administration…

SANFORD UNGAR: That’s right. Actually, the Obama administration, despite its commitment to openness in government and less classification, has — has brought more prosecutions under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917, has always been attacked for its imprecision — they have — the Obama administration has brought more prosecutions under the Espionage for leaks than any other post-World War II administration, which is — which is ironic.

There is vast over classification to this day. There are still documents from World War I dealing with secret inks, German secret ink, that are classified, that are in the National Archives, and haven’t been let out. It’s — it’s crazy.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, it’s — I was thinking just today, it’s kind of ironic that the Pentagon Papers themselves were technically secret until today…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … even though the vast majority of it was well-known.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that’s oftentimes true of classified documents and one reason why there should be more openness, rather than closing these things up.

SANFORD UNGAR: In fact, there is something new called the National Declassification Center at the National Archives. And they have been looking for some big projects to make a splash, came across the Pentagon Papers never having been declassified, decided they would work on this and go through the diplomatic volumes which Ellsberg never released, and then only serendipitously discovered the 40th anniversary was coming, and they would get them out on this occasion and make a splash.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any chance that we learn something new in the — as it comes out all in its clarity?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Not much. It’s 47 volumes. Sandy and I will read them overnight and come back with more tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: … for tomorrow, yes.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But these were picked over pretty heavily by an awful lot of members of Congress and others.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

SANFORD UNGAR: I think there are no smoking guns now.

Historians, some historians writing about the war will find some nuances here that they didn’t see before. But, even 40 years ago, a lot of these documents were old. There were things from the Truman administration, Eisenhower administration. And there’s not much dramatic that is left.

But it’s nice to know that, 40 years later, documents that have been readily available for all these years are now officially unclassified.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Sandy Ungar, Michael Beschloss, thanks very much.

SANFORD UNGAR: Thanks, Jeff.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Pleasure, Jeff.