Four decades ago, a young defence analyst leaked a top-secret study packed with damaging revelations about US conduct of the Vietnam War. Yesterday that study, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, finally came out in complete form.
It is a touchstone for whistleblowers everywhere.
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 January 15, 1969 confidential memorandum introducing the report to the defence chief, the chairman of the task force that produced the study hinted at the explosive contents. “Writing history, especially where it blends into current events, especially where that current event is Vietnam, is a treacherous exercise,” Leslie Gelb wrote.
Asked by then defence secretary Robert McNamara to do an “objective” study of US 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.
Their work revealed a pattern of deception by the Lyndon Johnson, John F Kennedy and previous administrations as they secretly escalated the conflict while assuring the public that the US did not seek a wider war.
The National Archives has now released the full 47-volume Pentagon Papers online, long after most of the secrets were out. 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.
Prepared near the end of Johnson’s term by the Defence Department and private analysts, the report was leaked primarily by one of them, Daniel Ellsberg, in a brash act of defiance.
Ellsberg has said the chance of analysts finding great new revelations is dim. He had plucked out the best when he photocopied pages that he spirited from a safe night after night, and returned in the mornings. He said the value in yesterday’s release was in having the entire study accessible.
At the time, Nixon was delighted that people were reading about bumbling and lies by his predecessor. But he called the leak an act of treachery. He feared that Ellsberg would undermine his own administration. It was his belief in such a conspiracy that put him on the path to the Watergate scandal.
Nixon’s attempt to avenge the Pentagon Papers leak failed.
The Obama administration has pursued cases against five government leakers – more than any of his recent predecessors. The most prominent case is that of Private Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst accused of passing hundreds of thousands of military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks. – Sapa-AP