WASHINGTON — Forty years after the explosive leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study chronicling deception and misadventure in U.S. conduct of the Vietnam War, the report is coming out in its entirety on Monday.
The 7,000-page report was the WikiLeaks disclosure of its time, a
sensational breach of government confidentiality that shook Richard Nixon’s presidency and prompted a Supreme Court fight that advanced press freedom. Prepared near the end of Lyndon Johnson’s term by Defense Department and private foreign policy 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.
On Monday, the National Archives and presidential libraries are releasing the report in full, long after most of its secrets had spilled. The release is 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. The papers showed that the Johnson, Kennedy and prior administrations had been escalating the conflict in Vietnam while misleading Congress, the public and allies.
As scholars pore over the 47-volume report, Ellsberg says the chance of them finding great new revelations are 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.
At the time, Nixon was delighted that people were reading about bumbling and lies by his predecessor, 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 crush him and 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, discredit Nixon’s opponents and serve his political ends. The next year, the Plumbers were implicated in the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building.
Ellsberg remains convinced the report — a thick, often turgid read — would have had much less impact if Nixon had not temporarily suppressed publication with a lower court order and had not prolonged the headlines even more by going after him so hard. “Very few are going to read the whole thing,” he said in an interview, meaning both then and now. “That’s why it was good to have the great drama of the injunction.”
The declassified report includes 2,384 pages missing from what was regarded as the most complete version of the Pentagon Papers, published in 1971 by Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska. But some of the material absent from that version appeared — with redactions — in a report of the House Armed Services Committee, also in 1971. In addition, at the time, Ellsberg did not disclose a section on peace negotiations with Hanoi, in fear of complicating the talks, but that part was declassified separately years later.
Ellsberg served with the Marines in Vietnam and came back disillusioned. A protégé of Nixon adviser Henry Kissinger, who called the young man his most brilliant student, Ellsberg served the administration as an analyst, tied to the Rand Corporation. The report was by a team of analysts, some in favor of the war, some against it, some ambivalent, but joined in a no-holds-barred appraisal of U.S. policy and the fraught history of the region.
To this day, Ellsberg regrets staying mum for as long as he did.
“I was part, on a middle level, of what is best described as a conspiracy by the government to get us into war,” he said in an interview. Johnson publicly vowed that he sought no wider war, he recalled, a message that played out in the 1964 presidential campaign as LBJ portrayed himself as the peacemaker against the hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater.
Meantime, his administration manipulated South Vietnam into asking for U.S. combat troops and responded to phantom provocations from North Vietnam with stepped-up force.
“It couldn’t have been a more dramatic fraud,” Ellsberg said. “Everything the president said was false during the campaign.”
His message to whistleblowers now: Speak up sooner. “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until the bombs start falling.”