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Lonely evenings at the photocopier

It’s fifty years since the New York Times set off a fateful sequence of events by publishing the Pentagon Papers

Rodney Tiffen 17 May 2021 2294 words

Daniel Ellsberg, co-defendant in the Pentagon Papers case, talks to journalists outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles in April 1973. Wally Fong/AP


Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning are probably the best-known of all leakers of classified government documents. Both acted on their consciences, and in each case their leaks had enormous political repercussions. Yet their actions, and the consequences, are a study in contrasts.

The Pentagon Papers, famously leaked by Ellsberg, had their genesis in the growing pessimism of American defence secretary Robert McNamara about the war in Vietnam. McNamara was one of the key architects of US involvement under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but by 1967 he was experiencing grave doubts about the likelihood of victory. He commissioned an official history that would bring together the major internal documents so that future policy-makers could trace the key decisions and assumptions.

This massive study — 3000 pages of historical analysis and 4000 pages of government documents in forty-seven volumes — was completed in January 1969. It covered the years since 1945, concentrating on the escalation of American involvement in the 1960s. Only fifteen copies were made and the entire contents were classified “top secret — sensitive.” Two and a half years later Ellsberg leaked most of the contents of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

Almost four decades later, Manning sent four batches of classified material to WikiLeaks. First came a video of Americans in an Apache helicopter killing several innocent people in a Baghdad street. Then came the Afghanistan war logs and the Iraq war logs: 392,000 US military communication records. Finally and most spectacularly came a massive tranche of US diplomatic cables.

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers it was the largest unauthorised release of classified material in history. In the estimation of New York Times editor Bill Keller, the leak amounted to around two and a half million words. For all their impact, though, the Pentagon Papers were dwarfed in sheer volume by the quarter of a million diplomatic cables Manning sent to WikiLeaks. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, though, which had been selected and analysed by expert staff, Manning’s leak was a jumble of undigested historical and contemporary material.

With that one act, Manning and WikiLeaks ushered in the era of digital mega-leaks. The Panama Papers, released in April 2016, represented another massive leap in size. Their 2.6 terabytes of material — roughly 1500 times the size of Manning’s leak — provided an unprecedented, and unprecedentedly detailed, insight into how offshore companies are used for tax evasion and international money-shifting.

Then, a year and a half later, came the Paradise Papers. Gerard Ryle, a former Canberra Times deputy editor who now heads the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, argues quite plausibly that this was the biggest leak of all: 13.4 million files (also detailing tax evasion) compared with a mere 11.5 million for the Panama Papers.


Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers was the culmination of his growing disaffection with the war. He had completed a Harvard doctorate on bargaining theory in 1962, having previously served in the Marine Corps. He then took a job with the RAND Corporation, a civilian think tank with close ties to the military. In 1966 he went to Vietnam to work with the legendary counterinsurgency expert, Major General Edward Lansdale.

Ellsberg was well connected among the top US officials involved in the war, and was initially a fervent believer in America’s mission in Vietnam. But by 1967, when he was forced by severe hepatitis to return to the United States, he had developed a deep sense of the war’s futility, and soon concluded that America should withdraw. He was asked by the coordinators of the McNamara study, Leslie Gelb and Morton Halperin, to participate, and worked on the project for some months.

He was also still involved in official policymaking. In early 1969, he worked for the incoming Nixon administration, and particularly for Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, on options for the war, although his withdrawal scenarios were immediately rejected. Ellsberg and Kissinger had known each other at Harvard, and indeed Kissinger once said he learned more about bargaining from Ellsberg than from anyone else. Later in the year, again working at RAND, Ellsberg was able to read the entire McNamara study for the first time.

Increasingly distraught about the war, he borrowed a photocopier in late 1969 and spent hours each night copying the Pentagon Papers and smuggling them out — a pattern he continued for months. Rather than leaking them straight away, he urged that the study be declassified and asked various members of Congress to release it. Eventually he approached Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, one of the most experienced and informed American reporters on the Vietnam war. After a long and uncertain courtship, the paper acquired the material and decided to publish.


Bradley Manning — as Chelsea was then known — could hardly have been a more different character. Having left school, he drifted through various unsatisfying jobs before joining the military in 2007. His expertise in IT brought a posting to military intelligence, although only with the rank of private. He was neither a high-flyer nor well connected.

Serving in Iraq, already alienated from the military and somewhat of a loner, Manning became disgusted by how America was conducting the war. Despite his low rank, lax security gave him access to huge amounts of classified diplomatic and military material (although not to documents classified as top secret).

In contrast to Ellsberg’s lonely evenings at the photocopier, Manning was able to download large volumes of material onto discs disguised as Lady Gaga albums and blithely walk past security. He then began to feed increasingly large amounts of the classified documents to WikiLeaks.

From the moment the Pentagon Papers were published, a large number of central figures immediately suspected Ellsberg was responsible. Manning, by contrast, could have retained the anonymity that Assange had always envisaged for WikiLeaks informants. Material could be submitted to the organisation without anyone, even WikiLeaks, knowing its source. (Since then, many news organisations have set up anonymous drop boxes where leakers can deposit documents.)

But Assange’s vision overlooked the human dimension. When WikiLeaks gave no sign that it had received the material, and the army no sign it knew anything was amiss, Manning became increasingly anxious. Lacking support, he reached out to a fellow hacker, Adrian Lamo, and confided what he had done. When Lamo told the FBI, Manning was arrested.

Manning’s leaks were greeted with immediate and extravagant denunciation. The Italian foreign minister described them as “the 9/11 of world diplomacy,” and the title of a book about Assange, The Most Dangerous Man in the World, captured the views of many officials. But even while the furore over Manning’s leaks was still raging, US defence secretary Robert Gates conceded that the damage to American interests had been minimal.

A similar pattern had followed publication of the Pentagon Papers. There was much talk of the damage to national security and the awful consequences that would flow. In their memoirs, Nixon, Kissinger and many other senior figures in the administration record the shock they felt following the first publication, and denounce the irresponsibility of the newspapers, but none of them cites any major adverse consequence.

Ellsberg was arrested in late June 1971 for violating the federal Espionage Act, but the prosecution eventually collapsed when procedural abuses became apparent. The Nixon White House, wanting dirt on their adversary, had raided his psychiatrist’s rooms without a warrant and illegally tapped Ellsberg’s phone and those of several witnesses.

Ellsberg escaped imprisonment, but he had decided to leak knowing full well that it would ruin his career. He once described how his former colleagues regarded him with neither admiration nor disapproval, but with amazement, as though he were a space-walking astronaut who had cut his lifeline to the mothership.

Manning was held for a long period without trial, and then sentenced to an unprecedented thirty-five-years in jail. Now Chelsea Manning, she was held at five different facilities in conditions a UN expert called cruel and inhumane, and made at least two suicide attempts. She had served seven years — double the second-longest sentence in any leak case — when Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, commuted most of her remaining sentence.


Next month marks fifty years since the New York Times published the first excerpts from the Pentagon Papers on Sunday, 13 June 1971. Two days later, the Nixon administration sought an injunction to stop the Times from publishing any further reports, the first time in American history that the government had sued the press to stop it from disclosing information on the grounds of national security. Later that week, the Washington Post published material from the study, and also received an injunction in return.

Both cases went to the Supreme Court, which in a six–three decision on 30 June found in favour of the press. What is perhaps the key argument was put best by District Court judge Murray Gurfein: “The security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions.”

Ellsberg had hoped publication might bring the war to a speedier end. Although that hope proved forlorn, the Pentagon Papers did fortify the already strong antiwar forces. They also provided incontrovertible evidence of how early and extensive America’s clandestine war efforts against North Vietnam had been, and demonstrated that America had sabotaged the Geneva Accords of 1954. They revealed that the strategic hamlet program — a program of relocating and “pacifying” rural Vietnamese — had failed and, most importantly, that the bombing of North Vietnam had been futile.

Running through the New York Times stories was proof that official statements had often deceived the public. When President Johnson was running as the “peace candidate” against the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, planning was already well advanced for American combat troops to participate in the conflict; that involvement began in 1965 and peaked at half a million troops in 1968.

In August 1964, following the Gulf of Tonkin incident (in which Vietnamese boats allegedly launched unprovoked attacks on American vessels), the Johnson administration secured an almost unanimous congressional resolution, which it treated as legal authorisation for all its future actions in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers revealed the analysts’ profound doubts about the official version of what happened in the Gulf and how the sense of crisis generated by the alleged attacks fitted into the administration’s long-term strategy.

By the time the papers were published, the Nixon administration was well advanced in its strategy for continuing the war. It had widened the war’s arena with military action in Cambodia and Laos. It had launched the Vietnamisation program, which involved reduced US troop levels, an emphasis on South Vietnamese leadership, and intensified bombing — a policy one official delicately described as “changing the colour of the corpses.” Finally, Nixon’s moves to ease wider cold war tensions — with spectacular visits to Beijing and Moscow in 1972 — helped to minimise the political impact of the war.


Ironically, perhaps the greatest impact of the Pentagon Papers was on the Nixon White House itself. Although the revelations showed that much of the predicament in Vietnam was not his fault, Nixon was outraged and determined to stop publication. One result was his unprecedented (and unsuccessful) legal action against the New York Times and the Washington Post. Kissinger was equally determined to resist further revelations, partly because of his personal animosity towards Ellsberg.

Several White House insiders later wrote that Nixon’s reaction to the leak of the Pentagon Papers was his first step on the road to Watergate. The team of undercover operatives ordered to pursue Ellsberg was set up as a self-styled “plumbers unit” in the White House basement. Nixon was already obsessed by leaks and convinced that the press was his enemy; now, he became fixated on the idea that not only the Pentagon Papers but also other classified documents were being held by “liberals” at the Brookings Institution.

Plans were made to mount an arson attack and, under cover of the resulting confusion, take back all the documents Brookings held. Wiser heads eventually prevailed, but not before plans to acquire a fire engine were well advanced. Eventually, this appetite for undercover operations led to the abortive raid on the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate building in 1972, and to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

The White House’s corrupt behaviour ultimately had positive effects. Court decisions upheld press freedom and asserted the primacy of the law; checks on the executive arm of government were strengthened. With lawyers having played a role in the illegal acts, law schools introduced ethics classes and bar associations introduced codes of conduct.

The impact of Manning’s WikiLeaks disclosure is less clear. Manning’s punishment was severe. Assange, still in prison in Britain, continues to face the possibility of extradition for his work on WikiLeaks to the United States, where the courts seem much more politicised than they were a generation ago.

A popular view of the Vietnam war was that America took a series of small steps and each time found itself sucked further into the quicksand. Daniel Ellsberg disagreed. In an article called “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine” he argued that key presidential decisions had been made not in the expectation that they would change the course of the war but merely to avoid withdrawal or defeat. For domestic political reasons, no recent president had been willing to be the one who “lost” Vietnam. So the war continued without a prospect of victory, but with defeat forever delayed.

The Vietnam and Afghanistan wars are different in many ways, but the pattern of policymaking Ellsberg outlined certainly resonated during the long years of US involvement in the fight against the Taliban. •

An earlier version of this article was published in June 2011.

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