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2294 words

Lonely evenings at the photocopier

16 June 2011

Forty years ago this week, the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers – until recently, the largest leak of all. Rodney Tiffen recounts a tale of two leakers


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

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

DANIEL ELLSBERG and Bradley Manning are probably the two greatest leakers of classified documents in history. Both acted out of conscience, but in other respects their actions are a study in contrasts. In 1971, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, the internally produced history of American policy in the Vietnam War. Last year, Manning allegedly leaked the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and volumes of US government internal documents to WikiLeaks.

The story of the Pentagon Papers begins with the growing pessimism of US defence secretary Robert McNamara, one of the key architects of the Vietnam commitment under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, about the war’s course. In 1967, he commissioned an official history that would bring together the key bureaucratic documents so that historians would be able to trace the key decisions and assumptions.

The 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 from 1945, concentrating especially on the marked escalation of American involvement in the 1960s. Four volumes concerning diplomatic negotiations were deemed especially sensitive, as they had ongoing relevance. Only fifteen copies of the study were made and the whole was classified as “Top Secret – Sensitive.”

Until it was dwarfed by WikiLeaks, Ellsberg’s leaking of most of the contents was probably the single biggest unauthorised release of classified official documents in history. According to an estimate by New York Times editor Bill Keller, the Pentagon Papers consisted of two and a half million words. The quarter of a million diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, by contrast, amounted to 300 million words. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which had been sorted and analysed by expert staff, the leaked diplomatic and war cables were undigested material that dealt not just with history but also with contemporary events, and had to be sifted, ordered and analysed before fruitful publication.

The leakers came to their momentous decisions by very different routes. Ellsberg knew as much about the Vietnam war as anyone in the US government. After completing his Harvard doctorate on bargaining theory in 1962, and having previously served in the Marine Corps, he worked with the RAND Corporation, a civilian think tank with close ties to the American military, and with the Pentagon. In 1966 he went to Vietnam to work with the legendary counter-insurgency expert, Major General Edward Lansdale.

Ellsberg was well connected among the top US officials involved in the war, and was 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 Pentagon study, Leslie Gelb and Morton Halperin, to participate, and worked on the project for some months.

Ellsberg was still involved in the policy process. In early 1969, he did some work for the incoming Nixon administration, and in particular for Nixon’s national security advisor Henry Kissinger, on options for the war, although his withdrawal options 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 anyone else. Later, again working at RAND, Ellsberg was able to read the entire McNamara study for the first time.

Increasingly distraught about the course of the war, he borrowed a photocopying machine in late 1969, spent hours making copies, and smuggled parts of the Pentagon Papers out each evening – a pattern he continued for many weeks. He tried various alternatives to leaking, including requesting that the study be declassified and asking 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 journalists about the Vietnam war. After a long period of tortuous and uncertain courtship, the paper acquired the material and decided to publish.

Bradley Manning was neither a high flyer nor well connected. After leaving school, he drifted through various unsatisfying jobs before joining the military in 2007. His expertise at IT had him posted to military intelligence, although only with the rank of private. Serving in Iraq, and already alienated from the military and somewhat of a loner, he became disgusted by how America was conducting the war. Despite his low rank, his pivotal position combined with lax security gave him access to huge amounts of classified American diplomatic and military material (although not to documents classified as top secret).

In contrast to Ellsberg’s lonely evenings at the photocopying machine, Manning was allegedly able to download volumes of material onto discs disguised as Lady Gaga albums and blithely walk past security. He made tentative contact with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and gradually fed them increasing amounts of material. Assange and Manning shared impressive IT skills, a commitment to transparency, and alienation from authority, but they never met. Crucially, WikiLeaks was unable to offer Manning any social or emotional support.

There are also contrasts in how Ellsberg and Manning were fingered as the leaker. From the moment the Pentagon Papers were published, a large number of central figures immediately suspected Ellsberg was responsible. Manning, though, could have remained anonymous except for a critical miscalculation. In his isolation and emotional stress, he reached out online to another hacker, Adrian Lamo, whom he had never met but whom he thought was sympathetic. He came to trust Lamo, and is alleged to have confided what he had done. But Lamo informed on him to the FBI, and Manning was arrested.

In late June 1971, Ellsberg was arrested for violating the federal Espionage Act. Eventually, in 1973, the prosecution collapsed as a result of procedural abuses. First it was revealed that the Nixon White House had illegally raided the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. (His file yielded nothing incriminating or humiliating.) Then it was revealed that they had illegally tapped the phones of Ellsberg and several witnesses.

No such legal niceties inhibited the treatment of Bradley Manning, who has been held without trial since May 2010. Until April this year (when he was transferred to a somewhat less harsh prison regime) he was in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day – not allowed to exercise, often required to be naked and checked every five minutes when asleep on the pretence of preventing him from harming himself – and underwent a process of physical and mental disintegration. The post-9/11 torture of suspected terrorists by US authorities – directly at Guantanamo and indirectly through rendition to third countries – was being inflicted on one of their own servicemen. The contrast in the two cases is a stark reminder of just how much the rule of law has been eroded in the United States in the last forty years.

Ellsberg escaped imprisonment, but he made his decision knowing it would ruin his career. He once said his former colleagues regarded him with neither admiration nor censure, but with amazement, as though he were a space-walking astronaut who had cut his lifeline to the mother ship. Before his arrest, Manning allegedly wrote to Lamo, “I’ve been so isolated for so long. I just wanted to be nice, and live a normal life…” It will be many years, if ever, before his wish is granted.

Both leaks were greeted with immediate and extravagant denunciation by the US government, which argued that publication would cause immense damage. A couple of months after the first WikiLeaks furore, however, US defence secretary Robert Gates, taking a view that would be expressed by many other officials, judged that the negative consequences for American interests had been minimal.

A similar pattern 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.

THIS week marks forty years since the Pentagon Papers became public. The New York Times published the first excerpts 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 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.”

From early July on, many media outlets used the papers to reconstruct key moments in the war. The New York Times published a 671-page book based on the papers. Revisionist histories contradicting earlier official versions dominated the media.

Ellsberg had hoped that publication might quicken the end of the war, but that hope proved forlorn. The study did fortify the already strong anti-war forces. It clarified and confirmed many claims that had been in dispute. It provided incontrovertible evidence, for example, of how early and extensive America’s clandestine war efforts against North Vietnam had been, and demonstrated how America had sabotaged the Geneva Accords of 1954. It showed far more than had ever been acknowledged just how pessimistic and critical American officials had been at different times, and revealed the futility of strategies including the strategic hamlet program and, most importantly, the bombing of North Vietnam.

The most consistent narrative running through the New York Times stories was how government statements had deceived the public. When President Johnson was running as the “peace candidate” against 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 deemed to be the legal authorisation for all its future actions in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers revealed both the profound doubts about what had actually occurred 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, though, the Nixon administration had put in place its strategy for continuing the war. It had widened the war’s arena with military action in Cambodia and Laos. It had announced the policy of Vietnamisation, which involved a reduction in US troop levels, an emphasis on South Vietnam taking more responsibility, and intensified bombing – a policy one official delicately described as “changing the colour of the corpses.” Finally, Nixon’s policies to reduce 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 concerned earlier administrations, and in a sense underlined how much of the present predicament was not his fault, Nixon was outraged and determined to stop publication, introducing the unprecedented (and unsuccessful) legal action. Kissinger was equally determined, partly because of his personal animosity towards Ellsberg.

Several Nixon insiders later wrote that Nixon’s reaction to the leak of the Pentagon Papers was the first step on his road to the Watergate scandal. The operatives, initially ordered to pursue Ellsberg, were then 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 hotel in 1972, and to Nixon’s resignation – the only president to be forced from office – in August 1974.

A popular view of the Vietnam commitment was that America took a series of small steps and each time found itself sucked further into the quicksand. David Halberstam’s book The Making of a Quagmire was the most famous expression of this view. Daniel Ellsberg disagreed. In an article called “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine” he argued that at all the key moments presidents made decisions that they nearly always knew were insufficient to achieve victory but were sufficient to stave off the consequences of immediate withdrawal or defeat. For domestic political reasons, they were not prepared to be the president who “lost” Vietnam. Each crisis was met with an escalation, determined by the balance between what was necessary to forestall disaster and what was domestically feasible. So the war continued without a prospect of victory, but defeat was forever delayed.

There are many differences between the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars, but the pattern of policy-making Ellsberg outlines certainly has contemporary resonance. •

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