40 Years Ago Today, the New York Times Began Publishing the Pentagon Papers

by Ellsberg.Net on June 13, 2011

Forty years ago today—June 13, 1971—the New York Times began publishing the top secret study which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg talked with the AP on the anniversary:

“I was part, on a middle level, of what is best described as a conspiracy by the government to get us into war,” [Ellsberg] said. Johnson publicly vowed that he sought no wider war, Ellsberg 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.”

In an op-ed for the Guardian published today, Daniel wrote:

What we need released this month are the Pentagon Papers of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan, Yemen and Libya). . . .

Yes, the languages and ethnicities that we don’t understand are different in the Middle East from those in Vietnam; the climate, terrain and types of ambushes are very different. But as the accounts in the Pentagon Papers explain, we face the same futile effort in Afghanistan to find and destroy nationalist guerrillas or to get them to quit fighting foreign invaders (now us) and the corrupt, ill-motivated, dope-dealing despots we support. As in Vietnam, the more troops we deploy and the more adversaries we kill (along with civilians), the quicker their losses are made good and the more their ranks grow, since it’s our very presence, our operations and our support of a regime without legitimacy that is the prime basis for their recruiting. . . .

In accounts of wars 40 years and half a world apart, we read of the same irresponsible, self-serving presidential and congressional objectives in prolonging and escalating an unwinnable conflict: namely, the need not to be charged with weakness by political rivals, or with losing a war that a few feckless or ambitious generals foolishly claim can be won. Putting the policy-making and the field realities together, we see the same prospect of endless, bloody stalemate – unless and until, under public pressure, Congress threatens to cut off the money (as in 1972-73), forcing the executive into a negotiated withdrawal.

To motivate voters and Congress to extricate us from these presidential wars, we need the Pentagon Papers of the Middle East wars right now. Not 40 years in the future. Not after even two or three more years of further commitment to stalemated and unjustifiable wars.

Yet, we’re not likely to get these ever within the time frame they’re needed. The WikiLeaks’ unauthorised disclosures of the last year are the first in 40 years to approach the scale of the Pentagon Papers (and even surpass them in quantity and timeliness). But unfortunately, the courageous source of these secret, field-level reports – Private Bradley Manning is the one accused, though that remains to be proven in court – did not have access to top secret, high-level recommendations, estimates and decisions.

Very, very few of those who do have such access are willing to risk their clearances and careers – and the growing possibility (under President Obama) of prosecution – by documenting to Congress and the public even policies that they personally believe are disastrous and wrongly kept secret and lied about. I was one – and far from alone – with such access and such views, as a special assistant to the assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs in the Pentagon in 1964-65. . . .

I’ve long regretted that it didn’t even occur to me, in August 1964, to release the documents in my Pentagon safe giving the lie to claims of an “unequivocal, unprovoked” (unreal) attack on our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf: precursors of the “evidence beyond any doubt” of nonexistent WMDs in Iraq, which manipulated Congress, once again, to pass the exact counterpart of the Tonkin Gulf resolution.

Senator Morse – one of the two senators who had voted against that unconstitutional, undated blank cheque for presidential war in 1964 – told me that if I had provided him with that evidence at the time (instead of 1969, when I finally provided it to the senate foreign relations committee, on which he had served): “The Tonkin Gulf resolution would never have gotten out of committee; and if it had been brought to the floor, it would have been voted down.”

That’s a heavy burden for me to bear: especially when I reflect that, by September, I had a drawer-full of the top secret documents (again, regrettably, not published until 1971) proving the fraudulence of Johnson’s promises of “no wider war” in his election campaign, and his actual determination to escalate a war that he privately and realistically regarded as unwinnable.

Had I or one of the scores of other officials who had the same high-level information acted then on our oath of office – which was not an oath to obey the president, nor to keep the secret that he was violating his own sworn obligations, but solely an oath “to support and defend the constitution of the United States” – that terrible war might well have been averted altogether. But to hope to have that effect, we would have needed to disclose the documents when they were current, before the escalation – not five or seven, or even two, years after the fateful commitments had been made.

A lesson to be drawn from reading the Pentagon Papers, knowing all that followed or has come out in the years since, is this. To those in the Pentagon, state department, the White House, CIA (and their counterparts in Britain and other Nato countries) who have similar access to mine then and foreknowledge of disastrous escalations in our wars in the Middle East, I would say:

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until a new war has started in Iran, until more bombs have fallen in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, Libya, Iraq or Yemen. Don’t wait until thousands more have died, before you go to the press and to Congress to tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. Don’t wait 40 years for it to be declassified, or seven years as I did for you or someone else to leak it.

The personal risks are great. But a war’s worth of lives might be saved.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

junior February 23, 2012 at 9:45 am

I have been watching the WL affair and Julian Assange rise to fame like a soap opera, knowing that from where I am I will always only see the tip of the iceberg.
Recently I watched the documentary on the pentagon papers and can only draw one conclusion.
If the government wants to make sure that what is meant to be secret stays that way and assuming that someone whose job is to make sure these secrets are kept safe, saw the rise and potential of WL coming. Wouldn’t it be “smart” to make sure there is a big case against Mr Assange before it is too late ?
just a thought.

Michael Rapson September 1, 2011 at 5:10 am

No doubt the Pentagon Papers vis-a-vis all these aforementioned wars would reveal a consistent pattern: covert plans to acquire precious minerals, oil and territorital beachheads for bases and ports: American “interests” would be the euphemism most preferred.

Tom June 16, 2011 at 1:42 am

Just read Mr. Ellsberg’s comments about The Pentagon Papers and the govt. ordering the MSM not to cover 9/11. Maybe part of this shouldn’t be a surprise when various names from Glen Greenwald to Dan Rather and others say nothing here but abroad say how terrible censorship is (ex. in John Pilger’s new film).

This then leads to everyone literally seeing 9/11 as a new market. Everything from DVD’s to CD’s to books, T-shirts and anything else you can make. As for those who say it would be literally impossible to keep 9/11 a secret, that’s a weak argument. How many times have the Kennedy assassanation files release been pushed back for “national security reasons”? In the current environment, dissent isn’t allowed.

Again, let’s mention John Pilger. In 2011, a Australian journalist based in London and respected worldwide is banned in the States. Why? He’s not a convicted criminal. He’s not a terrorist. Yet, he’s banned like Chomsky is. However, since Chomsky’s a citizen, what’s the govt. gonna do? Deport a citizen for expressing his opinions?

It’s true that almost none of the progressive media will touch 9/11. Why? First, they have to make a living. Second, in their view they’ll be seen as “another 9/11 nutter”. There’s some You Tube channel that specializes in ambush interviews with various celebs to find out why they won’t cover 9/11. This will get you lots of views and about 10 minutes of fame. But that’s it.

I really feel sorry for the people who lost friends and loved ones in 9/11. They’re loss is being manipulated by lots of others for profit. Then, the govt. tells you there’s no conspiracy. Which is a polite way of saying shut up and go home.

Now, if one of the Powers that Be lost someone in 9/11. we’d see an instant change. Why? Because since this “name” is involved, it’s now “officially” news. Which means the corporate MSM won’t sack the reporter who’s sent to cover it.

We live in a society where it’s illegal to publically question Israel. Any programming or content that’s actually serious, well-researched and asks questions is banned. If you dare to speak out, you’ll be fired, arrested or blackballed in your work. Why is there almost no MSM foreign coverage? Because we can’t afford the “big names”. Therefore, almost all of the foreign correspondents you see for Stateside news channels are foreigners. Maybe they work way cheaper?

Right now, there’s actually a financial incentive for many people for the inaction on the Left to continue. If millions started marching tomorrow and didn’t back down, what would people like Chris Hedges write about? How long has he been milking this “death of the liberal class” idea?

Until many people publically admit that and deal with it, none of this will change. Who then would dare to risk being a whistleblower. In the current environment, your life is essentially destroyed. Which means many end up emigrating elsewhere.

jj nixon June 13, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Daniel, Thank you for your service to your country at home & abroad. welcome home! Thank you also for your courageous actions in releasing “the pentagon papers”. I read a paperback of it on my way back to Vietnam in the 70’s. When I left VN for the last time in March 72 I never thought I would see all this stuff happening all over again! you cannot blame yourself for not acting earlier, we all owe you a barrel of thanx for hangin you’r ass out like you did. I had the good fortune to meet JPV in Phan Tiet in the 70’s & I hope for the sake of my kids & theirs that folks with the courage you showed will rise to the challenges of the future. jj nixon

Bill Anderson June 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Daniel, Thanks for your past work and continues efforts to hold government accountable. I need a whistleblower on my behalf but as yet haven’t found one. The most recent incident involves Middletown CT police having City Health Department director Sal Nesci declaring my car unfit for occupancy and having it towed after I was arrested by Middletown officer Owens for interference, a charge he embelished by lying 7 times in his police report. I was living in my car at the time. The tow company would not allow me to recover any of my possesions, effectively taking everything I owned. Please read more of what took place at “Historic cover-up of FBI and police crimes currently taking place” on the Urban 75 message board. Bill Anderson soxin8@hotmail.com

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