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Pentagon Papers

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

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.

Pentagon Papers Officially Declassified on the 40th Anniversary of Their Publication – 40 Years Late

June 13th, 2011, marks the 40th anniversary of the initial publication of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times.

Daniel Ellsberg was interviewed for pieces in both the New York Times and CNN on the anniversary, and on the government’s decision to declassify the Papers.

In the New York Times piece, Daniel said:

It’s absurd. . . . The reasons [for keeping it secret all these years] are very clearly domestic political reasons, not national security at all. The reasons for the prolonged secrecy are to conceal the fact that so much of the policy making doesn’t bear public examination. It’s embarrassing, or even incriminating. . . .

It seems to me that what the Pentagon Papers really demonstrated 40 years ago was the price of [Congress giving its war powers to the President. . . . ] [L]etting a small group of men in secret in the executive branch make these decisions — initiate them secretly, carry them out secretly and manipulate Congress, and lie to Congress and the public as to why they’re doing it and what they’re doing — is a recipe for, a guarantee of Vietnams and Iraqs and Libyas, and in general foolish, reckless, dangerous policies.

In the CNN piece, which contains a longer interview with Daniel, he said:

[I]f the hype around this belated release got a new generation to read the Pentagon Papers  or at least the summaries to the various volumes (my highest hope, pretty unlikely), they’d get from them as good an understanding as they could find anywhere today of our war in Afghanistan. . . .

Different religion and language, different terrain and tactics, but the same hopeless effort to get nationalist guerrillas to quit fighting foreign invaders and the corrupt, dope-dealing despots we support; and secretly, the same irresponsible, self-serving, presidential and congressional objectives: namely, 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.  The same prospect of endless, bloody stalemate: unless public political pressure on Congress threatens to cut off the money, forcing the Executive into a negotiated withdrawal.

The Pentagon Papers didn’t explicitly present that last alternative, but their release contributed to that result, eventually.  Is it too much to hope that their re-release could do the same?  Yes, it is.  But fortunately there are a few Congresspersons, like Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee, Walter Jones and Ron Paul who got that message the first time, even if the Republican and Democratic leadership hasn’t, yet.

The lessons of Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. . . do seem to have been largely lost, especially in the last decade but even before that.  There was a decade or so in the Seventies of the aggressive investigative journalism and Congressional hearings we need, including the Church and Pike committees, by journalists like Sy Hersh (one of the few who keeps up the tradition).

And then… back to  unquestioning acceptance of government pronouncements and reliance on the president’s judgment formed and enacted in secret:  both, totally unfounded and unwise, irresponsible in a democracy, paving the way to new Vietnams, as in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya.

Our Founders sought to prevent this. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, for the first time in constitutional history,  put the decision to go to war (beyond repelling sudden attacks) exclusively in the hands of Congress, not the president.  But every president since  Harry Truman in Korea—as the Pentagon Papers demonstrated up through LBJ, but beyond them to George W. Bush and Barack Obama–has violated the spirit and even the letter of that section of the Constitution (along with some others) they each swore to preserve, protect and defend.

However, as has been pointed out repeatedly by Glenn Greenwald and Bruce Ackerman, David Swanson and others, no president has so blatantly violated the constitutional division of war powers as President Obama in his ongoing attack on Libya, without a nod even to the statutory War Powers Act, that post-Pentagon Papers effort by Congress to recapture something of the role assigned exclusively to it by the Constitution.

This open disregard of a ruling statute (regardless of his supposed feelings about its constitutionality, which Obama has not even bothered to express) is clearly an impeachable offense, though it will certainly not lead to impeachment–given the current complicity of the leaders of both parties–any more than President George W. Bush’s misleading Congress into his crime against the peace, aggression, in Iraq, or President Johnson’s lies to obtain the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

Yet the most important point, as I see it, is not the secrecy and the lying, or even the blatant disregard of the Constitution, the Presidential oath and the rule of law.

As the Pentagon Papers documented for the much of the Vietnam era (we still lack, and we still need, the corresponding Papers for the Nixon policy-making, that added over twenty thousand names unnecessarily to the Vietnam Memorial and over a million deaths in Vietnam) and the last decade confirms: the point is that the Founders had it right the first time.

As Abraham Lincoln explained their intention (in defending to his former law partner William Herndon his opposition to President Polk’s deliberately provoked Mexican War): “The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object.  This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”

As Lincoln put it, the alternative approach (which we have actually followed in the last sixty years) “places our President where kings have always stood.”  And the upshot of that undue, unquestioning trust in the president and his Executive branch is: smart people get us into stupid (and wrongful) wars, and their equally smart successors won’t get us out of them.

Either we the people will press elected officials in Congress–on pain of losing their jobs–to take up their Constitutional responsibilities once again and to end by defunding our illegal, unjustifiable (and now, financially insupportable) military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and air attacks on Pakistan, Libya and Yemen: or those bloody stalemates will continue indefinitely.

Ellsberg in LA Times: “There should be a Pentagon Papers out every year.”

Daniel Ellsberg was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in anticipation of the premiere of The Most Dangerous Man in America tonight on PBS:

Ellsberg was critical of George W. Bush’s administration for what he regards as its disdain for transparency, but also blames the Obama White House for continuing the cloaked practices in the war on terror. He’s heartened by the recent cache of documents released by WikiLeaks on the Afghan war, though he thinks newspapers are more credible places to publish than the Internet. But he applauds the site for offering a clearer look at what the U.S. government is up to: “There should be a Pentagon Papers out ever year,” he says.

The Next War

[Daniel’s article in the October 2006 issue of Harper’s.]

A hidden crisis is under way. Many government insiders are aware of serious plans for war with Iran, but Congress and the public remain largely in the dark. The current situation is very like that of 1964, the year preceding our overt, open-ended escalation of the Vietnam War, and 2002, the year leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In both cases, if one or more conscientious insiders had closed the information gap with unauthorized disclosures to the public, a disastrous war might have been averted entirely. Continue Reading

Eulogy for Tony Russo

Tony Russo came to be my best friend at Rand after I came back from Vietnam in 1967, and we became even closer after he left. He was fired from Rand, despite my efforts to keep him, for the best of reasons: He had, in classified reports, analyzed the class basis of the Vietnam conflict, and he had exposed the widespread use of torture by our Vietnamese forces, with American involvement. I learned more from Tony than from anyone else about the nature of the National Liberation Front, some members of which had impressed him deeply when he interviewed them about a Rand research project. He was brilliant and funny, with a very original and creative mind. He was also very warm — more likeable than me, as many who attended our trial discovered.

Just before I decided to copy the Pentagon Papers, with Tony’s help, he made a suggestion that played a key role in my decision. Tony did not know that the Pentagon Papers were being held at Rand, or were in my safe, or even that I had worked on the study, because I was under orders not to tell anyone. But I did tell him in late September 1969 that I had been reading a study (which later became the basis of the Pentagon Papers) that revealed a lot of high-level lying. He said to me, “You ought to put that out.” This was an extraordinary thing for someone who had until recently held a top secret clearance to say to anyone, least of all to someone who still had a clearance. In fact, I never heard of such a suggestion being made before or since (except of course by me, later). A week after this conversation, with other events working on my mind, I called him up and said, “Tony, do you know a study that I mentioned last week? Well, I’ve got it, and I think I will put it out. Can you help?” Continue Reading