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 today.
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.
Today, 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 is 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 today’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.