Pentagon Papers Will Finally Be Officially Released Monday. Why Now?

Minjae Park --------

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Last December, days after WikiLeaks released its first batch of U.S. diplomatic cables, Max Frankel criticized the government's hyper-secret ways in an op-ed piece in The Guardian. “[Government] has acquired the habit of classifying everything it does, thinks, plans or contemplates in the realm of foreign policy,” he wrote.Frankel was the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times on June 13, 1971, when the Sunday edition of the newspaper carried the first in a 10-part series on “top secret” documents about the Vietnam War. They became known as "The Pentagon Papers."Forty years later to the day—next Monday, June 13—the federal government will officially release all 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, curiously deciding to give the impression it is commemorating the Times' publication of the classified study. The National Archives website notes, “This is the 40th anniversary of the leak of these Papers by the New York Times.”The full collection Defense Department documents will be available online at official release will include some parts of the study that have not been published before. But it will do little to help historians and the public understand the Vietnam War, since most of the classified material is already public. Daniel Ellsberg, the former RAND Corporation analyst who leaked the Papers to the Times, called the release a “non-event.”But even if the information is old, the release ought to trigger fresh debate about some enduring questions surrounding the Papers.For one, the release should remind us of the executive branch’s enormous power over war at a time when the Obama administration refuses to explain the legality of the U.S.’s involvement in Libya. Ellsberg points out that the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which President Obama is accused of violating, was an attempt by Congress to check the authority of the commander-in-chief during the Vietnam War.The decades-long delay in declassifying the material should raise questions in the public's mind: Why were the Pentagon Papers classified as “top secret” and why did the government withhold them for so long? Ellsberg said the Papers should not have been secret in 1971. Leslie H. Gelb, who directed the study, said the Papers “should have been declassified a long, long time ago.”Under the First AmendmentThe Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was a study of the history of American involvement in Indochina from World War II to May 1968. The 18-month-long project produced 47 volumes containing roughly 2.5 million words. In his memoir, McNamara wrote, “The overall work was superb and it accomplished my objective: almost every scholarly work on Vietnam since then draws to varying degrees, on it.”The day after the Times printed its front-page story “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement,” U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell called and sent a telegram to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times. He requested Sulzberger stop publishing the remaining documents and return them to the Department of Defense. Sulzberger refused, and the dispute ended up in court. In its landmark 1971 New York Times Co. v. United States ruling (6-3), the Supreme Court denied the government’s attempts to enjoin further publication of the Pentagon Papers.Justice Potter Stewart, joined by Justice Byron White, wrote, “I cannot say that disclosure of any of them will surely result in direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people. That being so, there can under the First Amendment be but one judicial resolution of the issues before us.”Secrets not worth keepingThe day before the Supreme Court decision, Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) read portions of the Pentagon Papers in a subcommittee session. Gravel, who had also received the Papers from Ellsberg, placed 4,100 pages of them in the congressional record. That October, he published with Beacon Press a four-volume edition of the Pentagon Papers.In announcing the release of the full study, the National Archives website said, “Approximately 2,384 pages or 34% of the Report will be opened for the first time as compared to the Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers, the most common benchmark used in Pentagon Papers discussions.”The website says nothing about why the government has waited until 2011.Erwin Griswold, solicitor general under Nixon, argued before the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case that releasing the documents would cause “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.”But the national security argument surely expired with the end of the Vietnam War.In a Washington Post op-ed piece in 1989, even Griswold revised his stance. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication,” he wrote. “Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.”The title of his article, tellingly, was, “Secrets Not Worth Keeping.”Yet the U.S. government never officially released the Pentagon Papers until 22 years after Griswold's article—and 36 years after the Vietnam War finally sputtered to an end.

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