The legacy of the Pentagon Papers

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 34, July 2003, p. 11.

Brian Martin

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Who ever said that whistleblowing never makes a difference?

The leaking of the Pentagon Papers is one of the great whistleblowing sagas. The Pentagon Papers was the name given to a 47-volume top-secret "History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68," written by specialists within the US Defense Department at the request of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

The Pentagon Papers were political dynamite because they told what had really been going on in Vietnam. That was in contrast with the official line, regularly presented by top government and military officials, who blatantly lied to the public about the Vietnam war. For example, the official line was that the war was going well, when actually there was plenty of inside information that it wasn’t.

On 4 August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced on television that North Vietnamese boats had deliberately attacked US ships on routine patrol in international waters in the Tonkin Gulf. On the basis of this claim, Congress supported a resolution that was used to expand US involvement in the war, a war that ultimately claimed the lives of 50,000 US troops and two million Vietnamese. But the reports of a North Vietnamese attack in the Tonkin Gulf on 4 August 1964 were uncertain, probably wrong. Furthermore, the US ships were on a secret intelligence mission within North Vietnamese territorial waters. This is just a sample of the many lies to the public and Congress involved in a single incident.

Daniel Ellsberg served in Vietnam and worked for the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, which did lots of work for the Pentagon. Like many others, he knew that officials systematically lied to the public. Like many others, he believed in "the unbreakable rule of the executive branch": "You could not have the confidence of powerful men and be trusted with their confidences if there was any prospect that you would challenge their policies in public in any forum at all."

Ellsberg had access to the Pentagon Papers and believed that they showed that US policy in Vietnam was misguided. He first tried internal channels. He approached various officials, including national security adviser Henry Kissinger, encouraging them to read the papers, but basically they weren’t interested.

In the late 1960s, popular opposition to the war increased dramatically. Ellsberg came in contact with Janaki, a nonviolent activist from India, who opened his eyes to a different set of values. Previously he had thought the best way to help stop the war was to use his influence on the inside. Now he thought it might be more effective to take his concerns to the public.

Ellsberg copied the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, an extremely lengthy and tedious process in those days of slow photocopiers. He offered the papers to politicians but could find no one who would make full use of them. So eventually he went to the press, offering the papers to the New York Times, where the first story appeared on 13 June 1971.

The government took out an injunction against further publication, the first such prior restraint in US history. This attempt at censorship generated enormous interest in the papers. Ellsberg went underground for two weeks, day-by-day feeding parts of the papers to different newspapers. As they published material, the government eventually stopped issuing injunctions. The Supreme Court ruled against the injunctions, allowing the Pentagon Papers to be published in full.

Ellsberg was a marked man. He was indicted, along with Rand colleague Anthony Russo, who had helped copy the papers. But his defence lawyers discovered that, amazingly, there was no US law against leaking government documents. You could be dismissed but, unlike Britain or Australia, there was no official secrets act.

The history revealed in the Pentagon Papers finished in 1968, before the election of Richard Nixon that year. The Papers showed that officials had lied about the Vietnam war under previous US presidents, but had nothing about Nixon’s administration. Nevertheless, Nixon wanted to "get" Ellsberg in order to deter other officials who might reveal secrets about his own administration. White House tapes, later revealed, include this conversation:

Mitchell [Attorney-General John Mitchell]: No question about it … This is the one sanction we have, is to get at the individuals …

President: … Let’s get the son-of-a-bitch into jail.

Kissinger: We’ve got to get him.

President: We’ve got to get him. … Don’t worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press. Try him in the press. Everything, John, that there is on the investigation, get it out, leak it out. We want to destroy him in the press. Press. Is that clear?

Kissinger and Mitchell: Yes.

Part of the Nixon-inspired effort to destroy Ellsberg was a burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office undertaken by the "plumbers," a secret unit set up by White House staff. But this backfired in a big way. When information about the burglary became public, the judge dismissed the case against Ellsberg.

The plumbers were also involved in a more famous burglary, of the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building in Washington DC. The Watergate scandal engulfed Nixon, eventually leading to his resignation in 1974. But from Ellsberg’s perspective, it had an even more important effect.

Nixon claimed that he was winding down the war in Vietnam. He was lying, as usual. He actually had plans to dramatically expand the war. He vetoed a motion by Congress to withdraw financial support for the war effort. But it was too much for Nixon to undertake two major tasks at once, to both build support for his war plans and to stave off the looming Watergate crisis. His own survival took priority, and so his escalation of the war did not occur.

Read all about this, and more, in Daniel Ellsberg’s revealing book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking, 2002).