December 29th, 2010

Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

Floyd Abrams, one of the lawyers who defended the NY Times in the Pentagon Papers lawsuit, differentiates between Daniel Ellsberg’s actions in releasing those documents and Julian Assange’s in Wikileaks. Ellsberg, he says, was mindful of the damage that could be done and therefore purposely withheld a large chunk of information relating to US negotiations concerning the Vietnam War, because he “didn’t want to get in the way of diplomacy.”

Abrams rightly points out that Assange has censored very little, and that his motive appears to be the opposite: to get in the way of diplomacy, and expose it to the harsh light of day.

Abrams points out the Assange’s motives might determine whether he can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Unlike Ellsberg or Assange’s informant Manning, he is neither a US government employee nor in a national security position. Therefore, in order for a conviction to occur under the Act, it would have to be proven that Assange intended to harm the United States or help its enemies by releasing the material.

Although it may be fairly clear that’s exactly what Assange intended to do, proving it in a court of law would be a very formidable and perhaps even impossible task. This also would be the situation if any journalist or newspaper involved in publishing the material were to be prosecuted.

Ellsberg’s situation was different. Although in the end Watergate saved him, he originally felt he ran a high risk of going to prison for life. He had worked for the CIA and was a RAND corporation employee at the time of the Papers’ reveal. As such, he had access to classified information and had taken an oath to keep it secret, an oath he violated when he gave the Papers to the MSM (after an initial attempt to offer them to some sympathetic senators failed).

Abrams writes of the Papers:

The Pentagon Papers revelations dealt with a discrete topic, the ever-increasing level of duplicity of our leaders over a score of years in increasing the nation’s involvement in Vietnam while denying it. It revealed official wrongdoing or, at the least, a pervasive lack of candor by the government to its people.

This is the commonly accepted interpretation of what the Papers revealed. But how many people have read them? Certainly not I; they’re massive. Most people only have a foggy notion of what Abrams means when he writes of “wrongdoing,” and “lack of candor.”

Both characteristics are inevitable in war, of course, and the latter is absolutely required in war. A country could never win a war conducted with full transparency—just as diplomacy could not be successfully conducted with the sort of “candor” Assange professes to want to engender. The question is one of degree and balance, however, and there is an excellent argument to be made that the Vietnam War was conducted with an unacceptable degree of both wrongdoing and lack of candor, because even its very aims (war of attrition vs. commitment to victory) were covered up.

Many of the details of the Pentagon Papers seem to have been forgotten, or perhaps were never even learned, by the vast majority of people (myself included). For example, in doing research for this post, I learned (or re-learned) that the Papers were actually a special study commissioned by Johnson’s Secretary of Defense McNamara, and only concerned actions of the US government up to and including the Johnson administration, from whom Papers were kept secret:

Thirty-six analysts—half of them active-duty military officers, the rest academics and civilian federal employees—worked on the study. The analysts largely used existing files in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and did no interviews or consultations with the armed forces, the White House, or other federal agencies to keep the study secret from others, including National Security Advisor[sic] Walt W. Rostow.

This is really quite extraordinary in and of itself. What’s more, Johnson and his Secretary of State Dean Rusk only learned of the Papers’ existence and content when they were published by the Times in 1971. By then, of course, it was Nixon who was in charge of the Vietnam War, in what I’ve called the “second act.” And it was Nixon who was unsuccessful in the famous lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court, in which he fought the Times to prohibit the publication the Papers.

The publication of the Papers helped solidify certain conceptions about government wrongdoing and lack of candor. But be careful what you think you know:

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage [of the Papers] was at odds with what the documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

7 Responses to “Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers”

  1. expat Says:

    Did you see this bit on Wikileaks’ effect on Zimbabwe?

    Not that Assange would care.

  2. Curtis Says:

    Information is spice. Not the “spice and everything nice” spice, but the spice of the “spice trade.”

    But, as in most modern things, the time for development is crushed into a black hole.

  3. gs Says:

    I have no problem with applying the full rigor of the law to Manning.

    Unless Assange took custody of the stolen data on US soil, the issue of national sovereignty makes me uneasy about prosecuting him, even if Australia consents. Such a prosecution might establish a precedent that we would regret in the future.

    I lean toward handling Assange with the shadowy methods designed for terrorists, spies and other enemy agents.

  4. Artfldgr Says:

    Read about what is behind all the noise and the arguments for consumption, and all that…

    While arguing X over Y, we accept what premises that are unstated before that?

    Meanwhile, i would take a peek into his process of releasing information, who puts it up, where it goes up first, and who really loves him saying he should get a noble prize.

    After all that THEN figure out whether you want to get about a moral argument over what is done, what is different, etc… after all, if there are no morals, your arguing is a pointless waste of time and life energy… as they become arbitrary and only power decides which are to exist.

    If there are common morals, then whats there to decide given the details and the rules before he acted?

    How much have we normalized?

    First decide if the whole argument is valid

    and as to the arguments, the back and forth, the confusion, the manipulation… i offer this..

    For an interesting read look up “Innocents Clubs”

    Its a bit of history most of us have never known, let alone forgotten..

    For the really ambitious in reading history, you can trace the above person, from the youth organization he founded to Kurt Stand, to Abercrombie and beyond.

    The threads lead back to the same things over and over…

    Blows ones minds to read about process back then and then see it work again because the key ingredient has been created in abundance: willful ignorance

    [even funnier the urban dictionary claims that the left are not willfully ignorant, even though they are called useful idiots, and innocents clubs by the people who 'inform' them]

    a quote..
    The old tricks certainly are the best!

  5. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Thanks for the link, artfldgr. These propaganda techniques are the same as those in “Rules For Radicals” by Saul Alinsky. Alinsky may have gotten his ideas from that gent or others who learned at his knee.

    Now that the Republicans control the House, we can expect the usual arguments for helping the downtrodden, the lame, the halt, the children, etc. etc. to counter any moves to slow spending or downsize government.

  6. Rupert Says:

    Don’t the French have a 100 year secrecy law? They also take care of terrorists very quickly. Je n’est sais pas.

  7. Richard Saunders Says:

    Actually you don’t have to prove Assuange had hostile intent, only that he knew or should have known that the information could be harmful to the U.S. or could have given advantage to another state.

    18 USC 793(e):
    (e) Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model,
    instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the
    same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it; or

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