Opinion | Leaking the Pentagon Papers Was an Assault on Democracy

It is an axiom that governmental secrecy is antithetical to democratic self-rule. But it is also an axiom that secrecy is crucial to the conduct of statecraft. The 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times provides an occasion to consider what happens when the two axioms collide. The case of Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most celebrated leaker in our history, reveals the ambiguities stemming from a tension that can never be satisfactorily resolved.

Beginning in 1964, working in the inner sanctum of the Pentagon with Vietnam as his portfolio, Mr. Ellsberg acquired as full a picture of the war as anyone in the U.S. government. In 1967, after a stint in Vietnam itself, he joined the RAND Corporation, where he gained access to a remarkable top-secret Pentagon study to which he had contributed.

This “History of U.S. Decision Making on Vietnam Policy: 1945-68” consisted of 3,000 pages of analysis of every facet of the war accompanied by 4,000 pages of documents. By this juncture, Mr. Ellsberg was far along in his conversion from true-believing Pentagon war planner to avid antiwar radical. Operating in secret, he painstakingly photocopied the 47 volumes of the study and showed it all to The Times, which began publishing sections of it on June 13, 1971, exactly 50 years ago on Sunday.

Were Mr. Ellsberg’s actions heroic? Today, they are widely regarded as such. After all, facing a potential life sentence for violating the Espionage Act, he took it upon himself to inform the public about a vital matter: namely, that the study showed, as he saw it, that the American government had been lying for years about the progress of the war.

But consider an opposing view. By leaking the secret study, Mr. Ellsberg was engaged in nothing less than an assault on democracy itself.

The way in which we control critical national security secrets has been established by Congress and the executive branch, two bodies that are both accountable to the public and checked and balanced by the courts. Disregarding his secrecy oaths and violating the law, Mr. Ellsberg, accountable to no one, unilaterally took it upon himself to attempt to steer the ship of state.

It can be argued, perhaps, that even if Mr. Ellsberg broke the law and acted outside the channels of democratic decision-making, he was somehow still representing the will of the American people. After all, by the spring of 1971, a strong majority of Americans wanted troops out of Vietnam by the end of the year. But even then, after tens of thousands of Americans had died, the public did not favor the kind of precipitous withdrawal that Mr. Ellsberg and his compatriots in the antiwar movement were calling for, if it meant American prisoners of war would not return safely home.

Indeed, even by the 1972 election, with the Pentagon Papers already in the public domain for all to read, the candidate favoring immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, George McGovern, was trounced in one of the most sweeping landslides in American history. In short, far from operating within the norms of our democracy, Mr. Ellsberg was illegally exploiting his privileged access to secret information to advance the views of a small but highly vocal minority.

Though the Pentagon Papers received extraordinary attention, this was primarily due to the Nixon administration’s unprecedented effort to impose a pre-publication injunction on The New York Times, which sparked a momentous Supreme Court case. But the actual contents of the Pentagon Papers were something else. Far from shaking public opinion, and disappointingly to Mr. Ellsberg, the revelations were met with a collective yawn.

For one thing, they were stale. Not a single document in the collection was less than three years old. The burning controversy of the day was President Richard Nixon’s conduct of the war, but about this the Pentagon Papers said not a word. The Pentagon history was the record of the Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman years. In a recorded telephone conversation with Nixon, the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, observed, “In public opinion, it actually, if anything, will help us a little bit, because this is a gold mine of showing how the previous administration got us in there.”

For another thing, despite the wealth of material, the overall thrust of the Pentagon Papers was already familiar to the public. The American people already knew from the press that the war was going badly under Kennedy and Johnson even as both administrations, as they led the nation deeper into the conflict, had depicted it as going well. The public soon distrusted Nixon, too. The Ellsberg revelations merely filled in more details in a picture that was already well established.

Moreover, despite the Nixon administration’s extravagant claims to the contrary, there was not a single secret actually damaging to national security in the enormous trove that Mr. Ellsberg had released.

If the Pentagon Papers leak harmed national security, it was simply by demonstrating to the world that the United States was having trouble keeping its secrets. To Mr. Ellsberg’s credit there were lines he would not cross. There are certain kinds of materials, he writes in his memoir, “such as diplomatic negotiations, certain intelligence sources and methods, or various time-sensitive military-operational secrets, that warranted strict secrecy.”

In this respect Mr. Ellsberg stands in sharply favorable contrast to the mega-leakers of the current day, like Edward Snowden, who in 2013 before fleeing to Moscow, disclosed thousands if not hundreds of thousands of electronic pages, not about historical events but ongoing secret governmental activities. Even if Mr. Snowden exposed what were arguably unconstitutional surveillance programs begun by the Bush administration, his flight from accountability and his indiscriminate dumping into the public domain of numerous other highly sensitive intelligence and counterterrorism operations, none specifically in violation of any statute, makes him someone who should be tried, convicted, and jailed under the espionage statutes.

Given that the leaking of national-security secrets is a venture fraught with moral uncertainty, Mr. Ellsberg’s legacy is at best mixed. One can admire the single-minded tenacity with which he pursued his aim of ending the Vietnam War. And one can take note of the fact that he neither directly endangered national security nor accomplished (at least in the short term) his main objective of turning public opinion against the war.

But he was still a rogue actor, who if the fundamental ground rules of our constitutional democracy are to be respected, deserves a measure of condemnation along with the celebration that he has already earned.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and the author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.”

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