In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Daniel Ellsberg, onetime defense wonk, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, and aging radical, had this to say to present-day administration officials about the war in Iraq: "[D]on't repeat my mistakes. Don't wait until more troops are sent, and thousands more have died, before telling truths that could end a war and save lives. Do what I wish I had done in 1964; go to the press, to Congress, and document your claims."
The reference to 1964 was important. On Election Day that year, Ellsberg wrote, he was involved in an interagency working group whose purpose was to examine plans to expand the war in Vietnam. The only problem was that President Lyndon Johnson was simultaneously promising American voters that his administration would do no such thing (the Tonkin Gulf resolution had been adopted less than three months before).
Three things come to mind in reading Ellsberg's invitation to officials to become leakers or whistleblowers: that the events surrounding publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War, showed Ellsberg's own uncertainty in practicing what he now preaches; that the Iraq conflict, its preparation and aftermath, has had more leaks, exposés, betrayals and confessions than a game of truth-or-dare on free-drinks night, so that it's difficult to see what Ellsberg is bellyaching about; and that the overwhelming number of disclosures on prewar planning (and dissembling) have probably done much less damage to the administration than its own bungling in Iraq once American troops hit the ground.
The tale of Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers is more complicated than most people care to remember, and exhibits perhaps less "moral courage" than Ellsberg is urging today. As Tom Wells noted in his biography of Ellsberg, Wild Man, his first instinct after copying the documents was to find a senator or representative to whom he could give the papers, so that he wouldn't personally be prosecuted. When this scheme went nowhere, however, Ellsberg sought out an alternative plan.
The only thing is that he dithered endlessly, so that documents he copied in October 1969 only saw the light of day in June 1971. In circulating the papers, Ellsberg reluctantly allowed scholars at the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) to copy part of his set, "under pressure and cajoling", writes Wells, who quotes one of the IPS people as saying his colleagues were "disparaging of Ellsberg for hanging back." Finally, after more wavering, Ellsberg met with Neil Sheehan of the New York Times. He reneged on a publication agreement with him, but did allow Sheehan to see some of the documents, instructing him not to copy them. Sheehan, who was by that time fed up with Ellsberg, ignored the request, combined his duplicates with others he had received from the IPS, and published them to much fanfare in the Times.
Why did Ellsberg delay for so long? A sour Wells contends he released the papers merely to "achieve greater recognition", but implies he didn't want to pay the penalty. Whether the explanation is a fair one is not entirely relevant, but it does qualify the power of Ellsberg's latest call to leak: If Ellsberg could display such diffidence in releasing documents he felt might end an "immoral war" in Vietnam, then surely the effort is tougher in Iraq, where many Americans may question the conflict but apparently do not yet consider it immoral.
Hold on a minute, how true is that? In fact, had a tommy gun been fired at the entire Iraq campaign, it would not have bored more revelatory holes than the ones available today at the touch of a computer keyboard.
One of the more publicized tell-all accounts, a long March 2004 article in Salon by Karen Kwiatkowski, a former officer in the Near East South Asia directorate of the Pentagon, was even suggestively titled "The new Pentagon papers." In it she described from the inside, and at length, what she called the "neoconservative capture of the policy-intelligence nexus in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq." Kwiatkowski was particularly scornful of the Office of Special Plans, a Pentagon body set up to gather information on Iraq and prepare for war. OSP, she wrote, "was used to manufacture propaganda for internal and external use, and pseudo war planning."
There were other more significant leaks in the build-up to war. Take Seymour Hersh's piece in the March 11, 2002 issue of The New Yorker, which examined the debate within the Bush administration and Pentagon over Iraq. Plying his myriad anonymous sources, Hersh quoted a "recently retired senior military officer, who drafted CENTCOM battle studies with the Marine leadership" as saying: "We've got a bunch of people involved who think it's going to be easy. We're set up for a big surprise." That was only one sign of an ongoing battle between the top brass and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the type of strategy to use in Iraq. The brass wanted a large force, Rumsfeld a smaller, more mobile one; and the press was a happy midwife to that very public rumpus.
The culmination of this was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's public disavowal in February 2003 of Army chief-of-staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's estimate that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed in Iraq.
That was only the beginning. Recall former ambassador Joseph Wilson's July 6, 2003 op-ed piece in the New York Times , which accused the Bush administration of manipulating evidence on Iraq's alleged efforts to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger. And don't forget the recent leak of the conclusions of a National Intelligence Estimate that damagingly suggested the U.S. was facing three possible scenarios in Iraq, all of them abysmal. Columnist Robert Novak, employed as an avenging angel against Wilson, wrote a piece accusing CIA intelligence officer Paul R. Pillar of divulging the estimate's grim highlights.
Or what of the most recent statements, after months of silence, by Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's onetime high commissioner in Baghdad? In a September 17 speech at De Pauw University, and again on Monday at an insurance conference in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, he stated that from the start there were too few American troops in Iraq. While these didn't strictly qualify as leaks (though Bremer insisted the speeches were off the record, suggesting leaking was on his mind), their motivations were little different: to wipe mud off Bremer's much-contested record; perhaps to effect a change in policy; and, conceivably, to rustle up some interest in a forthcoming memoir.
Just to show everybody did it, go back in time to an article in the March 2, 2003 issue of London's The Observer, reporting that the U.S. and the U.K. had eavesdropped on Security Council members during the debate at the UN on whether the council should authorize war in Iraq. The leaker was subsequently identified as Katherine Gun, a translator at the Britain's communications spy agency, General Communications Headquarters. She was not prosecuted.
Armed with Google, one can go on ad infinitum, each new devastating revelation making Ellsberg's plucky plea appear increasingly outlandish. But the more significant question remains: Have the leakers and whistleblowers made much of a dent in American attitudes, as Ellsberg presumes they should?
It's actually a mixed bag. Until recently the polls seemed to suggest not. A Time-CNN poll conducted last April, after many of the high-profile revelations about the administration's doublespeak on Iraq had come out, still showed, according to a Washington Times story, that "53 percent believe that going to war in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime was the right decision; 41 percent do not." The paper went on to report that the poll showed that "64 percent believe that al Qaeda 'is involved in the attacks by Iraqis against U.S. troops in recent days,' echoing Mr. Bush's contention that the war in Iraq is part and parcel of the global war on terrorism, not a diversion."
Revealingly, only 26 percent of respondents said that the U.S. military's actions in Iraq were "successful", while 24 percent said they were "unsuccessful." A majority, 49 percent, said they were somewhere "in between." This suggested that while many in the public were more or less willing to toe the administration's line on the big picture in Iraq, they realized that the performance on the ground was sorely lacking.
A recent New York Times-CBS News poll following the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry confirmed that performance was an issue. While 57 percent of respondents said they approved of Bush's handling of terrorism (against 37 percent), the direction switched when it came to management of the Iraq war: "Asked what kind of job Mr. Bush had done in anticipating what would happen in Iraq as a result of the war, 59 percent said he had done a poor job and 34 percent said a good job."
What the polls seem to show is that voters in the past months have been less concerned with how the Iraq war was falsely depicted by the administration, the subject of many of the early leaks, than with how it has been handled since the insurgency became a major headache. While it may be hazardous to draw general conclusions from just two polls, John Kerry apparently hit on something when he made competence the issue in Iraq. That's why the NIE and Bremer's disclosures may be potentially more devastating than Kwiatkowski's, or those, for example, in books by Richard A. Clarke or James Bamford, with their focus on prewar administration deception.
When it comes to leaking, Ellsberg, whose release of the Pentagon Papers appears, ultimately, to have had little effect on the course of the war in Vietnam, must know that some leaks are more equal than others.