The Publication of the Pentagon Papers Still Sets an Example 50 Years Later

Whistleblowers and publishers are crucial for keeping government officials reasonably honest.


On June 27, U.S. military forces struck targets in Iraq and Syria "used by Iran-backed militia groups," according to the Department of Defense. Maybe that's the full story, and maybe it's not; we learned long ago to resist taking at face value the assurances of government mouthpieces. In fact, we were reminded of the need to question official stories when former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), who helped to publicize the Pentagon Papers which revealed hidden details about the Vietnam War, passed away just a day before American bombs fell on the Iraq-Syria border region. And June 30 is the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision recognizing the right to publish those historic documents.

The targets bombed over the weekend "were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby added. Assuming that Kirby is being completely candid about the attack, we might attribute his honesty to an awareness that this country's embarrassing military secrets have a history of leaking out and gaining public attention with a little help from those disgusted by official mendacity.

Gravel, who passed away on Saturday, was one of those who gave truth a helping hand when he had the opportunity. When Daniel Ellsberg leaked documents which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers that revealed greater and longer U.S. military involvement in Vietnam than was officially acknowledged, and an unspoken goal of containing communist China rather than defending South Vietnam, the U.S. government attempted to prevent their publication.

"Senator Gravel obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers at the height of the Government's legal efforts to block The New York Times and other newspapers from continuing publication of their comments," The New York Times noted in 1972. "In an emotional midnight subcommittee hearing, the Senator tearfully read long passages into the official subcommittee record. He later arranged for them to be published by The Beacon Press, a nonprofit publishing division of the Unitarian Universalist Association."

Gravel entered the documents into the record on June 29, 1971, to make sure they were available for public consideration and debate. The next day—50 years ago, today—the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that The New York Times could continue to publish the Pentagon Papers.

The U.S. government subsequently went after Gravel and The Beacon Press, but the effort petered out with the eruption of the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile, the information in the published documents helped to shift public opinion against the Vietnam War.

The legacy of the Pentagon Papers, and of the exposure of official bullshit about government shenanigans, lingers decades later. In 2019, when The Washington Post reported on documents revealing "that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable," the newspaper labeled the report "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War" in an echo of the Vietnam-era revelations. If officials couldn't resist the precedent set by previous high-level dishonesty, neither would leakers and journalists fail to follow in the footsteps of those who revealed earlier misdeeds.

But government officials who remain prone to conceal the truth also continue their resistance to exposure and criticism. Vietnam-era officeholders stumbled in their efforts to punish The New York Times, Mike Gravel, The Beacon Press, and Daniel Ellsberg, but their successors fight the same awful battles. Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Reality Winner are among the high-profile revealers of inconvenient secrets targeted in recent years by the powers-that-be. From one administration to the next, no matter which party is in power, officials try to plug (sometimes brutally) the release and publication of government information that threatens to embarrass officialdom in the eyes of the public. There's no reason to think such efforts will stop anytime soon.

"During the final days of the Trump administration, the attorney general used extraordinary measures to obtain subpoenas to secretly seize records of reporters at three leading U.S. news organizations," Fred Ryan, publisher of The Washington Post, pointed out earlier this month. "Unfortunately, new revelations suggest that the Biden Justice Department not only allowed these disturbing intrusions to continue — it intensified the government's attack on First Amendment rights before finally backing down in the face of reporting about its conduct."

"With the revelation that the Justice Department has secretly obtained phone and email records at multiple news organizations to sniff out the identities of journalists' sources, government employees who would otherwise come forward to reveal malfeasance are more likely to fear exposure and retaliation, and therefore to stay silent," Ryan added.

That, of course, is the whole point of targeting whistleblowers and journalists. Officials don't cherish the memory of the Pentagon Papers, or of any other exposures, before and since, of their misconduct.

Under pressure to change its ways, the Justice Department has promised to play nicer and that it "will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs."  But, at this point in history, are we really about to start taking government pronouncements at face value? That would be an odd choice to make, 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled that the government couldn't prevent the publication of information contradicting official lies, and after subsequent decades of efforts to prevent new leaks of embarrassing truths.

So, take the Defense Department's spin on the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq with a grain of salt, as you should with every government pronouncement. To the extent that the spin is truthful, it's held to some degree of accuracy by officials' fears that their secrets will be leaked by insiders with a sense of decency, and then disseminated by journalists and publishers willing to risk the state's wrath. Fifty years later, the Pentagon Papers still cast a long shadow and remain an ongoing example for dealing with government misconduct.