Of WikiLeaks and the Pentagon Papers

In connection with the latest WikiLeaks flap, commenter Brett Bellmore asks rhetorically, “Do you think America would be better off if the Pentagon Papers hadn’t been leaked?”

Yes! Hell, yes! Much better off.

The Pentagon Papers leak didn’t end the Vietnam War. It did ensure that no subsequent Secretary of Defense would commission a frank, independent analysis of the decision-making processes that led to war.

The notion that governments should have no secrets sounds attractive until you run the game back one step: if there can’t be any secrets, then you can’t write down anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. That’s a sure formula for making executive-branch deliberations as content-free as Congressional debates.

The choice is not between a world with secrets and a world in which all the citizens know whatever the government knows. The choice is between a world in which officials can share information and carry out reasoned debates with one another and a world in which nothing can be written down. Really, that’s a not a hard choice.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

23 thoughts on “Of WikiLeaks and the Pentagon Papers”

  1. Mark, in this case, you're assuming that the records contained in the Pentagon Papers show a process of information sharing and reasoned debate, and not a systematic attempt to deceive the American people about an important matter of foreign policy by withholding critical information and lying about it repeatedly in public. And yes, it came down to one person's judgment which was which. Doesn't it always?

    Brett's comparison between Wikileaks and the Papers isn't particularly apt, since Ellsberg didn't dredge up just any old memos and diplomatic cables, and he had a specific goal in mind. And he gave himself up to the authorities and stood trial for what he did, and the only reason he didn't go to jail was the behavior of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, et al., on up to Nixon himself.

    So there have to be more than two options, even in your reframing of the issue. How about a world in which people who know crimes are being committed in their names come forward at great personal risk to share what they know in an effort to stop them?

  2. But surely they would have leaked eventually? After all, the rhetorical power of the Pentagon Papers was the revelation that the government knew it had done everything wrong, was achieving nothing, and all at hideous human and monetary cost. Do you really thing that if Ellburg hadn't leaked their existence and message while the war ground grimly on that they wouldn't have leaked at some point in the next decade or two? After all, the wave of disillusionment, disenchantment, and even unrest from the Vietnam debacle was not a product of the Papers, however much they reinforced it. And though a later leak might have had less power to embarrass sitting officials, it still would have had the effect of discouraging future officials from similarly crafting the rod with which to beat their legacies. It's obvious that the Nixon Tapes meant that no later President would risk creating such risky records – but I'd suggest that the releases of the LBJ tapes have been embarrassing enough that they might (more slowly) have had a similar effect to discourage Presidential taping even if subsequent Presidents didn't have the example of the Nixon Tapes.

    Also: while I truly salute the spirit of introspection and (internal, highly classified) honesty that led to the creation of the Pentagon Papers – where's the evidence that they did a bit of good while secret? You complain that future administrations will be afraid to possess the probing, insightful documents that reveal the bankruptcy of their misguided policies – but the Johnson and Nixon administrations had those documents, and if it made a difference I don't know of it. Johnson mired us deeper and deeper in the (private, tape-recorded) stated awareness that it was useless and counterproductive. I realize that smart policy made on secret grounds won't leave the fingerprints to serve as a case study demonstrating the wisdom of letting officials officiate with only secret introspection, but the example you've rested your argument on seems a bit anemic.

  3. Simple problem, really. So long as there's no authority to say "that doesn't have to be secret, guys" then the ability to keep things secret masks everything from the use of street language to illegal wiretapping of political opponents.

    Some level of confidentiality is required for any good decision-making. Allowing those who most benefit from keeping their screwups secret to determine what gets kept secret isn't the best way to do it.

  4. I'd love to edit that last post, but doesn't seem to be a way of doing that.

    So posting again, sorry:

    Simple problem, really. So long as there's no authority to say "that doesn't need to be secret" then the ability to keep things secret masks everything from the use of street language to illegal wiretapping of political opponents, along with discussions that should in fact be confidential.

    Some level of confidentiality is required for any good decision-making. Ask any parent. But allowing those who most benefit from keeping their screwups secret to determine what gets kept secret isn't the best way to arrive at confidentiality in government matters.

  5. Mark, please note that our entry into the Vietnam War was pre-release of the Pentagon Papers, as were many, many, ***************many************* nasty and counter-productive Cold War acts.

  6. I must disagree with Professor Kleiman's reasoning and conclusion.

    There will, at most, be less incentive for political appointees to engage in "frank, independent analysis of [their own] decision-making processes." Remember that a substantial proportion of the Pentagon Papers were compiled at the direction of a Republican political appointee, and reflected poorly upon the preceding Democratic administrations (and, before that, a Republican administration that the top few still viewed as having sabotaged Nixon's campaign in 1960). Further, that portion that were assembled during the Johnson Administration largely ignored the Kennedy Administration's role and emphasized that of the Eisenhower Administration.

    That has nothing whatsoever to do with the incentives for career government servants — both uniformed and civilian — to perform after-action analysis. All the Wikileaks situation is going to do is change the mechanisms of access to those reports; they're still going to be produced. To give a specific example that has been declassified, there was an extensive report — comparable in scope, after considering the sizes of the conflicts in question, to the Pentagon Papers — prepared on the prelude to the Grenada incident. I know of other similar reports that, to my knowledge,* remain classified; I am absolutely certain that there are other reports in existence, probably well in excess of the Pentagon Papers, of which I do not have disclosable personal knowledge.

    This is far from unique to the US; consider the papers that were released a few years back on the 1956 Suez Crisis, which were prepared in the UK when the preparers knew they would remain hidden for only fifty years at most. If Professor Kleiman's reasoning and conclusion were correct, there would not have been any such release in 2005, 2006, and 2007; there was, it was less than favorable, and practically nobody noticed.

    * I served a short tour as a command-level military historian a couple of decades back. I no longer have access to classified information, and my nondisclosure agreement will expire after the heat-death of the universe.

  7. It did ensure that no subsequent Secretary of Defense would commission a frank, independent analysis of the decision-making processes that led to war.

    I'd be interested in seeing this defended; it seems ahistorical to me.

    The Pentagon papers (I contend) constituted as frank and independent an analysis as we were ever likely to get. Twenty years from now, will someone say that the Assange leaks (or other leaks) kept the US from engaging in a frank and independent analysis of, say, war crimes?

  8. Information just wants to be free….

    Remember that belly flop of an idea from the 80s?

    It was part of the glib arsenal of the semi-lettered.

    I say belly flop because if the Internet has proven one thing it is this:

    Information and Disinformation and Mal-information just want to be free.

    In fact we live in a blizzard of Internet lies, half-truths, malformed truths, and truths.

    Can anybody point to anything in the average Internet's users education that has prepared her to shift thru the Net's crafty BS?

    It's like watching cattle entering a slaughtering house…

    No wonder the country is so FUBAR…

    So here is where we are:

    Information, disinformation, and mal-information just want to be free…

    To the detriment of all things wise and judicious and human.

    Ome man's wiki-leaks is another crumb's video showing a college kid in bed with his male lover…

    You know how that story ended…

    Is there a need for secrecy?

    It is a measure of how far the Internet has fallen that we even have to ask that…

  9. One of the WikiLeak revelations, as Mark wrote was "that the Saudis (and our other Arab quasi-friends) are urging us to fight Iran, (to the last American."

    In its landmark ruling on the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court ruled that "only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government."

    The ruling stated that "paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."

    I think after the false spins that have led us into disastrous wars in Vietnam and just as badly in Iraq, we as citizens, need as much information as possible; even better, information without spin that was never expected to see the light of day, as in the wikipedia leaks. As Bismarck said, "politics is like a sausauge, people have more confidence in it, the less they know what goes into it". This is what governments are afraid of, so they try as much subterfuge as possible, including asking our diplomats spy on our allied diplomats, Whatever helps unmask government's, even ours, true methods and motives, as a general principle, is fine with me.

  10. Seconding Politicalfootball:

    Mark: "It did ensure that no subsequent Secretary of Defense would commission a frank, independent analysis of the decision-making processes that led to war. "


  11. Um, the "reasoned debates" the Papers fostered didn't end the completely unreasonable war, either.

  12. That's a false articulation of the choice. Some things should be secret, most should not. This release shows that the government keeps a lot secret that doesn't need to be secret. Treating the public in a democracy like children and feeding them disingenuous soundbites is not a necessary element of statecraft.

  13. What we have here is a new evolving norm in the relation between government and the governed. It is simply another step in the process that has been running since about the Magna Carta, and I suspect it will be just as messy as it always has been.

    Government pushes towards secrecy, because it makes the life of government agents easier, and they have a magic power the rest of us don't. The governed mostly put up with this sort of thing, until it crosses some boundary. That boundary is real, but very poorly defined, and the flashpoint is probably always something non-rational, in terms of the particular thing that serves as a trigger.

    On the other side, the governed are supposed to be satisfied with a professional class of governors who, from the perspective of any individual not partaking, act mostly unaccountably. I wonder how long it takes J. Random Constituent to get an audience with Boehner these days? I know how long it took me to get approximately three minutes of time with Pelosi about 14 years ago, when she was my rep – Seven months.

    Given that the machinery of government involves such a large population, and that they are mostly insufficiently coopted to ensure loyalty without question, it is to be expected that some things people tengentally attached see are going to strike them as wrong, or there will be unbalanced people, or opportunists, or…. And as we're seeing, the novel power of the moment is information. It should surprise nobody (least of all, Mark, considering how carefully he thinks about human motivation in other contexts) that random people are seeking ways, however misapplied or scattershot they may be, to fix what many see as government off the rails.

    Put another way, Scooter & pals ain't the only ones who can leak, and to the extent that empire still requires a lot of proles, well, proles need a lot of bread and circus to keep them occupied. And it is sounding like bread is becoming more dear. Wikileaks gets the headlines and they have a troubled lead singer to focus on, but it isn't like what they do is hard, and the function is easily replaced (You can't stop anonymous communications without mandatory biometrics in every access point and substantial rejiggering of a huge amount of infrastructure, and then, well, if you do that, you've made George Orwell into a new perpetual motion power generator). I think the rest is predictable, if not exactly pleasant to contemplate. This is all just to say that the old myth about not being able to govern without the consent of the governed seems like it might actually begin to be true. And if that is the case, we're in for a very, very different world.

  14. Can we see a correction to your statement about no analysis of decision-making processes after the Pentagon Papers? You are wrong. Can we see some analysis as to whether your blatant error changes your argument?

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