Wikileaks' Afghanistan War Log vs. the Pentagon Papers
Pause for a moment before accepting the comparison that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange makes between his release of more than 90,000 secret military documents about the Afghan fighting to that of the Pentagon Papers back in 1971.
In his interview with The Guardian, Assange said, "The nearest analogue is the Pentagon Papers that exposed how the United States was prosecuting the war in Vietnam."
There are some major differences.
In the first place, the Pentagon Papers was a top secret history of the U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 through 1967 ordered by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara which was pulled together by military historians.
In its initial articles, The New York Times focused on the credibility gap the Pentagon Papers disclosed between what Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had said publicly about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and what was being said privately. It showed, for example, that while running for election in 1964, Johnson promised "we seek no wider war" at a time when he was preparing to expand it by extending bombing into North Vietnam.
President Obama made no secret in the 2008 election campaign that he would expand the war in Afghanistan.
Another contrast is that the Wikileaks documents are a collection of secret reports from troops in the field covering local intelligence and details of clashes and civilians killed or wounded. Although, as Assange emphasizes, they illustrate more civilian casualties than the military has over the years discussed, it is not as if that subject was unknown.
But, unlike the Pentagon Papers, there are no high-level documents here that raise basic questions about the credibility of Presidents Obama and George W. Bush and their top advisors.
One thing will be the same. The Pentagon Papers were used by opponents of the war to seek withdrawal of U.S. troops from the fighting (U.S. forces went on fighting for another two years). The Wikileaks Afghanistan War Logs will fuel political opposition in the U.S. to American troops continuing combat operations in Afghanistan.
Assange said that his disclosure involved more pages than the Pentagon Papers and will, through the Internet, reach a bigger audience. He does not mention, however, that the news stories from the Pentagon Papers ran daily for more than a week -- and not only in the New York Times. Later new elements appeared in The Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
One other major difference exists, at least so far, between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks documents. President Nixon ordered his Justice Department to halt publication of the Papers, keeping the story on front pages for almost two weeks before the Supreme Court, by a 6-to-3 vote, lifted an injunction on newspapers as an unconstitutional prior restraint of the First Amendment.
Indeed, the Nixon administration attempts to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers generated as much attention as the substance of the documents themselves. And the private attempts of the Nixon White House to gather information about Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, was one of the first activities that made up the elements of the impeachment charges against Nixon.
Up to now, Obama has not sought to halt further disclosure of additional documents still in the hands of Assange. And as of today, no charges have filed against Assange.
| July 26, 2010; 2:08 PM ET
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