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Wikileaks: The Afghanistan War’s ‘Pentagon Papers?’

August 3, 2010

In the past few days, the American media has been saturated with talk about the recent Wikileaks release of over 90,000 pages of raw intelligence data concerning US and Coalition operations between 2001 and 2009. Though this leak was a startling and criminal breach in security, it falls far short of deserving the sensationalism and attention it has enjoyed in the media.

Some sources have called it the ‘single largest leak in US military history.’ A word of caution: though the amount of raw data leaked did constitute the largest quantitative leak, its importance is better measured qualitatively. According to Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), “They did not reveal any new revelations.” Still, the media has persisted in its publication of the story. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, compared the recent release to the leaking of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 – a comment which has sustained the debate. This comparison, however, is a contrived over-simplification and merits a response. Yes, both the Pentagon Papers and the more recent release constituted breaches in security; and yes, both documents contained information relevant to the ongoing wars of their time. However, their similarities exist only superficially. In contrast to the relatively innocuous Wikileaks release, the Pentagon Papers were dramatically greater in scope, revealed incredible secrets incriminating several administrations, shook the American public’s faith in their government, and revolutionized the role of the media in democratic societies worldwide.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government of the United States had deliberately and premeditatedly expanded the Vietnam War effort with illegal carpet bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos – despite repeated assurances that the conflict would not be escalated. Additionally, the papers revealed that four administrations had lied to the American public about their aims and motivations for pursuing the conflict in Southeast Asia. Included in the release was a Defense Department communiqué to the Johnson administration, which stated that the country’s remaining reasons for continued involvement in Vietnam were: 70% – to avoid the humiliation of defeat, 20% – to keep South Vietnam out of Chinese hands, and 10% – to improve the livelihoods of the South Vietnamese people. The Pentagon Papers also alluded to the distinct possibility that the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution – the catalyzing factor to full-scale operations in Vietnam – was based on exaggerated or downright false information. In an NPR interview, Daniel Ellsberg admitted his remorse for not leaking the documents sooner. On the day he released the Papers to the New York Times, Senator Wayne Morse said to him, “If you’d given me those documents at the time, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee…and if [you told] the truth to Congress, as was your constitutional responsibility to do, [you] could have averted that war and 50,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese.”

The value and pertinence of the Pentagon Papers was monumental; they could have prevented a war, and proved that the administration had lied to the American public. The timing, too, was important. In 1971, the American counterculture was at the height of its opposition to the war, and the country’s citizens were fiercely opposed to the growing draft. The release of the Pentagon Papers confirmed that their loved ones overseas were being killed and wounded on false, political premises; the rage resulting from this realization galvanized the antiwar movement and ultimately resulted in the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam. Despite repeated attempts made by the government to shut the story down, the country’s newspapers printed the story – and in so doing, reaffirmed the public’s First Amendment rights and ushered in a new era of freedom for the press.

Did the Wikileaks Papers have such an important effect on America? Certainly not – and for good reason. The Wikileaks Papers were unlikely to play such a dramatic role in American history for a multitude of reasons. First of all, they reveal very little – if any – information which incriminates the Presidency or damages the public’s perception of the government’s integrity. Secondly, the documents do not provide anything new; they merely confirm several suppositions which were already widely accepted: that the war in Afghanistan is going badly; that Coalition forces have been using Special Operations teams to conduct kill or capture missions against the Taliban leadership; and, most importantly, that the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) has been duplicitous in its cooperation with American forces. While the Wikileaks Papers may have served as a wake up call to the American taxpayers, they did not reveal any great insights that were not previously known. The content of the Wikileaks Papers will be discussed in a future post, but with acknowledgement of a different purpose, less significance, and other circumstances than of the Pentagon Papers.

-Stephan Guertin

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