x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Disclosure reminder of Vietnam war era

Thirty-nine years ago, a leak by Daniel Ellsberg, then a military analyst at the Rand Corp, showed that the US effort was doomed.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, then a military analyst at the Rand Corp, released classified documents, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, to a New York Times reporter. The papers revealed that the US government knew early in the conflict that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and that many more soldiers would be killed than officials would ever admit publicly.

Flash forward 39 years and the debate about three publications - The New York Times, the Guardian in London, and the German magazine Der Spiegel - being given more than 92,000 classified reports regarding the US-led war in Afghanistan by Wikileaks, a whistleblower website, involves the same issues: publishing secret information regarding the military during wartime and the public's right to know versus the government's need to keep some information secret.

Once again, the administration of a US president is outraged at the reporting, with the national security adviser, Gen James Jones, saying in a statement: "The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security." Once again, the newspapers - and now websites - see it as their duty to disclose secret information about a controversial war that has costs thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

In a note to its readers in Sunday's paper, The New York Times said: "Deciding whether to publish secret information is always difficult, and after weighing the risks and public interest, we sometimes chose not to publish. But there are times when the information is of significant public interest, and this is one of those times. The documents illuminate the extraordinary difficulty of what the US and its allies have undertaken in a way that other accounts have not.

"Most of the incident reports are marked 'secret', a relatively low level of classification. The Times has taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests. The Times and the other news organisations agreed at the outset that we would not disclose - either in our articles or any of our online supplementary material - anything that was likely to put lives at risk or jeopardise military or anti-terrorist operations."

The Obama administration called the disclosure "irresponsible". In 1971, however, the Nixon administration obtained a federal court injunction to stop The Times from continuing to publish excerpts from the papers. The Times appealed, and as the case wound its way to the US Supreme Court, The Washington Post began publishing its own stories based on the papers Mr Ellsberg had also given it. Again, the federal government tried to use the courts to stop a newspaper from publishing.

On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled the injunctions were an unconstitutional prior restraint on the newspapers' right to publish. The Nixon administration had not shown that its need to keep the information secret overrode the rights of the press and the public's right to know. The Times and the Post and other publications that were given copies of the Pentagon Papers soon went to press with additional stories about their contents. As anti-war protests mounted, the Nixon administration and its outside operators went after Mr Ellsberg, doing everything from seeking criminal charges to breaking into his psychiatrist's office.

As for the disclosing such information in the high-tech age, Mr. Ellsberg told The Times: "But the internet has this viral aspect. It gets sent around and gets a broader audience." While the battle between the media and the US government remains the same. @Email:rpretorius@thenational.ae