The War Between Secrecy and Truth

Fighting for the Press:  The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers book cover

The War Between Secrecy and Truth

Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers; James Goodale

Book review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

It was the worst breach of military security in American history. Throughout 2010 a young Army specialist, Private First Class Bradley Manning, had been secretly releasing highly classified information to the web group known as WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, now a fugitive from multiple charges in numerous nations. Manning, using a variety of hacker’s tools and exploiting several obvious and shocking gaps in military security, transferred hundreds of thousands of pages of documents relating to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When the leaks were traced back to Manning, the private was arrested and charged with espionage and computer fraud. Polls showed that on the whole, the vast majority of Americans felt that Manning deserved punishment for his actions.

Assange, however, went on the run, charged with sex crimes in Sweden, and he lives now inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Though the charges against him in Sweden may or may not prove valid, many in the United States feel Assange should be charged formally with espionage for publishing the thousands of sensitive documents. Many conservatives and some moderates feel that Assange should be treated as a perpetrator of treasonous crimes, especially since, in the view of some, his actions have placed Americans and their allies in grave danger. Defenders of Assange say the charges against him are baseless: he is merely the messenger. The worldwide controversy quickly framed itself as noble hackers and truth-seekers versus those governments who would jealously guard power and wartime secrets.

A new book by James Goodale, once an attorney and top executive for The New York Times, suggests that the Wiki Leaks imbroglio—as well as recent similar cases involving leaks to reporters and writers, and the Obama’s administration’s multi-front efforts to punish both leakers and reporters—is a case of history repeating itself.

Goodale would know: at the time he served as general counsel for The New York Times in the early 1970s, his reporter colleagues and Times editors came into possession a vast trove of secret documents—thousands of pages from a highly secret cumulative study of the long history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Those leaked pages became known as the Pentagon Papers, and the decision by the Times’ editors to print them triggered what was arguably the most famous legal battle between a newspaper and the government in U.S. history, pitting the Times against the administration of Richard Nixon.

Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles (City University of New York Journalism Press, 2013) is Goodale’s firsthand retelling of that turbulent and high stakes battle over press freedoms, and the Nixon administration’s efforts to not only quash further publication of those secret papers, but also perhaps punish The Times—whose publishers and editors, to Nixon, were the very essence of eastern establishment liberalism—in such a way that no news organization in the future would dare down such an audacious path.

Goodale’s accounting of the story is, understandably, pro-Times and unabashedly unfriendly toward Nixon. His book is, however, scrupulously balanced and even-handed when it comes to his assessments of where responsibility and truth overlap in times of crisis and war. Further, the book’s timing is no accident, as Goodale makes clear in his brief introduction and in the closing chapters—framing the infamous Pentagon Papers legal battle within the context of the Wiki Leaks affair, Bob Woodward’s publication of sensitive material purloined from a report by General Stanley McChrystal sent to Obama, and other recent stress fractures between reporters and presidents. Adding to the opportune timing is the latest resurgence of media activity regarding the attacks on Benghazi, now back in the news in part because of sensitive leaked papers describing the imminent possibility of terror attacks in Libya, and in part because of the Obama administration's efforts to limit (some) reporters' access to the truth.

Many Thursday Review readers might recoil at the thought of wading into the subject of the Pentagon Papers. The subject matter is old and dusty, and the world has moved on. Besides, as a friend commented to me in an email at the time I ordered this book: you’re not going to read an entire book written by a lawyer, are you? A reasonable question: after all, who wants to wade into 250 pages of legalese, arcane maneuvering and complex interpretation of law books and statutes?

But here’s the shocker: this book is not only well-written, it is elegantly straightforward. I read the entire book in less than five days, and never once did my eyes glaze-over from lawyerly mumbo jumbo or linguistic prevarication. In fact, I could barely put the book down. Goodale has wisely and shrewdly prepared the book in a tight, accelerated style, with short, rapid-fire chapters—some of which are only four or five pages long. He has also excised what could have been an excruciating storm of legalese, shepherding the reader through the high stakes confrontation like the best of the crime or action adventure writers of our times. (Dan Rather, who wrote a blurb for the book, calls it “a story worthy of John Grisham, except this one actually happened.”)

Goodale tracks the saga of the Pentagon Papers from the first moment he heard about it in his role as chief counsel for the Times right up to the moment that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Times’ position.

Commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in early 1967, the papers were in fact meant to be a comprehensive study of U.S. policy and decision-making in Vietnam, an unvarnished assessment of successes, mistakes, miscalculations and blunders, but also an analysis of the war’s origins during the administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and how the war had continuously deepened during the Kennedy and Johnson years. The final report consisted of 3000 pages of text followed by thousands more pages of appendices and reference materials, including copies of hundreds of internal State Department and Pentagon memos as well as hundreds of newspaper and journal clippings. The entire report had been classified as Top Secret.

One of the report’s authors was Daniel Ellsberg, at the time an MIT researcher whose specialty was international studies. Ellsberg had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, but he had become disillusioned with the war—in part during the preparation of the report—and became an opponent of continued American involvement. Ellsberg contacted NYT reporter Neil Sheehan, who was known in his reporting to be critical of the war. After some discussion, Ellsberg handed over photocopies of the report—or major portions of it—to Sheehan, who in turn made his own copies using Xerox machines at the Times. Later, after poring through the thousands of pages of material, Sheehan met with the Times’ top editors and Goodale to outline what he had. On June 13, 1971 the New York Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers. Their plan had been to publish large portions each day for weeks, but on the third day they were halted by an injunction issued by the U.S. District Court and the Justice Department. What followed was a high stakes legal battle lasting two weeks, the climax of the drama coming when the Supreme Court ruled in favor the New York Times (by this point the Times had been joined by The Washington Post, normally a fierce competitor, but in this context their ally) and declared that the government had not made its case for prohibiting further publication.

The New York Times had won its case. The ruling was widely considered to be one of the most important freedom-of-the-press cases in the 20th Century, and the outcome opened a wide door for newspapers, authors, and investigative journalists to pursue the truth and provide a more comprehensive approach to their reporting.

Later, Goodale sought to organize press attorneys and first amendment legal advocates under a single, comprehensive banner—a national group which could advocate for protection for reporters and news organizations and operate using the same talking points. The idea would be that these lawyers and the political allies would—as a collective—be able to sway state legislatures and U.S. Representatives to perhaps one day enact a uniform shield law to protect reporters from harsh legal action, and prevent government agencies from literally stopping the presses. No such unified plan emerged, in large part because many media attorneys saw such a sweeping initiative as running contrary to the business practices of newspapers and TV networks—commercial operations which must ultimately answer to members of corporate management often disinclined to the notion of costly legal fights, and shareholders even more dubious of leveraging stock value to win political ground, noble though that ground might be.

Then, with the departures of Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan, the make-up of the Supreme Court changed, tilting for the first time in decades in a slightly conservative direction on some issues. Goodale suggests that on issues of press freedoms, the court would never be quite the same from that point forward, and the argument has been made frequently over the intervening decades that the public interest is not always served simply by making sensitive information public. The security apparatus of the administrations of Clinton, Bush and Obama have all made the case for the sanctity of “mosaic” intelligence: small leaks and incidental revelations in one part of the intelligence community or within military operations can lead directly—and, in the digital age, quickly—to other sources and other assets. Thus all aspects of larger, global operations must be kept secure and secret, lest the smaller puzzle pieces reveal our strategic intentions to terrorists or rogue states.

The case’s legacy looms large in other ways: Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan and The New York Times was perhaps the principal seed for Watergate. Nixon, angry at leaks within his administration, authorized a select circle of advisors—including Charles Colson—to form a security team within the White House. That unit became known as the Plumbers, and shortly after its implementation its chief operatives (Gordon Liddy, James McCord and others) overstepped their mission—engaging in a long list of skullduggery and outright law-breaking, including unwarranted surveillance and finally the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate hotel and office complex.

Goodale makes the case that—despite the game-changing nature of the Court’s ruling in 1971 in the Pentagon Papers case—after 9/11 the climate for journalism began to chill, again. Goodale examines the George W. Bush era closely as relations cooled between government and reporters, and as the ascension of Fox News and other unvarnished conservative media outlets became prominent talking points in the national conversation. But Goodale saves some of his harshest criticism for Barack Obama, seen by some progressives as being too readily agreeable to enacting draconian restrictions on the press, as well as a hearty willingness to pursue reporters and editors and webmasters in a variety of legal venues. Just this week reporters found themselves facing the still thorny issue of who-knew-what in the Benghazi affair, as some favored reporters—but not many—were secretly allowed into a private, off-the-record briefing while others were left cooling their heels. Accusations of a government cover-up in the Libyan fiasco continue, and not just by Republicans and reporters for Fox News.  Goodale's book also seems prescient in light of revelations just this week that the Justice Department--for reasons not clear at this time--obtained phone records for as many as 20 separate telephone lines at Associated Press offices in New York, Washington and Hartford, as well as records of some AP employees.

In the end Goodale suggests that the pendulum is in full swing toward a sharply limited world for reporters and editors; an age, perhaps, in which powerful government agencies can pursue—with whatever means are at their disposal—those reporters who dare to receive leaked or purloined information.

No matter your own political inclinations, nor your view of reporting in the age of digital and social media, this book is strikingly relevant—even prescient—in its analysis of how we synthesize our news and reveal the truth.

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