Can Government Employees Read the Pentagon Papers?
Those who have been following the wikileaks affair will have noticed the recent prominence of Dan Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg, in many respects, was a predecessor to wikileaks, and has provided insightful commentary regarding the current situation. So what has happened to the 43 volumes that Ellsberg leaked 39 years ago?
You might be dismayed to learn that the Pentagon Papers are still classified as TOP SECRET!
This is despite the fact that The Pentagon Papers have long been in the public domain. Indeed, US government historians use them in official accounts of the Vietnam War and they are referenced and republished in official US government records, such as Foreign Relations of the United States. Senator Mike Gravel even entered them into the Congressional Record!
The classification of the Pentagon Papers takes on an even stranger significance when one considers the federal government’s recent pronouncement that “unauthorized disclosures of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog, or on websites) do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.”
This is the reason –in the case of Wikileaks– why the Government has been demanding that US government employees refrain from looking at any of these documents, even if doing so hampers their ability to fulfill their mandates. If this standard holds true, government employees should not be allowed to read (or reference, or cite) the Pentagon papers either.
This classification policy might be more understandable if US declassification efforts were more forthright and better managed. But the opposite is the case; the Pentagon Papers are an excellent example. The US government continues to refuse to declassify them—and not for lack of public interest.
The Archive is aware of at least two requests for The Papers’ declassification under the Freedom of Information Act, one in the 1980s and another in the 1990s. Both seem to have been lost in the Pentagon bureaucracy. In 2000, the Archive filed a declassification request for the final four ultra-secret “diplomatic volumes” of the Pentagon Papers, which Ellsberg chose not to leak. In 2003, the State Department declassified these four diplomatic volumes in total.
So today, 39 years later, the ultra-secret negotiating material from the “diplomatic volumes” of the Pentagon Papers (which even Ellsberg refused to release) has been declassified, but the well-read 43 volumes that have been available to the public to since 1971 remain Top Secret. The Archive continues to fight for the official declassification of the bulk of the Pentagon Papers.
In the meantime the phoniness of many appeals to secrecy –including wikileaks material– remains readily apparent.