Another Pentagon Papers

Posted July 26, 2010, at 6:30 p.m.

A leak of 92,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan bears some resemblance to the leak of the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, although the consequences are likely to be different.

Each of the mass exposures of secret reports and memos came in the midst of a long and increasingly unpopular war. Each disclosed a lot of details that the government had minimized or kept completely from public knowledge. In both cases, the leaks were by anti-war activists in hopes of galva-nizing public opposition and bringing the war to an end.

In the case of the Pentagon Papers, which were an official Defense Department history of the U.S. military and political involvement in Vietnam, top officials were outraged, threatened criminal prosecutions and obtained court orders that temporarily halted publication by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. The Supreme Court ultimately vindicated the newspapers in a divided vote and asserted their First Amendment right to publish the documents.

This latest breach of secrecy produced a hodgepodge of documents rather than a single coherent report. It likewise stirred official resentment, but so far no effort to suppress publication or prosecute the leakers, an organization known as WikiLeaks. And in the age of the Internet, publication is almost universal and instantaneous, not limited to a few select newspapers, as in the early 1970s.

As for relative impact, the Pentagon Papers hit public opinion like a thunderclap and showed a pattern of official deception, contrived optimism and some outright falsehood. This new breach of secrecy adds some previously unknown details but mostly fills out facets of the Afghanistan war that al-ready were known or widely suspected.

One fresh detail was the Taliban’s reported use of heat-seeking anti-aircraft rockets, although they weren’t always successful in bringing down NATO planes. The secret reports suggested that the use of drones was greater than supposed and that the U.S. Army and Navy had a “capture-kill list” of about 70 insurgent commanders. More important were numerous reports that the Pakistani intelligence service often supported the Taliban, its ostensible enemy. U.S. officials sometimes had publicly questioned the role of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, but they also had spoken warmly of Pakistan as a reliable ally.

The bottom-line question about such leaks is whether we should denounce them, excuse them, or just figure, especially in this age of instantaneously available information, that they are inevitable.

Gen. James L. Jones, the White House national security adviser, condemned this latest disclosure of classified information, saying it “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk and threaten our national security.”

Unless he can come up with specific hazards to our own citizens, our allies, and the national security, the best way to look at these breaches of secrecy is that, in the midst of an unpopular war that most of us believe must somehow end, the more we can learn about it the better. Leaks can be a breath of fresh air.

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