Daniel Ellsberg, publisher of 'The Pentagon Papers,' speaks at a press conference, 1970s.
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comparison / power

From the Pentagon Papers to Trump: How the Government Gained the Upper Hand Against Leakers

We may be entering a post-Pentagon Papers era that shifts the power back to political elites, who are ever more emboldened to go after leakers.
In October 1969, a national security official named Daniel Ellsberg began secretly photocopying 7,000 classified Vietnam War documents. He had become increasingly frustrated with the systematic deception of top U.S. leaders who sought to publicly escalate a war that, privately, they knew was unwinnable.

In March 1971 he leaked the documents – what would became known as the Pentagon Papers – to a New York Times reporter. The newspaper ended up publishing a series of articles that exposed tactical and policy missteps by three administrations on a range of subjects, from covert operations to confusion over troop deployments. 

In the decades since, the Pentagon Papers helped shape legal and ethical standards for journalistic truth-telling on matters of top secret government affairs in the United States. Openness, in the eyes of the public and the courts, would usually prevail over government secrecy. In this sense, the transparency that came from the papers’ release shifted power from politicians back to citizens and news organizations. 

That balance of power is taking on a renewed significance today. In the wake of Reality Winner’s alleged recent national security leakprosecution of members of the press over the past few years as well as pointed anti-press and anti-leak rhetoric by the Trump administration, one must ask: Are we witnessing a swing back toward strengthened government control of information?
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