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.