This week, back in 1971, 41 years ago, the government and the news media were engaged in a struggle pitting secrecy against the public's right to know. It also involved what was perhaps the government's first successful attempt to force a newspaper to stop publishing.
At issue were the so-called "Pentagon Papers," thousands of documents that explained how we became mired in the Vietnam Conflict. Long before Private First Class Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, government researcher Daniel Ellsburg gave thousands of stolen documents to The New York Times. But in addition to the dry diplomatic details, the documents also showed how presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson misled both the Congress and the people with a steady stream of misinformation, distortion and outright lies.
On the last day of the month, the U-S Supreme Court, acting with uncharacteristic haste rendered a 6-3 decision that said the New York Times and Washington Post could indeed continue to print the documents they had received.
At first glance, that vote appeared to be a resounding victory for the press. But a closer examination shows that the victory was much narrower, and in some ways much more dangerous, than it first appears. Although the actual vote was 6-3 in favor of publication, the justices actually came out, philosophically, 7-2 against the papers: four of the six said they felt the government attorneys had not presented their case well, or they said they would not do what Congress had failed to do, namely prohibit the publication of secret information. In fact, one of the justices as much as invited Congress to pass such a law, and then said he would have no trouble upholding it.
So what was the end result of the Pentagon Papers? Well, the results were more far reaching than anyone would have imagined at the time, but in a totally different area.
It seems that in their effort to prosecute Ellsburg for releasing the papers, government agents broke into his psychiatrist's office. When this news was revealed, the prosecution was thrown out. President Nixon was so incensed at the bungling that he set up a special White House office to plug the leaks of government information. This group would be known as the White House plumbers, and was the group caught breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters, thus triggering Watergate, and Nixon's eventual resignation.
Like so many great events in American history, the Pentagon Papers have produced their own mythology. But even if their outcome was not a resounding victory for the press, the aftermath certainly illustrates the point made by Thomas Jefferson, that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.