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Bill Everhart: Dirty Questions, Dirty Answers

Bill Everhart
Josh Landes

Not many people have read the Pentagon Papers, which were published 50 years ago this month. After all, this insider chronicle of the tragedy that was the Vietnam War did include 47 volumes of documents.

But the papers, highlights - or lowlights - of which have been available in book form for half a century, had an extraordinary impact. They fueled the growing anti-war movement. They documented the deceit practiced by government and military officials. They ignited the investigative journalism dedicated to exposing that deceit. And they resonated in the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine news organizations acting in the public’s interest.

The genesis of the Pentagon Papers was the desire of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to answer what he referred to as the “dirty questions” of the lingering and increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. He assembled a team of 36 “Whiz Kids” from the Rand Corporation to go through 21/2 million documents over several months related to the waging of the war.

Dirty questions led to dirty answers. A 1952 memo asserting that if Vietnam fell to the Communists other nations in Southeast Asia would follow suit - the so-called domino theory - went unchallenged. The communists did triumph and the dominoes didn’t fall.

A 1965 State Department memo stating that the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies couldn’t win a guerrilla war in Vietnam was ignored by President Johnson, who instead sent in more troops. As American casualties mounted, the Pentagon brass fudged and covered up the tally, promising victory if only more troops were sent to the slaughterhouse.

One of the Whiz Kids, Daniel Ellsberg, decided that the secret history of Vietnam should be revealed to the public. The largest release of classified documents in U.S. history would leave him open to criminal prosecution, and the organization that published them would face the same possibility. Nonetheless, the New York Times, and a short time later The Washington Post, agreed to publish the documents.

The New York Times had only published the first chapter of the Pentagon Papers when the Justice Department of President Nixon sought an injunction preventing further publication in the name of national security.

In a critically important 6-3 decision by the Warren Burger Supreme Court, the White House was found to have engaged in prior restraint, violating the First Amendment’s guarantee that the press would be free from censorship. The presses kept rolling. A grand jury would bring charges against Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, but the case ended in a mistrial.

Of course, subsequent administrations continued to wage war against the emboldened media. Establishing a precedent, the George W. Bush administration began pursuing criminal charges against officials who leaked information to reporters. The Obama White House continued this practice and President Trump, who regarded the press as “enemies of the people” for exposing his lies and corruption, escalated it.

The extent of the effort of the Trump Justice Department to pursue the private phone numbers and emails of bothersome journalists was unknown until President Biden announced he was ending it. While that move is welcome, journalists can’t feel secure unless they are protected through statutes from unethical harassment by future presidents. And how can legitimate journalists be protected without extending these protections to the so-called “citizen-journalists” of social media who are biased and often unethical and dishonest? These are knotty issues but at least they are being addressed by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The press has a long history of confronting government on behalf of the public that extends well before the Pentagon Papers controversy. That confrontation, however, gave the press Supreme Court-stamped approval to pursue deceitful and secretive government officials fairly but aggressively. Journalists and brave whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg must continue that noble battle.

Bill Everhart was the editorial page editor of the Berkshire Eagle for 25 years. He is an occasional contributor to the Eagle.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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