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Secrets and stories

Mizzou experts relive the battle of the Pentagon Papers

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Photo illustration by Shane Epping and Josh Nichols
  • Published: Feb. 1, 2008
Hands gripping "Top Secret" files

The controversy and court case surrounding the Pentagon Papers represented a tug of war between free press issues and secrecy.

Stuart Loory’s experience with the “Pentagon Papers” sounds like the stuff of spy novels. As a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1971, he had a clear mission from his editors: Get the Pentagon Papers. The New York Times already had published bits of the papers, which contained politically sensitive information about the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leading up to the Vietnam War. The Washington Post published next, followed by other papers.

Loory got an anonymous call telling him to go to a hotel in Cambridge, Mass. He checked in, got another call, and waited until a masked man came to the room, blindfolded him, led him to a car and drove him to an undisclosed location. Once there, someone handed him a manila folder containing two volumes of the 48 included in the papers. All that was left was to write.

Loory, the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, shared this and other firsthand anecdotes with the audience at the “Battle of the Pentagon Papers” forum Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Ellis Auditorium, as part of Chancellor Brady Deaton’s series of Global Issues Forums.

The story of the Pentagon Papers represents the ever-present struggle between the public’s right to know and the government’s desire to maintain secrecy. The “papers” were a study commissioned by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1966 and later classified as top-secret. The study contained information about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, about flawed intelligence and about administrative attempts to manipulate the media.

The papers were leaked to the Times in 1971. Their initial publication set off a chain of events — an injunction by the government to stop further publication of the papers, followed by publication by the Post, followed by another attempt at an injunction, and in a matter of weeks, a Supreme Court case pitting major news organizations against the Nixon administration, which found itself in the position of protecting two administrations from the opposing party.

At the forum, Loory offered the perspective of a man who lived and worked through the whole ordeal (and whose name found its way onto Nixon’s “enemies” list). Other Mizzou experts offered other perspectives.

Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law, specializes in First Amendment issues but pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decision in this case was not simply about free speech. The court did rule against the government’s injunction and against prior restraint (the restriction of speech before it happens), but different judges had different opinions: some argued that prior restraint is always invalid, others proposed a test for when secret information presents a “clear and present danger,” others suggested that the case was about executive authority rather than speech, and others even suggested criminal prosecution for journalists who publish confidential information.

“The court didn’t at all grapple with the issue of what wins there: executive authority or the First Amendment,” Wells said, “and they’ve never really done that.”

Charles Davis deals with issues of government secrecy daily as executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. To him, one of the amazing things about the Pentagon Papers is the insight they offer into the way government officials conduct themselves when they think all is secret — when they’re “talking as if they thought no one would ever hear.”

Davis, Wells and Loory all pointed out that the issues surrounding the Pentagon Papers transcend time. Courts are still unclear on the balance between First Amendment rights and executive authority, particularly in cases related to the war on terror. There are still battles over what gets leaked and what gets published, as was the case with the Abu Ghraib photos. There are still debates over what presents danger to national security and what simply presents the possibility of political embarrassment.

These issues are universal. To Davis, so is the very nature of secrecy, as exhibited in the Pentagon Papers.
“As the secrets grew and the volume of the secrecy grew,” he told the audience, “the apparatus surrounding the secrecy grew … I’ve found that to be the case whether you’re dealing with a school board in rural Missouri or the federal government of the United States of America. Secrecy grows. It’s viral. It’s endemic. And it’s typically fatal.”

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Last updated: June 6, 2013