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Opinion | Was Daniel Ellsberg’s Leak of the Pentagon Papers Really Heroic?

Though the Pentagon Papers received extraordinary attention, this was primarily due to the Nixon administration’s unprecedented effort to impose a pre-publication injunction on The New York Times, which sparked a momentous Supreme Court case. But the actual contents of the Pentagon Papers were something else. Far from shaking public opinion, and disappointingly to Mr. Ellsberg, the revelations were met with a collective yawn.

For one thing, they were stale. Not a single document in the collection was less than three years old. The burning controversy of the day was President Richard Nixon’s conduct of the war, but about this the Pentagon Papers said not a word. The Pentagon history was the record of the Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman years. In a recorded telephone conversation with Nixon, the national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, observed, “In public opinion, it actually, if anything, will help us a little bit, because this is a gold mine of showing how the previous administration got us in there.”

For another thing, despite the wealth of material, the overall thrust of the Pentagon Papers was already familiar to the public. The American people already knew from the press that the war was going badly under Kennedy and Johnson even as both administrations, as they led the nation deeper into the conflict, had depicted it as going well. The public soon distrusted Nixon, too. The Ellsberg revelations merely filled in more details in a picture that was already well established.

Moreover, despite the Nixon administration’s extravagant claims to the contrary, there was not a single secret actually damaging to national security in the enormous trove that Mr. Ellsberg had released.

If the Pentagon Papers leak harmed national security, it was simply by demonstrating to the world that the United States was having trouble keeping its secrets. To Mr. Ellsberg’s credit there were lines he would not cross. There are certain kinds of materials, he writes in his memoir, “such as diplomatic negotiations, certain intelligence sources and methods, or various time-sensitive military-operational secrets, that warranted strict secrecy.”

In this respect Mr. Ellsberg stands in sharply favorable contrast to the mega-leakers of the current day, like Edward Snowden, who in 2013 before fleeing to Moscow, disclosed thousands if not hundreds of thousands of electronic pages, not about historical events but ongoing secret governmental activities. Even if Mr. Snowden exposed what were arguably unconstitutional surveillance programs begun by the Bush administration, his flight from accountability and his indiscriminate dumping into the public domain of numerous other highly sensitive intelligence and counterterrorism operations, none specifically in violation of any statute, makes him someone who should be tried, convicted, and jailed under the espionage statutes.

Given that the leaking of national-security secrets is a venture fraught with moral uncertainty, Mr. Ellsberg’s legacy is at best mixed. One can admire the single-minded tenacity with which he pursued his aim of ending the Vietnam War. And one can take note of the fact that he neither directly endangered national security nor accomplished (at least in the short term) his main objective of turning public opinion against the war.

But he was still a rogue actor, who if the fundamental ground rules of our constitutional democracy are to be respected, deserves a measure of condemnation along with the celebration that he has already earned.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.”

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