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Reviews |  Was Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of Pentagon papers really heroic?

On the one hand, they were out of date. No document in the collection was less than three years old. The burning controversy of the time was President Richard Nixon’s waging of the war, but the Pentagon Papers didn’t say a word about it. The history of the Pentagon was that of the Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman years. In a taped telephone conversation with Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger observed: “In public opinion, actually, it will help us a bit, because it is a gold mine to show how the ‘previous administration got us in there.

On the other hand, despite the wealth of material, the general orientation 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 though both administrations, as they led the nation deeper into the conflict, had described it as going well. The public soon mistrusted Nixon too. Ellsberg’s revelations only provided more detail in an already well-established picture.

Moreover, despite the Nixon administration’s extravagant claims to the contrary, there was not a single national security detrimental secret in the enormous treasure that Mr Ellsberg had unveiled.

If the Pentagon Papers leak damaged national security, it was simply by showing the world that the United States was struggling to keep its secrets. To Mr. Ellsberg’s credit, there were lines he wouldn’t cross. There are certain types of documents, he writes in his memoir, “such as diplomatic negotiations, certain intelligence sources and methods, or various urgent military and operational secrets, which warranted strict secrecy.”

In this regard, Mr Ellsberg contrasts sharply with today’s mega-leaks, such as Edward Snowden, who in 2013 before fleeing to Moscow disclosed thousands if not hundreds of thousands of electronic pages, not on historical but ongoing events. secret government activities. While Mr Snowden has exposed arguably unconstitutional surveillance programs launched by the Bush administration, his evasion of responsibility and indiscriminate dumping into the public domain of many other highly sensitive intelligence and counterterrorism operations, none specifically in violation of a law, so do someone who should be tried, convicted and imprisoned under espionage laws.

Given that the disclosure of national security secrets is a business fraught with moral uncertainty, Mr. Ellsberg’s legacy is mixed at best. One can admire the tenacity with which he pursued his goal of ending the Vietnam War. And it can be noted that it neither directly endangered national security nor achieved (at least in the short term) its main objective of turning public opinion against war.

But he was still a rogue actor, who, if the fundamental rules of our constitutional democracy are to be observed, deserves some condemnation with the celebration he has already deserved.

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