Following the March 16, 2010 performance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, a post-show discussion hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review reunited some key participants in the Pentagon Papers story: Daniel Ellsberg, former military strategist and consultant at the RAND Corporation, who went against the written and unwritten rules of his profession when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971; Leslie Gelb, one of the main compilers of the Pentagon Papers, later a journalist and diplomat who also led the Council on Foreign Relations; and James Goodale, former in-house counsel at the New York Times. These participants were joined, from the Journalism School at Columbia University, by Nicholas Lemann, Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor, and Victor Navasky, Chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Delacorte Professor of Journalism, who moderated the discussion.
In a lively evening, these panelists responded to questions from the audience and each other – with one highlight coming when Goodale, who had read the supposedly “top secret” papers (as counsel to the Times) when the Times obtained them, asked Gelb a question Goodale had wondered about since the 1970s: was there really any basis to mark the Papers and so many other documents “top secret”? Gelb responded that much classification while he was at the Pentagon resulted more from a general culture of classification at the Pentagon than from any page-by-page analysis of a genuine threat posed by the papers’ release.
Perhaps the most difficult questions of the night, however, were not those about the events of the Pentagon Papers era, but those the panelists themselves raised about the state of journalism and foreign policy today.
When asked: where are the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan? Ellsberg challenged the U.S. government and the audience by positing that such materials couldn’t be disclosed soon enough and that they would read much like the Pentagon Papers: tracing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan back to earlier U.S. involvement there, and revealing that the U.S. troop commitment necessary to end our involvement will be much larger than is generally understood.
In support of his evaluation, Ellsberg cited the example of Matthew Hoh, a senior U.S. foreign service officer in Afghanistan who resigned publicly in protest against U.S. policy there. While praising Hoh’s controversial actions, Ellsberg noted that Hoh’s resignation could have been more powerful if Hoh had taken documents with him for public release.
But would such “Afghanistan papers” get the public attention Ellsberg seeks? When Ellsberg asked how many audience members had read the “Eikenberry cables” – internal state department cables containing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s strong reservations about General Stanley McChrystal’s recommended course in Afghanistan – only a handful of audience members raised their hands, even though the cables were reported on extensively and eventually posted by the New York Times. Ellsberg exhorted the audience to think critically about Afghanistan and to take action to lead the nation to do the same.
The need for such critical thinking was supported further when Gelb shared his reflections on the “domino theory” that had, in his opinion, undergirded U.S. foreign policy decisions in Vietnam and which may still be at work today motivating much of the thinking behind the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Turning to the role that today’s journalists should play in reporting on foreign policy and other topics, Lemann noted that the most prominent recent stories about national security issues (including the Times reports on NSA wiretapping and the Washington Post reports on CIA secret prisons) resulted not from the publication of leaked documents, but from the work of journalists to slowly uncover and piece together the details of a secret government program.
To encourage the type of critical reporting that Ellsberg and others would seem to call for, therefore, Lemann stressed that media would require additional support to build and maintain repertorial resources, including journalistic staff and foreign bureaus – a topic also discussed in a prior Top Secret Talks panel discussion.
Listen to the audio for more detail on these and other questions raised in this panel discussion!