WikiLeaks Vs. Pentagon Papers: What’s The Comparison?

The Pentagon Papers Of Our Time. This is the title being given to the new WikiLeaks release of more than 90,000 military documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. It’s hardly surprising given the parallels often drawn between Afghanistan and Vietnam — but what are the real similarities and differences? James Fallows makes some comparisons in The Atlantic.

Though the Pentagon Papers were released almost 40 years ago, Fallows explains the structural similarities between the two leaks:

The interaction between “traditional” and “new” media is the most immediately arresting “process” aspect of this event. It’s structurally similar in one sense to the Pentagon Papers case nearly 40 years ago. Back  then, Daniel Ellsberg worked with the New York Times to publicize the documents. Otherwise, how could he have gotten them out? This time, Wikileaks worked with the Times — and the Guardian and Der Spiegel — to organize, make sense of, and presumably vet the data.

He further makes the point that there’s something to be said for disseminating through these “traditional” news outlets:

Wikileaks could have simply posted the raw info even without the news organizations’ help. At first glance this is a very sophisticated illustration of how newly evolving media continually change the way we get information, but don’t totally replace existing systems. The collaboration of three of the world’s leading “traditional” news brands makes a difference in the way this news is received.

Adam Kirsch makes a similar point in The New Republic. He makes the case for why WikiLeaks still needs the New York Times, because the Internet alone is not enough:

Wikileaks’s highest value is transparency, but the leak suggests that transparency is moot without authority. Perhaps this truth will start to dawn on Assange and the many other new media figures who, with their gleeful attacks on the mainstream media, are helping to undermine the authority of institutions like The New York Times in ways that the U.S. government never has or could. Where would a leaker find himself—in an old movie or in real life—if there were no one left to leak to?

[emphasis ours]

Transparency is moot without authority. This is an important point, and hopefully one that won’t soon be forgot. It also ties back with a fundamental difference between the Pentagon Papers and the AfPak leaks.  As The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss points out, the Pentagon Papers “involved a detailed analytical study of that misguided war, while the WikiLeaks papers are for the most part raw data and intelligence reports, not yet vetted.” And who else is vetting them, if not for the traditional media Fallows writes about.

In terms of historical perspective, ProPublica’s Richard Tofel argues there is a remarkable difference between the two leaks:

In terms of important disclosures, it’s not even close, with the historical importance of today’s documents likely to be relatively minor, and that of the Pentagon Papers enormous.

In 1971, in contrast, the Pentagon Papers revealed a host of important discrepancies between the public posture of the U.S. government with respect to Vietnam and the truth…

This leads to the question: does Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower himself, think the two leaks are comparable? In a DemocracyNow round-table discussion, Ellsberg said he was “very impressed” by the release, saying it was the first time since the Pentagon Papers that something of that scale has been released — adding that such a release is long overdue:

“How many times in those years should there have been the release of thousands of pages showing our being lied into war in Iraq, as in Vietnam, and the nature of the war in Afghanistan?”

He also said he thought highly of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the military specialist accused of leaking the information:

“I admire very much the spirit in which he did this. He said that he felt the public needed to know this and that he was prepared to go to prison, even for life—he said that—or even to be executed. That’s the first person I’ve heard in 40 years who is in the same state of mind that I was 40 years ago.”

Ellsberg will be further discussing the WikiLeaks story today at 4:30pmET on MSNBC.

Watch Ellsberg’s full remarks below:

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