Journalism in the Public Interest

Why WikiLeaks’ ‘War Logs’ Are No Pentagon Papers

The historical importance the Pentagon Papers far outweighs the probable impact of the new Afghanistan documents. And Nixon’s response was likely far different than President Obama’s will be.


The WikiLeaks documents on the Afghanistan war have brought suggestions such as this one (from The New York Times, the newspaper that published both) that they represent "the Pentagon Papers of our time." Not quite.

Here are a few quick thoughts on the analogy:

What's importantly similar to the Pentagon Papers

The greatest similarity between the WikiLeaks trove and the Pentagon Papers is that the documents end before the current administration's policy began. In political terms, that is hugely important.

The Pentagon Papers, of course, were a secret study, commissioned during the Lyndon Johnson administration by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The period under study ended in 1968, and the papers were not made public until 1971. Johnson left office in 1969, and was succeeded by a president of the opposing party, Richard Nixon. Nixon promised a shift in Vietnam policy, and while his policy did not differ as much in practice as he had hinted that it would while campaigning, he was not held responsible, by most voters, for the deepening mess of the Johnson years.

In the current case, as the White House has repeatedly pointed out in the last 18 hours, the papers end before President Barack Obama's announcement last year of an Afghanistan policy that departed from that of President George W. Bush. (That policy, of course, has centered on significantly increasing the number of troops, and focusing more on counterinsurgency.)

What's crucially different from the Pentagon Papers

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. The most significant revelations today include the Taliban's limited use of heat-seeking missiles (which had been previously reported, though little-noticed), and the Pakistani intelligence service's constant double-dealing and occasional cooperation with the Taliban (long the subject of news stories, and even of some official complaints).

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 -- from the Truman administration, through the times of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.

These included Johnson's dissembling during the 1964 presidential campaign and in the run-up to the key decision in 1965 to send large numbers of combat troops, as well as confirmation of U.S. involvement in the 1963 coup against South Vietnamese premier Ngo Dinh Diem. And perhaps most famously, was the evidence that the administration had decided to escalate the war before the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave it the authority to do so.

There are many reasons for the differences between these two troves of documents, but perhaps the most important is that today's documents provide a "ground-level" view of the war, while the Pentagon Papers offered a classic "top-down" perspective. Wars are fought on the ground, and the perspective such a view provides can be invaluable. But many of a war's key secrets, especially in political terms, are generated at the top.

The real impact of the Pentagon Papers

There is a lot of loose talk today about the impact of the Pentagon Papers. Much of it, I suspect, stems from this in the Wikipedia entry: "The revelations widened the credibility gap between the US government and the people, hurting President Richard Nixon's war effort." In fact, a much stronger argument can be made for the proposition that there was almost no impact on the Nixon administration's ability to conduct the war as it wished. Nixon's policy continued apace, through the peace negotiations of 1972 (during a presidential campaign!), continuing with the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor, and including the January 1973 peace accords.

The great antiwar demonstrations that many of us recall -- the March on Washington, the student Moratorium, Kent State -- all took place before the publication of the papers. Nixon invaded Cambodia 14 months earlier. What happened after the papers was that Nixon coasted to re-election by one of the largest majorities in American history, and his adviser Henry Kissinger won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for "ending" the Vietnam War.

That said, there were profound effects from the release of the Pentagon Papers. They came in how the Nixon administration responded to the leak and the publication of the papers. First, the administration went to court and soon suffered, in the Supreme Court, the most significant defeat for the executive branch in the national security field since Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was struck down in 1866 (i.e. after the Civil War ended and after Lincoln was killed).

Beyond the legal battle, Nixon and his henchmen launched the "plumbers" operation (to stem more leaks) and thus set off down the road that led to Watergate -- and all that followed. These became the central American political events of the 1970s, and hugely weakened the presidency, with consequences including the Gerald Ford administration's powerlessness with Congress when the North Vietnamese violated the peace accords in 1975.

How the Obama administration will react today is, of course, still emerging, and already being debated. But where Nixon brought suit and ordered burglaries, I find an early sign in this from the New York Times Washington bureau chief, Dean Baquet:

"I did in fact go the White House and lay out for them what we had," Baquet said. "We did it to give them the opportunity to comment and react. They did. They also praised us for the way we handled it, for giving them a chance to discuss it, and for handling the information with care. And for being responsible."

manuel piñeiro

July 26, 2010, 1:21 p.m.

I think you are missing the point entirely in your attempt to downplay the significance of the Wikileaks database (+ it is a database, not “papers”, with over 90,000 entries and hundreds of thousands of pages).

The significance of both documents is that they both make out the sitting president and his most senior advisors as liars. President Obama and President Nixon have both been caught lying to the American people.

As Nixon himself said (paraphrased): ‘Catch them in the lie.. if you can do that, the rest comes easy.’ And that’s been wise political advic They’ve lied about civilian deaths, they’ve lied about the brutality of incidents (rape, unnecessary killing, extrajudicial battlefield executions and so on).

The US actually *isn’t* a decent and moral invading army. It’s an occupation force like any other and that’s at these docs show.

And, obviously, researchers will continue to find meaningful excerpts from the massive document repository. For many people in the US, this will provoke a crisis of faith in their government, the military and their assumptions about both.

That’s what information war is all about and Wikileaks just scored an enormous victory—on the Pentagon Papers level—that will re-define journalism and the role of the internet in the real world.


Even if the Pentagon Paper didn’t do much to move public opinion against the war, is there evidence that they moved elite opinion against the war? It seems the war in Afghanistan is much more popular in DC than in general.

I’d argue that elite opinion had moved against the Vietnam War by 1967.

Mike Piacenza

July 26, 2010, 2:23 p.m.

Daniel Ellsberg had the personal conviction and the intestinal fortitude to take responsibility for leaking the Pentagon papers.  Does someone at WikiLeaks have the same level of integrity and courage?

Trevor Butterworth

July 26, 2010, 2:30 p.m.

Thanks Richard for making this crucial distinction between what seems like the rawest of intel and, in the case of the Pentagon Papers, high level analysis.

Of course, the other difference between the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks is the ubiquity of the internet.  See for more.

The similarity I see between this batch of documents at the Pentagon Papers is that both carry secrecy stamps that are politically-motivated, not to protect real secrets. This administration and its predecessors want to keep the American public in the dark about the perfidity of Pakistan in this action even while it funnels more than $1 billion in U.S. aid to that country. The support given the Taliban by Pakistan’s intelligence service has been rumored, but these documents add facts. There is a lot of embarassment in these documents that deserves to be public, such as Ford trucks given Afghan’s police turning up with the Taliban on the battlefield, and the use of Stinger missiles to shoot down American helicopters. This needs to be public, and not hidden under some secrecy stamp. It may be politically awkward, but surely the enemy knows how it is driving its troops to the front-line, and it knows the Stingers it has stockpiled. The only one who doesn’t know is the American taxpayer. The culture of secrecy hasn’t changed much since Vietnam,, and neither has administration outrage when uncomfortable facts are made public.

Michael Clark

July 26, 2010, 4:16 p.m.

This is a rather silly exercise in carping that differences do actually exist between the two troves…as if anybody would deny that. What the Pentagon Papers did, and what this dossier could do, is give the public more courage about its convictions. Long before 1971 the public had figured out that the Vietnam War was a mess and the government was lying to us. The Pentagon Papers offered irrefutable proof of that, however, and shattered the government’s ability to claim that it knew all kinds of secret information that put the war in a different light than skeptics believed. The current documents do exactly the same thing.

How does the government now continue to claim that the Afghan government we’re fighting to protect is worthy and stable, when we can read for ourselves about the Afghan official who raped a 16 year old girl, then ordered his body guard to kill the girl’s father when he complained, and then shot the body guard when he refused to murder the father? Seriously, do you mean to claim that that kind of information, put directly into the public’s hands, is not a potential turning point in this quagmire?

I’ve discussed many of the ways in which the new dossier resembles the effect of the Pentagon Papers:

I’d remind you, as well, that when the Pentagon Papers appeared many scolds pointed out that there was little news in the documents for people who’d been following closely the US involvement in Vietnam. So what? Giving the public the courage of its convictions regarding a disastrous war is a pretty important thing. You’ve also forgotten that Nixon’s hand in Vietnam was forced by Congress. His re-election says virtually nothing about the impact of the Pentagon Papers.

C.S. McCallum

July 26, 2010, 4:27 p.m.

Usually I look forward to reading ProPublica’s take on any given topic, but i disagree with the way you’ve down played the release of the “war diaries”.

The world is a much different place than it was 40 years ago, and comparing these sets of documents is apples to oranges, and rather beside the point.

Daniel Ellsberg himself, on Demoracynow! this morning congratulated both WikiLeaks and the un-named source for following in his footsteps. 

The papers provide an account of the war from the people there, and that to me is just as valuable than knowing what the top dogs in a closed room are doing. This is the kind of information the public needs to hear.  How many soldiers have died for this, and why? How many innocent civilians? Who we can trust? Where is the money going? With the amount of information made available, i don’t think we’ve even begun to really digest it all.

John H Stevens Jr

July 26, 2010, 4:38 p.m.

I would hope for more of a critical take from ProPublica than this fairly facile treatment.  While perhaps these are not as revealing or shocking as the Pentagon Papers, they confirm a number of problems that were rumored or being obfuscated by our own military and the administration.  Your comparison at the end, between Nixon prepping burglars and journalists playing nicey-nice with the White House, show the evolution of the White House’s co-optation of the news media since Watergate.  That should be of grave concern to everyone, and something to ponder in this new age of information: that the press needed a group like Wikileaks to give them the crucial information that has been withheld from the public or buried under layers of propaganda and showmanship.

Nice try at trivializing these disclosures.  If the information is so unimportant, why were they classified, even at a low level? The publication and discussion around the WikiLeaks release of what I call THE AF/PAK PAPERS means that when we hear that a Drone strike has killed a number of Taliban the dead may well be children or innocent civilians—that FICTION WAS, AND IS, POLICY.  It also means that President Obama now knows WE know how disastrous this war is, and how hopeless the prospect really is of our being able to control what goes on in Af/Pak, no matter how many billions of $$$ we give them, or how long we keep our military there or how many thousands come home in body bags.

Russell A. Thomson

July 26, 2010, 7:16 p.m.

How disappointing not to realize the political and economic consequences of releasing these thousands of pages of discouragement about the Afghanistan war.
The House is voting on funding today or tomorrow. It will pass; but with many less votes than before the leak.
The effect on politics depends on publicity.There is much today; but will it continue? If so the public will scream out against the war.

Not up to your usual standards.

Gary Richardson

July 26, 2010, 8:23 p.m.

If the reports on the documents’ contents are accurate (I have not read the actual WikiLeaks copies), there is little revealed that hasn’t already been well researched and presented, e.g. by Jon Krakauer in “Where Men Win Glory.”

it was the iphone app that propublica produced that revealed to me its agenda ... in such a condensed form it is clearly a propaganda organ ... this article above keeps that agenda

This seems to be selling WikiLeaks and the documents short. I am aware of the impact Mr. Ellsberg had at the time and the Pentagon Papers on the public. He took great risk to make them public. That being said, it did not stop the war and it ground on until it was no longer profitable politically and financially to continue it. In the interval, the corruption and lies continued. Nixon was tossed under the bus as he became a liability. So the so-called “Elites” abandoned the war. Now, here we are once more, decades later, the most corrupt WH and govt of any—Continuing on the legacy started with Reagan, and all the polititicans have been dumbed down and are totally owned by Corporate America and the MIC. This is a huge story of crime and backdoor deals and lies and coverup—Ending in ‘09 changes nothing as what evidence there is outside MSM indicates it is far worse under Obama. This may not be the equivalent of the Pengaton Papers, but Mr. Ellsberg is correct for this may be the tip of a vey large iceberg that may not bring down an Administration, but start a movement to make Washington sit up and pay attention to all of us who against these illegal occupations and covert agendas. The writer of this article is absolutely wrong.

Regarding the note and link that the DD has previously acknowledged the use of IR homing missiles against Allied forces, the military official quoted in the link admitted the use of RPG (unguided) rockets and SA-7 Grail early-generation handheld SAMs, also called MANPADs. He did not mention the use of Stingers or late-generation, all-aspect homing SAMs by Taliban forces—which these leaked documents appear to report. The SA-7 and the Stinger are not equivalent weapon systems. The Stinger is far more lethal. SA-7s were designed in the 1960s and deploy a crude, tail-chase homing missile. Stinger missiles and indigenous knock-offs offer more sophisticated all-aspect homing IR capability, longer rangers, and larger warheads. If the DD covered-up or withheld information about Stinger missiles being used in aircraft shootdowns (think Pat Tillman), then these documents do provide new information.

Huw Llewellyn

July 27, 2010, 2:40 p.m.

These documents start the clock ticking. It will continue to count down until the indignation of a previously ill-informed, but now better informed, American public necessitate a withdrawal by the political/bureaucratic elite from what was, from its inception, a crass and cruel policy. This may take some time, but the ball is rolling. Down a rather steep hill in my opinion.

Gary Richardson

July 27, 2010, 2:46 p.m.

JS: What do you mean by “think Pat Tillman”? Pat Tillman was the victim of “friendly fire” on an Afghan hillside.

You may no case and provide no evidence at all to support your premise that the Obama so called policy change is in any way relevant to the Wikileaks documents.

Obama COIN policy, with escalation, more drones, air strikes and civilian deaths (even McCyrstal admitted that US troops are killing large numbers of innocent civilians), in addition to more reliance and aid to Pakistan, all make prior Bush policy WORSE and reinforce exactly the fatal flaws exposed by the wikileaks documents.

It is clear that Richard Tofel is no reporter - so I checked his bio, and sure enough confirmed that (stick to the money side and stay out of journalism, please):

“Richard Tofel is general manager of ProPublica, with responsibility for all of its non-journalism operations, including communications, legal, finance and budgeting and human resources. He was formerly the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal and, earlier, an assistant managing editor of the paper, vice president, corporate communications for Dow Jones & Company, and an assistant general counsel of Dow Jones. Most recently, he served as vice president, general counsel and secretary of The Rockefeller Foundation, and earlier as president and chief operating officer of The International Freedom Center, a museum and cultural center that was planned for the World Trade Center site. He is the author of Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism (St. Martin’s, 2009); Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater, and the New York He Left Behind (Ivan R. Dee, 2004) and A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939 (Ivan R. Dee, 2002).

Last paragraph in the article:
“I did in fact go the White House and lay out for them what we had,” Baquet said. “We did it to give them the opportunity to comment and react. They did. They also praised us for the way we handled it, for giving them a chance to discuss it, and for handling the information with care. And for being responsible.”

What a perfect world.  WikiLeaks as God and the U.S. media as His servants, humbly receiving praise from the While House overlords for their due diligence.

I just listened to a NY Times reporter on NPR, perhaps the same guy quoted above.  How about the approximately 100 Aghans, named in the documents, who will most certainly be executed by the Taliban for collaborating with us?  What about our thousands of troops in the field with our enemies now in possession of documents that define the way we think, our capabilities, our methods (and limitations), and how we spin the truth to fool our own public?  Were any of these “little people” invited to this Ivy League lovefest at the White House that determined their fate?  Good grief.  What kind of country are we.  Vietnam indeed.  I was there in 1968.  We’ve apparently learned nothing.

Answer to Gary Richardson, re: Pat Tillman.
I was referring to the military’s initial response to repeatedly obscure the friendly-fire circumstances of Tillman’s death.
My point is that altering inconvenient facts for public consumption is not unknown to the military. Altering facts to confuse the enemy is legitimate and understandable. But doing so to placate the public or the media almost always backfires.

I was in nam in 68 as a private in the 101st..went over with 125 guys came home with 12..bad statistics huh..
back stateside I encountered a book called “the golden triangle”..which presented iron clad documentation of the U.S. Special Forces/C.I.A.  replacing the french military intelligence working in Indochina in the late fifties, with one seize control of the extremely lucrative heroin trade….countries have changed[what is afghanistan’s rank as heroin producer..oh ..number one you say oh!].. the game remains unchallenged by anyone on earth..with the exception of perhaps a handful of “uncommitted”[non..cia affiliation] mafia families..who are being rapidly exterminated ..the aforementioned book.”.Golden Triangle”..seemingly vanished from the earth for about ten years..however was reinforced by hundreds if not thousands of new studies..profiling in depth the U.S. and Britains true occupation..the multi tiered clandestine distribution of heroin throughout the entire world..not millions, not billions..try trillions..lot of black ops huh
my buddies are all dead because of those soul-less bastards..their families never had them as dads and fathers and sons ..because they volunteered for a cause that didnt exist except in the corporate/state [hitler’s dream baby] driven propaganda machine, that is the poison blood of the corpracy, exoterically headed by the FED, that is trying so brutally to coup our wonderful country and once free Government.
Assange’s work[wikileak] is just a tiny beginning to what is going to transpire..for just as with the fall of every peoples’ martyr..there arises ten thousand more..the eventual persecution of wikileaks will indeed spawn a dozen more similar threads..all having as their sole objective.. inform the other 98% of us [humanity]..that being what our genocidal parents [governments of the world..or world corporation] are up to..
those of you sick ostriches that would allow the clipping of america’s wings to placate the likes of homeland the name of national interest..might be well served to recall a statement to the press by our last president..GWBush..when someone poised a question concerning the United States Constitution..his reply.. “The Constitution. THATS JUST A GODDAM PIECE OF PAPER.”

these pentagon papers as well as those uncovered by Ellsberg back in 1972 are just…paper.
They re both completely and totally innocuous and that’s why it can be considered as usual propaganda crap. Real powerful leaked documents are those available at

This article is a waste of time, even Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers) thinks the importance and impact of the Wikileak war logs will be at least the same.

So, how can you expect us to agree with you, if the guy who you cite disagrees with you to begin with.

LOL ...

“Compared Reportage by The New York Times, The Guardian of London, and Der Spiegel of Germany on
The WikiLeaks release of ‘The Afghan War Diary, 2004- 2010,’ July 25- 27”

1. WikiLeaks, the online “whistleblower” site that released the widely-reported April 5, 2010 “Collateral Murder” video from the Iraq war, made available 92,000 U.S. military field reports from the war in Afghanistan, to 3 media outlets prior to general public release: The New York Times, The Guardian of London, and Der Spiegel of Germany.

U.S. army intelligence officer Bradley Manning purposely sent these army field reports, and other information, to the public whistleblower site, whose mission is to publish information deemed vital to the public interest, because he said “the networks contained “incredible things, awful things… that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC.”

The documents are available now for public viewing:,_2004-2010

2. Comparing these articles’ titles, leads, and substantive texts, a reader could be forgiven for thinking, at times, that they were based upon completely different events and subjects.

The New York Times’ stories did not stress or highlight civilian deaths, but focused upon Pakistan, and sought to emphasize the unimportance of the newly released documents (92,000 field reports) in its leads, and the substance, of its stories,
in 4 of its 8 articles.

The reports by the Guardian of London and Der Spiegel of Germany lead, and contain, different emphases in the leads, and substance, of their stories: notably, civilian deaths and the importance of the 92K field reports and their implications for the war in Afghanistan, and its international repercussions.

3. Here are the 3 sets of article titles and leads, published July 25-27, 2010, gathered for an explicit comparison, as “prima facie” evidence.

<First, here are the New York Times articles>:

[Quotes are the original leads headlining the articles]

*1. “Piecing Together the Reports and Deciding What to Publish: A Note to the Readers,” [by the Editors of The New York Times]

“Deciding whether to publish secret information is always difficult, but there are times when the information is of significant public interest’.”

New York Times, July 25, 2010

*2. “View is Bleaker Than Official Portrayal of War in Afghanistan,”
by C. J. Chivers, Carlotta Gall, Andrew W. Lehren, Mark Mazzetti, Jane Perlez, and Eric Schmitt, with contributions from Jacob Harris and Alan McLean,

New York Times, July 25, 2010

*3. “Pakistan Aids Insurgency in Afghanistan, Reports Assert,”
by Mark Mazzetti, Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, and Andrew W. Lehren.

“A trove of military documents made public on Sunday by an organization called WikiLeaks reflects deep suspicions among American officials that Pakistan’s military spy service has for years guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants.”

New York Times, July 25, 2010

*4. “In Disclosing Secret Documents, WikiLeaks Seeks Transparency,” by Eric Schmitt.

New York Times, July 25, 2010

*5. “Getting Lost in Afghanistan’s Fog of War,”
by Andrew Exum.

“The WikiLeaks documents don’t add to our understanding of the Afghan war — they further confuse a complex conflict.”

New York Times, July 26, 2010.

*6. “WikiLeaks: Pakistan’s Double Game,”  Editorial by the Editors of New York Times.

“If President Obama cannot persuade Islamabad to cut its ties to, and then aggressively fight, the extremists in Pakistan, there is no hope of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

New York Times, July 26, 2010

*7. “Leaks Add to Pressure on White House over Strategy,” by Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper.

The New York Times, July 26, 2010

*8. “A Secret Archive of What We Already Knew: Readers respond to articles about the leaked documents about the war in Afghanistan.”

New York Times, July 27, 2010

<Second, compare article titles from The Guardian of London>:

*9. “Julian Assange profile: WikiLeaks founder an uncompromising rebel,”
by Nick Davies,, Sunday July 25 2010

*10. “Afghanistan war logs: WikiLeaks founder rebuts White House criticism” by by Alexandra Topping and Jo Adetunji,, July 26 2010

*11. WikiLeaks war logs revelations will be far-reaching, say MPs.”,
by Matthew Taylor, July 26 2010

*12. “The war logs can bring transparency to Afghanistan.” by James Denselow,,  July 26 2010

*13.“Afghanistan war logs: a game-changer for British politics?” by Eric Joyce,, July 26 2010

*14. “Data journalism’ scores a massive hit with Wikileaks revelations.” by Roy Greenslade,, July 26 2010

<Third, compare news articles from Der Speigel of Germany>:

*15. “The Afghanistan Protocol: Explosive Leaks Provide Image of War from Those Fighting It.” SPIEGEL Online International, 25.07.2010

*16. “WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange on the ‘War Logs’: ‘I Enjoy Crushing Bastards.’”
SPIEGEL Online International, 26.07.2010

*17. “Task Force 373 and Targeted Assassinations:US Elite Unit Could Create Political Fallout for Berlin.” SPIEGEL Online International, 26.07.2010

*18. ”Accident-Prone Wonder Weapons: Afghanistan War Logs Reveal Shortcomings of
US Drones.” SPIEGEL Online International, 27.07.2010

Article titles will be added accordingly.

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