Journalism in the Public Interest

Pentagon Papers Reporter: What the WikiLeaks ‘War Logs’ Tell Us


From left, reporter Neil Sheehan, managing editor A.M. Rosenthal and foreign news editor James L. Greenfield are shown in an office of The New York Times in New York, on May 1, 1972, after it was announced the team won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its publication of the Pentagon Papers. (John Lent/AP Photo)

Americans who—like me—weren’t alive when the Pentagon Papers story was first leaked to The New York Times are likely still familiar with the end conclusion: The American people found out what a disaster the Vietnam War had been. And in a landmark case for press freedom, when the federal government tried to stop the Times and The Washington Post from publishing that confidential record of the war and the lead-up to it, the Supreme Court ruled on the side of the press, in favor of “no prior restraint” or censorship from the government.

But some of the details may be hazy, and especially as so many have begun comparing the revelations in the Afghanistan War Logs—released by WikiLeaks and reported out by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Speigel—it’s worth revisiting some of that history to better inform our perspective on the present.

So I rang up Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter to whom the Pentagon Papers were first leaked by military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in 1971—stories for which the Times later won the Pulitzer Prize. (Ellsberg, it is worth noting, has also chimed in on the latest leaks. He told The Wall Street Journal that he felt an affinity for the leaker in this case.)

Sheehan proceeded to share—in the brief time we were able to speak—what the Pentagon Papers told us about Vietnam, and what the latest leaks say about Afghanistan. Here’s what he had to say, edited slightly for clarity:

On the War Logs vs. Pentagon Papers comparison:

The Pentagon Papers dealt with more years. From 1944—World War II—through 1968. You had a vast time span. It was an archive of much of the war itself. It was for most of the war and covered the French-IndoChina war. The Pentagon Papers' revelations were of the highest level of decision-making. Decision-making by the president, the secretary of state, secretaries of defense, heads of the CIA, commanding generals. The highest level—and those were the most exciting revelations—the extent to which the government had deliberately deceived the American public about events in Vietnam or deluded themselves.

They came at the end of a long war that divided this country more than any war since the Civil War. This is coming during a war that’s an unpopular war, but the revelations aren’t at that level. As far as I can make out, the WikiLeaks logs cover a number of years. But it’s nitty-gritty stuff. Low-level stuff.

It doesn’t mean it’s not very revelatory. It is. It shows the extent to which the Bush administration abandoned the war in Afghanistan and what repercussions that has had. These young men and women were treated in a shabby fashion. They weren’t given the support they should’ve been given. They didn’t expect to get that support until Obama came in, and it takes time for that shift to happen.

On what the Afghanistan War Logs have added to what we know:

They show how difficult the war in Afghanistan is. It’s a very complicated situation. You’ve got a government in Kabul which is corrupt and untrustworthy. You’ve got Pakistani allies which are not necessarily always your allies. You’ve got a Taliban movement which is resurgent, but also isn’t unified. It has its own factions, but it’s a resilient movement .

The WikiLeaks revelations are very valuable, I think. They show how hard it is going to be to reach the objective the U.S. wants to reach, which is basically pacifying the country. Coming up with a sort of agreement which will pacify the country and end the insurgency. It shows how difficult it is to deal with your own allies.

It gives you a good insight into the war, the kind of war Americans are faced with. It shows the extent to which the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan and wasted resources in Iraq on a war that wasn’t necessary, and ignored a war that was necessary in Afghanistan. The situation has worsened markedly as a result of that neglect.

On the criticism by some who point out that the latest leaks don’t bring to light much new information:

They may not contain a lot of new information, but they get public attention. That’s important, that the American public understand what’s going on. I’m not saying it’s necessary that they quit Afghanistan, but that the public understands the price being paid.

One value from these logs is it shows things are much more difficult on the ground than what you get from high-level briefings where they talk about counterinsurgency and use all these terms. When you get down to nitty-gritty here, these guys are trying to deal with a village that’s divided against itself. You don’t know who to trust, because people in the village don’t know who to trust.

On whether it should come as a surprise that the official picture is rosier than reality:

That’s almost always the case. There’s a lot of pressure to succeed on senior people. They put that on the people below them. It’s self-generated. The Army term is "can-do spirit." There’s the can-do spirit. No general wants to admit he can’t accomplish something, so you’re bound to get a rosier picture.

On how having the documents makes the realities of war more tangible:

In a very important way, these records make the war more tangible. There’s something tangible now. People can understand that.

The New York Times has a picture of the Taliban in a Ford truck given to the Afghan Army by the United States. That happened in Vietnam. We armed the Viet Cong guerrillas. When I first went to Vietnam, a Viet Cong battalion would be lucky to have one machine gun. Within one year, you had two or three per battalion—one per company at least. Their firepower increased enormously. That was from us.

There’s a problem in fighting an insurgency and that is that when you pour resources into a country like that, into a society that has conflict within itself, the side with the most motivation tends to obtain those resources one way or another.

On other differences people should keep in mind:

The American Army in this war is totally different than the Army in Vietnam. The American Army in Afghanistan is an army of volunteers. They’re young men and women who’ve signed up for the military because they think they’ll survive, they’ll be able to get a college education, or they really wanted to be a soldier or Marine.

That wasn’t true in Vietnam. They were drafted or volunteers, and even the volunteers figured they’d eventually get drafted and thought, "I should just get it over with." They weren’t really volunteers. When they saw how senseless the war was, many of them turned against it.

None of that seems to exist in Afghanistan. The Army and the Marines don’t seem to lack for volunteers. Young men and women are signing up knowing what they’re facing. They accept the danger. They sign up thinking they’ll live through it.

The U.S. Army was destroyed in Vietnam. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam. That’s a hell of a lot of people. I don’t know the exact figure in Afghanistan, but it’s nowhere near that.

Note: The Associated Press tallies 1,785 deaths of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan since 2001, through June 2010. That number, of course, doesn’t include the hundreds of contractors—not to mention Afghan civilians—who have also died in the Afghan war.

Matt J. Duffy

July 26, 2010, 7:04 p.m.

I quit reading when he said “a war that wasn’t necessary…” I’m not saying it definitely WAS necessary, but to speak so definitively about it—as though there’s no debate—makes me think Sheehan’s just hopelessly partisan.

I liked how this article was created.

“It shows the extent to which the Bush Administration neglected Afghanistan and wasted resources in Iraq on a war that wasn’t necessary…”

Given the way the American and British public and the world at large were deceived about the Iraqi war, I’ve always wondered why both Blair and Bush were not brought before the Hague to face charges of war crimes?

These wars we are involved in are not about the stated objectives, “Pacifying the people, installing democracy, WMDs”. These wars are about war profiteering, corporate welfare for oil companies and defense contractors, privatizing our military and removing their actions from the rules, puting military bases next to the worlds oil supply and keeping the military available in the middle east to support Israel.

It is my understanding that most and I do mean most of what becomes classified and secret by the various United State Government and Military agencies, is done to protect government officials from embarrassment. Bad decisions should be part of the discussion to make it “Right” again.

Ellsberg stated this wikileaks was as important as the pentagon papers. He said both showed the govt. has no direction, understanding or purpose for fighting either war

“These young men and women were treated in a shabby fashion. They weren’t given the support they should’ve been given. They didn’t expect to get that support until Obama came in, and it takes time for that shift to happen.”

Ohhhh pulleazeee! What a crock of sh!t.

Betsy Herring

July 28, 2010, 9:09 a.m.

There is another vital difference in the twowars.  The opposition to the war here in the US is not actively organizing and fighting against this current war.  In my opinion, we should be because it will never stop unless there is vast opposition.  President Obama needs to keep his promise to get us out as stated but there can be found ways to stay, just like V ietnam.

Betsy you have hit the nail on the head, the peace movement during Vietnam was across all levels of the community, and supported by LOCAL MEDIA outlets. Well this current mob are all about bashing the local media, and without support from them not much can be achieved. The don’t have support from the music/movie industries, so the message most people read on Wiki leaks is of hatred, distrust and raving and ranting on about how rotten a country the USA is. Well there needs to be a 100% about face and a few pages from Vietnam protests will go a long way to help. Personally I truly hope that the people on Wiki leaks lose and more reasonable people win the peace.

‘It shows the extent to which the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan and wasted resources in Iraq on a war that wasn’t necessary, and ignored a war that was necessary in Afghanistan.”—- Am I missing something? You are kidding right? There is no OIL in Afghanistan !

The protests against the vietnam war came to a crashing halt the day the draft ended.  That is exactly when a young George W. Bush decided to walk away from the Air National Guard.

These days there is very little interest in Iraq and Afghanistan—- even though much American treasure is being spent.  Just a small minority of Americans are bearing the brunt of the present conflicts.

The wilileaks is really no big deal.  Because soldiers and marines have been spilling the beans—in bits and pieces—over the past decade.  But no one pays attention.

This article was enlightening to me because—similar to the author—I was not alive during the Pentagon Papers and these recent comparisons have been unintelligible to me due to my lack of knowledge about the history in comparison.

Thank you propublica, guardian of American journalism

This is a no win situation for us. How many more American lives have to be lost to support the old Bush/Chaney directive. The old Vietnam War mantra of “by the people, for the people, screw the people” has again risen it’s ugly head.

John Potamites

July 29, 2010, 3:29 p.m.

Want the war to end?  Reinstate the draft.  More protesters, the eligible and their parents (protesters-of-the-past) will make themselves heard.  A desirable surge.

Ferdinand Gajewski

July 29, 2010, 4:43 p.m.

Well, I was alive and sentient during the leak of the Pentagon Papers.  I still don’t know what the rationale behind the Vietnam War was.  But the Afghanistan adventure is clearly about oil:

Gurbachan Singh

July 29, 2010, 5:16 p.m.

American forces are going to come out of Afghanistan next year. This is not bad. But, what is going to happen afterwards, is very clear. The insurgents will again strengthen and most likely to attack the United States, blow up Israel, Japan and South Korea, killing a vast majority of innocent people. The only solution to this problem can be by putting a hard blow on Pakistan, so that no other nation in the world dare to raise its head to aid the insurgents. This is upto the US Congress and Obama administration to decide what to do.

Get out immediately. Nothing good comes of these conflicts. Why, after all these years, do we continue to send other people’s kids on these fool’s errands? When we finally get enough in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be just another disgraceful waste.
Read Sebastain Junger’s “War” on the troops fighting in   Afghanistan and David Finkel’s book, “The Good Soldiers” on the troops in Iraq if you think Petraeus’ “surge” works.

Gurbachan Singh writes, “The insurgents will again strengthen and most likely to attack the United States, blow up Israel, Japan and South Korea, killing a vast majority of innocent people.” Please, enough with the propaganda. So a Pashtun peasant who takes his rifle and goes to the highway to fire at occupiers, was really all along planning to attack New York and South Korea? Right.

All occupiers say the same thing: “If we didn’t attack them, they would have attacked us!” The occupiers previous attacks are hidden. Take the conflict with al-Qaeda: al-Q protested against the 12 YEARS of weekly bombings of Iraqi infrastructure, and the sanctions that killed 500,000 children through starvation and disease, something Madeleine Albright said was “worth it”.

al-Qaeda wanted an end to this and an end to U.S. funding of the killings of Palestinians - Israeli soldiers tell of other soldiers who shoot Palestinians in the street for fun when they are on patrol. But, what do we hear? “They hate us for our freedom!” And if we don’t invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they would invade us.

The Downing Street Memo revealed that the aim of invading Afghanistan/Iraq already existed. The White House and London simply made up arguments afterward to make people support it. It was never about how “they hate us for our freedom.” It was about destroying two of the few countries that supported the Palestinian resistance.

Carpenter, You obviously support the Palestinian Movt, which supports and advocates terrorism, so by proxy you support terrorism. Therefore you are prepared to kill inocent people to gain your goals, so you are prepared to commit crimes against humanity.
Well you are no better than the people you denounce as occupiers, in fact you are worse because you actually set out to murder as many people as possiable, including your own countrymen. Point is all your drivel above comes down to you are just another nutter who is prepared to use violence against whoever to achieve your aims whatever they may be.

Phelim Murnion

Aug. 3, 2010, 8:04 a.m.

Just came to this (NYTimes) website from the Guardian coverage of the wikileaks story and the contrast is striking.  On the Guardian the main story is the question of war crimes by US forces and their allies.  On this page you get a (allegedly) liberal pulitzer prize winner and his only criticism is that “the war is complicated” and the US has unreliable allies! The main page of the NYTimes (the US liberal paper?) on this story makes no reference whatsoever to US wrongdoing.  Is there any self-criticism of reflective thinking left in the US media?

“peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process…”. As said by John Fitzgerald Kennedy. “I believe that he started the war in veitnam but I also believe his words ended it. He had a true vision of peace and like he said, this war still hasn’t ended and may never but it will take time. Ifall we want is money it will take more time if we want peace than we would have ended this war yesterday.”

Interesting commentaries. Some sound like they read history and others sound like they listen exclusively to Fox News. I suggest that you don’t comment until you have actually done some research from respected sources. (FOX News does not count. For that matter neither does CNN nor MSNBC. How is that for fair?  and possibly unbiased) The topic is definitely one that sparks passion and debate. I am in the military and expect that my fellow soldiers, airmen, seamen (no pun intended) go through the process of critical thought. I am dismayed (yes dismayed) at the poor level of basic research the majority of Americans do when it comes to our foreign policy and our history. We have these fun blogs, but really do any of you actually know what you are talking about?  Based on what I’ve read, the answer is not really. Entertaining in some cases, but overall, a sad reflection on why our country is scrambling to stay in the top 20 in global secondary education standards. Our national and global problems can’t be solved by watching our “entertainment type” news. Please, stop reading ill informed blogs (like this one) and do some real research. Then you can contribute to a possible solution, unless all you were looking for was some lame entertainment to begin with.

Sheehan is just another apologist bullshitter for American exceptionalism which is destroying the planet.  The Afghanistan war was necessary?? And ‘Gott Mitt Uns!’

Ben, I feel you have the closest opinion to my own and what I consider true.  From my own limited research on VietNam, it appears that Truman promised France that we would support, assist etc. the French Indo-China war, thus placing an obligation on America to send troops and arms.  Eisenhower sent “peacekeepers” - oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one - Kennedy inherited the situation and further accelerated the war.

Ray Goldstein

Oct. 23, 2010, 8:33 p.m.

Let’s hope that these leaks continue to reveal the reality of U.S. interventions in civil conflicts and cause more and more Americans to ponder the underlying reasons and supposed rationales for them.  Until the U.S. government is forced by public pressure to cease and desist I’m afraid that the vested interests who prosper from such conflicts will continue to find all sorts of spurious explanations for why young men and women should sacrifice themselves on the altar of patriotism. Of course Obama should take the lead in reversing course in Afghanistan, but he seems to have trapped himself by his own election rhetoric, similar to what JFK initially did in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Fortunately he learned rather quickly and resisted strong pressures to attack the USSR’s missile bases during the Cuban Missile Crisis, although his successors continue to isolate the Cuban regime.  It’s really difficult for politicians to grasp the underlying reasons for foreign unrest as well as the degree to which the power elite restrict their options.

Well resourced & written article. The “War Logs” are historic & allow a window: the tenacity our enemies & happenings on the ground.

Gold for analysts, historians.

For me, this leveraging of the ‘Net is a game-changer for any major warring. Why? Because technologies, inevitably, create their own leaks & leakers. And make bright war’s lies.

Terrorism is used to describe low budget war. Killing people with airplanes,  drones, tanks, etc. is described as self protection or anti-terrorist activity.
  If we were to start describing acts of terrorism by their terror content alone, we would conclude that the two most active terrorist governments are Israel and the USA.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories