What heartfelt memo from the Pentagon Papers revealed about Washington
This article is part of a special report on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.
One night during the legal battle over the Pentagon papers, Max Frankel was seething with anger. Mr. Frankel, then the New York Times Washington bureau chief, recalled being the only one at the table during the newspaper’s deliberations with his legal team who had indeed read the newspapers. Still, he was stunned when outside lawyers hired by the newspaper to defend him claimed that the journalists had somehow erred in publishing national secrets.
“So I wrote a long memo to get them to understand how Washington works,” recalled Mr. Frankel, who became the newspaper’s editor from 1986 to 1994. The note offered a guide to truth about realities of government, journalism and secrecy in the nation’s capital. The lawyers were impressed and decided that the judges hearing the case could use a similar lesson, so they turned Mr. Frankel’s note into an affidavit and submitted it along with the case briefs. The result was a legal document like no other. A close reading shows how much this trade in secrets still animates Washington today.
In his affidavit, Mr. Frankel peeled the fiction of a government dependent on secrets, valiantly protecting them from unscrupulous journalists, instead explaining the more complex relationship in which all parties are involved in the information trade. And in the process, he exposed the false outrage of government officials who protest the disclosure of sensitive details when they themselves regularly traffick for their own purposes. In this, little has changed. Hypocrisy is a commodity that the capital does not lack.
Fifty years later, that’s still an apt description of how Washington works. “Secrets,” as the government describes them, are the currency of the kingdom. Public officials and journalists deal with it constantly, and aggressive media reporting is more essential than ever to keeping the public informed about how the government is wielding power on their behalf.
In a few concise sentences, Mr. Frankel pointed out that in Washington everyone was giving away secrets and for a variety of reasons, much less than altruistic. The same bureaucratic rivalries and political imperatives that applied in 1971 apply today. Presidents always court voters; the armed forces are always in competition for budget dollars; and officials are always seeking support, sabotaging opponents, or lobbying their superiors, all through strategic leaks.
Mr. Frankel’s Washington was more comfortable than it is today, where presidents regularly frequented selected journalists and spoke with them without their words being attributed to them. While presidents these days sometimes run journalists directly without their names, they usually leave the most serious leaks to others. I have covered the last five presidents, and none of them ever stood next to me in a pool, like President Lyndon B. Johnson had done with Mr. Frankel, to give an overview of the last conversation with a Russian leader.
President Donald J. Trump was an occasional exception. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, discovered it in 2018, when Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported that Mr. Trump was considering Mr. Christie for the White House Chief of Staff. When Mr Christie expressed his concern about the leak, the President told him, “Oh, I did,” according to “A Very Stable Genius” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. According to the book, Mr. Christie was shocked and thought, “Are you running away? And to think that I came so close to being your chief of staff.
Obtaining direct notes of a president’s meeting with another foreign leader is quite rare today, but transcripts of two of Mr. Trump’s early conversations with the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Australia have been leaked in 2017 to the Washington Post, which put them online. Unlike Mr. Frankel’s example, the revelation here was probably not authorized by Mr. Trump but disclosed by people alarmed by the conversations.
The episode led an angry president to become so cautious about future leaks that after one of his talks with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Trump demanded that the interpreter hand in the notes of the discussion. Mr Trump authorized the disclosure of one of his conversations with a foreign leader, the July 2019 phone call in which he pressured the Ukrainian president to “do us a favor” and investigate the former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats. But Mr Trump posted it openly, not through a leak, hoping to prove he hadn’t done anything wrong. House Democrats weren’t convinced and impeached him anyway.
Dean Rusk was neither the first nor the last senior Washington official to deliver a message to a reporter on condition of anonymity that was the exact opposite of what he said when the cameras were on. In one memorable example, a spokesperson for President George W. Bush’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq summed up the disastrous progress of the 2004 war to the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran: “Off the record: Paris is on fire. For the record: security and stability are returning to Iraq. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Mr. Trump also told Bob Woodward that it was “deadly stuff” and in fact “deadlier” than regular flu, while telling the public that it was “a bit like the regular flu” and would go away.
The government makes no spousal exceptions to its secrecy rules, but that does not prevent some officials from replacing their partners. As the Obama administration was about to launch its raid to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, didn’t even tell her husband, Bill, the former president, who has a fairly high clearance. But Bill Daley, then White House chief of staff, was not so quiet. He revealed to Garrett Graff, in an oral history published by Politico Magazine in April, when his wife asked him why he was so concerned, “I took her to the bathroom on the first floor, I turned on the faucet, I took her in the shower, I closed the shower door and I whispered in his ear, ‘We’ are going to go after Osama bin Laden. ‘”
Even in a time of heavy leaks, one area that remains taboo for journalists is to report information that would clearly put US troops in immediate danger. When a few other journalists and I were integrated into the general of the Marines commanding the route to Baghdad in 2003, we were aware of the information on future military plans, but we did not publish it until after the operations had ended. But sometimes the government insists on protecting troop movements even long after the fact; our former New York Times colleague Tim Weiner revealed one of these nonsense while at the Baltimore Sun in 1991, when he discovered that among the files still closed was one on troop movements. of World War I in 1917.
Government officials today are even more dependent on classification of information than they were in Mr. Frankel’s day, no matter how routine or mundane the details may be. There is no perceived cost to outclass, while officials who do not mark documents as “confidential”, “secret” or “top secret” run the risk of being accused of being too casual with sensitive information. . In 2016, the last full accounting year, the government reported on 39,240 classification decisions.
“Everyone who has looked at the issue agrees that the government is filing too much information for too long,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the government secrecy project at the Federation of American Scientists. “This is the path of least resistance.” Even some of those who oversee agencies that rely on secrets think it’s gone too far. Last year, General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience, “In a lot of cases in the department, we’re so outmatched it’s ridiculous, unbelievably ridiculous.”
Journalists today are less respectful of arguments that the disclosure of sensitive information will affect alliances, but editors ahead of publication routinely hear from government officials claiming that the disclosures could harm national security in some way. or another. In some cases, they make compelling arguments, and the New York Times and other publications have withheld particular information. When WikiLeaks obtained tons of cables from the State Department and delivered them to The Times, the newspaper did not release the names of Afghan informants who could face retaliation if their cooperation with US authorities became known. But most of the time, when officials seek to persuade editors not to proceed, what they are trying to avoid is not undermining national security, but embarrassment. or have political problems, none of which is the work of a news organization.
If anything, memoirs are even more common today than they were in Mr. Frankel’s time. Dozens of presidential assistants and appointees end up writing books about their time in government, often recounting episodes and closed-door conversations in great detail. Many of them have to go through a review process where the government scours the manuscript for classified information, but the interpretation is often quite subjective and even political.
When John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, submitted a brief in which he strongly criticized Mr. Trump, a career official said he could not quote the president directly. He left in the words attributed to the president, but simply removed the quotes. The book was then cleared for publication. It was only later that someone appointed by Trump with no classification experience quashed the career official and said the book actually contained secrets. Mr Bolton saw it as nothing more than a blatant effort to hush up a critical account of the President and published anyway. He is now in court to defend himself against a Justice Department lawsuit.
Today as then, many of the battles journalists wage with the government over secrets are not about today’s events but about episodes that took place in the past. In other words, what is at stake is less the continued security of the country and more the reputation of the people who once ruled it. The New York Times and its reporters have filed 81 federal lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act since 2003, some of them searching for documents on actions and decisions taken under presidents who have already left office, trying to discern , as Mr. Frankel wrote, “the thoughts, debates and calculations of the decision maker.