The Media Muzzled

Vietnam and Afghanistan Show why Limiting Press Access to War is Unpatriotic

I wish our country were psychologically secure enough to be willing to scare the military into more accountability by making their activities more public. It would end up making our democracy more secure. It might help us do better in wars. Once, the Supreme Court seemed to agree.

I've been reading the Pentagon Papers recently. You may know something about this astonishing document: A mammoth analytic history of America's involvement in Vietnam since the U.S. began its commitment to defeat the Communist insurgency in the '40s, it was commissioned by a disenchanted then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, desperate for insights into how to redeem a situation he already knew to be an irredeemable disaster (he resigned from the government soon after). The documents began to be published in the Times and The Washington Post in 1971, until the Nixon administration legally ordered the papers to stop on grounds of national security; it took a 6-3 Supreme Court decision to allow them to continue. The decision should have, but didn't, set a precedent: that the government can exercise censorship only if it demonstrates that revealing the information may harm the security of troops in the field. It wasn't a decision about war reporting per se; the Pentagon Papers were a history covering events at least three years old by the time they were released. But between the lines of the ruling, the justices seemed to be upholding a grander principle: that, other things being equal, more information about ongoing wars can better serve the national interest than habits of utmost secrecy.

The Court may have been convinced not merely by the First Amendment issues involved but by the contents of the Papers themselves. For a big part of the story they tell is about the U.S. government keeping secrets from the press—first and foremost the secrets behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the extraordinary action that gave President Johnson carte blanche to wage war unchecked by Congress. When U.S. destroyers were apparently fired upon by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Gulf in August of 1964, Johnson sold the action as a viciously unprovoked attack. It wasn't. It actually was a response to six months (or, if you interpret it another way, five years) of U.S. covert warfare: "destructive undertakings"—as one secret document revealed in the Times—aimed at "targets identified with North Vietnam's economic and industrial well-being." Which was quite something, for North Vietnam, a marshy agricultural nation, had hardly any industrial well-being to speak of. Bombing North Vietnam never helped end the war one bit. And the Papers reveal that experts were explaining all along that bombing could have no measurable effect on getting the insurgency in South Vietnam to stop.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

The astonishing thing about the Papers is that it reveals that there was never a moment since World War II in which some intelligence agency (often the much-maligned CIA) wasn't giving warnings like this. In '48 the message was that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the insurgency, didn't take orders from any international Communist conspiracy; in '54 it was that the entire region was "devoid of decisive military objectives"; in '65 through '67 that ground troops wouldn't work where bombing had already failed. American presidents kept escalating the war anyway, lying and lying and lying about it. "The president desires that with respect to the actions in paragraphs 5 through 7," a 1965 document revealed, "premature publicity be avoided by all possible precautions. The actions themselves should be taken as rapidly as practicable, but in ways that should minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy. . . . The President's desire is that these movements and changes should be understood as being gradual and wholly consistent with existing policy."

Paragraphs 5 through 7 was the presidential order to send 20,000 soldiers to fight on the ground in Vietnam: a change in existing policy of whirlwind suddenness, the whereabouts of 20,000 soldiers risking their lives shrouded as if they didn't exist. (Some way to support our troops.) By the time the irremediable depth of our commitment to winning an unwinnable war became evident when reporters finally began figuring things out (and later when the Pentagon Papers were made public), the president felt far too committed to pull out.

The parallel to the current war, of course, is not entirely apt. Vietnam was fought over abstractions—as the Pentagon itself admitted. (A 1965 secret memo listed U.S. aims in Vietnam as 70 percent to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat, 20 percent to make a point to the Chinese, and 10 percent to permit the South Vietnamese "to enjoy a better, freer way of life.") This time, we were attacked. And of course the Pentagon Papers were not a product of dogged journalism, but of the fact that a government report happened, fortuitously, to surface from the actions of a disgruntled defense analyst, Daniel Ellsberg. The war never seemed to end; this one seems over already.

But rescue last week's papers from the recycling bin, read the stories again, and ask yourself: Can we really be sure of what's going on? A Web tease for an article in The New York Times from December 6 on Kandahar notes an "an unconfirmed report that the Taliban leader has decided to surrender the city," as if the paper of record was getting its information from the barking chain in the movie 101 Dalmatians. The New York Post attributed a story that—fasten your seat belts now—Osama bin Laden is hiding in caves to a "widespread report" that "intelligence sources" have said so. The deficit is made up with media stenography of the two things the Pentagon is happy to talk about: first, military successes ("Yesterday, the Pentagon showed a video clip of a bomb taking out an entire building where prisoners were fighting," as reported by the New York Post); second, gee-whiz gadgetry ("greatly improved in recent years by the same digital revolution that has drastically increased the power of video recorders and computers," as reported by The New York Times).

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