I Want My Pentagon Papers!

Why won’t the New York Times share that controversial new Iraq study with its readers?

A Page One story in the Feb. 11 New York Times, “Army Buried Study Faulting Iraq Planning,” has a familiar ring to it: Government commissions multivolume study about conduct of unpopular war … study’s frankness about lives lost due to tragic misjudgments and political posturing prompts government to conceal study … New York Times acquires study and spills beans.

Isn’t this the story line of the Pentagon Papers?

There’s even a common RAND Corp. angle. The new study was produced by RAND for the Army. The Pentagon Papers, though compiled in-house at the Defense Department, relied on substantial input from RAND, and were leaked by a RAND employee, Daniel Ellsberg. The main difference is that while the Pentagon Papers reprinted many secret government documents about the Vietnam war, and therefore were classified top secret, the Iraq war study, which was based on interviews with “more than 50 civilian and military officials,” is unclassified. (There is a classified version too, but the Times doesn’t appear to have acquired that.)

All this raises the question: If the Army is trying to bury this study, and if the Times thinks the study is important enough to place above the fold on Page One, and if the legal obstacles that made publication of the Pentagon Papers a dicey call back in 1971 are a nonissue this time out, then why won’t the Times reprint the most important excerpts, as it did with the Pentagon Papers? Or, at the very least, post excerpts on its Web site?

When I raised this question with Michael Gordon, author of the Times piece, he said, “I don’t see a close parallel” with the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers, Gordon said, presented a “secret and fairly unknown history,” whereas the new RAND study, though it was “interesting and made some useful points,” merely ratified a lot that had already come out in his own reporting and that of defense reporters at other major publications. Gordon mentioned specifically Cobra 2, which he wrote with Bernard Trainor; Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post; Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post; and The Assassin’s Gate by George Packer of the New Yorker. “They are essentially validating a view of history that I and any number of journalists have documented,” Gordon said.

That may be so, but the Pentagon Papers didn’t plow much new ground either. As a Washington Post editorial put it at the time, “The story that unfolds is not new in its essence—the calculated misleading of the public, the purposeful manipulation of public opinion, the stunning discrepancies between public pronouncements and private plans—we had bits and pieces of all that before.”

What was new, the Post concluded, was the “incredibly damning form” in which the information was presented and the “irrefutable documentation” laid before the reader. Defense Secretary Clark Clifford, to whom the Pentagon Papers were delivered, never bothered to read them (or so he said). Today the Pentagon Papers are remembered less for their content than for the showdown they occasioned between the press and the Nixon White House. They merited publication, in the Times and elsewhere, because they constituted an important admission by the government that up wasn’t down, black wasn’t white, and backward wasn’t forward. The Bush administration still won’t acknowledge such truths with respect to Iraq.

Gordon doesn’t have all seven volumes of the new study, and apparently what he has is on paper, not in electronic form, which means it would be a mild nuisance to input. But surely he possesses sufficient interesting material for the Times to post online. “I suppose it’s worth considering,” Gordon conceded after we’d talked awhile, “if there’s interest in it.” He said that so far, I was the only person who’d contacted him with this request. But on Talking Points Memo, Paul Kiel, who named Gordon’s Times story his “Must Read” for Feb. 11, observed that the study “would make for interesting reading.” By the time Gordon and I were done chatting, he was definitely warming to the idea. “There’s a whole section on Doug Feith’s special plans shop,” he murmured conspiratorially. As President Bush once said in a different context: Bring it on!