How the Pentagon Papers Shaped the Power of the Free Press

That is true, because the Pentagon Papers case set the press free to publish secrets in ways that were unimaginable in 1971. Reporting on drone warfare and secret U.S. bases in Africa, on offensive and defensive cyberoperations, on the status of barely-secret negotiations with Iran or the Taliban, is now common practice.

In the torrent of such national-security reporting — everything from disclosures by WikiLeaks to covert efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program — government officials and the major news organizations have reached an unspoken understanding.

The government reluctantly acknowledges that, under current case law, the final decision about publication belongs to editors and publishers, not government officials. The government may hunt for leakers, but the press is mostly left alone — except when courts try to force them to reveal their sources, or government officials reach for secret court orders to glean that information surreptitiously.

That unspoken bargain, the practical result of the Pentagon Papers case, fundamentally changed the nature of national security journalism. It has confirmed an ability to publish secrets about the workings of the U.S. government that would not be tolerated in other democracies, from Britain to Israel to Australia. And in newsrooms across America, it has given leverage for journalists to force government officials to explain, sometimes in classified detail, their objections to the publication of an article, the revelation of government action or a classified trove of documents.

There is good reason to press for those answers. Government officials know that information is wildly overclassified — a problem that has gotten significantly worse since Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a book about it two decades ago — and so they have to make the case to reporters and editors why a certain set of facts will truly put lives or operations in jeopardy. They often have a hard time making that case. But those conversations also force us as journalists to scrutinize our own reasoning and standards about what to publish — and to think hard about the human consequences of those decisions.

The result is that the daily details of national security decision-making — a messy mix of the classified, the confidential and the public — are now the daily background noise of news gathering. In an internet connected-world where little stays secret for long, it is all becoming public at a speed and scale that Supreme Court justices, reporters and editors and the U.S. government could not imagine 50 years ago.

By today’s standards, no one would blink at publishing the Pentagon Papers. By the time the presses rolled back then, the work of the Vietnam Study Task Force, which produced the papers, was already at least two years old.

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