What a Candid Pentagon Papers Memo Revealed About Washington

This article is part of a special report on the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers.

One night during the legal battle over the Pentagon Papers, Max Frankel was stewing with anger. Mr. Frankel, then the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, remembered that he was the only one at the table during the newspaper’s deliberations with its legal team who had actually read the papers. Yet he was stunned when the outside lawyers hired by the newspaper to defend it asserted that the journalists had somehow erred by publishing national secrets.

“So I dashed off a long memo to make them understand how Washington works,” Mr. Frankel, who went on to become the paper’s executive editor from 1986 to 1994, recalled last month. The memo offered a ground-truth guide to the realities of government, journalism and secrecy in the nation’s capital. The lawyers were impressed and decided that the judges hearing the dispute could use a similar lesson, so they turned Mr. Frankel’s memo into an affidavit and submitted it along with the briefs in the case. What resulted was a legal document unlike any other. A close reading shows how much such trading in secrets still drives Washington today.

In his affidavit, Mr. Frankel peeled back the fiction of a government dependent on secrets, valiantly guarding them against unscrupulous journalists, instead explaining the more intricate relationship in which all sides 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 traffic in them for their own purposes. In that, not much has changed. Hypocrisy is one commodity of which there remains no shortage in the capital.

Fifty years later, this is still an apt description of how Washington works. “Secrets,” as the government describes them, are the coin of the realm. Public officials and journalists deal in them constantly, and aggressive reporting by news outlets is as critical as ever in keeping the public informed about how the government is wielding power in its name.

In a few pithy sentences, Mr. Frankel made the point that in Washington everyone leaked secrets and for a variety of reasons, many of them less than altruistic. The same bureaucratic rivalries and political imperatives that applied in 1971 apply today. Presidents are still wooing electorates; the armed forces are still in competition for budgetary dollars; and officials still seek to gain support, sabotage opponents or lobby against their superiors — all through strategic leaks.

Mr. Frankel’s Washington was a cozier one than today’s, one where presidents routinely hobnobbed with select journalists and spoke with them without their words’ being attributed to them. While presidents these days sometimes directly spin reporters without their names attached, they usually leave the more serious leaking to others. I’ve covered the last five presidents, and none of them ever stood next to me in a swimming pool, as President Lyndon B. Johnson had done with Mr. Frankel, to give a rundown of the latest conversation with a Russian leader.

President Donald J. Trump was an occasional exception. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, discovered that in 2018, when Jonathan Swan of Axios reported that Mr. Trump was considering Mr. Christie for White House chief of staff. When Mr. Christie expressed concern about the leak, the president told him, “Oh, I did it,” according to “A Very Stable Genius” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. According to the book, Mr. Christie was shocked and thought: “You’re leaking yourself? And to think I came this close to being your chief of staff.”

Even in an era of gushing leaks, one area that remains taboo for journalists is reporting information that would clearly put American troops at immediate risk. When a few other reporters and I were embedded with the Marine general commanding the drive toward Baghdad in 2003, we were privy to information about future military plans, but never published it until after any operations had taken place. But sometimes the government insists on protecting troop movements even long after the fact; our former New York Times colleague Tim Weiner disclosed one such absurdity while at The Baltimore Sun in 1991 when he found that among the files still classified was one on World War I troop movements in 1917.

Now as then, many of the fights journalists get into with the government over secrets concern not current-day events but episodes that took place in the past. In other words, what is at stake is less the continuing security of the country than the reputations of the people who once ran it. The New York Times and its reporters have filed 81 federal lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act since 2003, some of them seeking documents about actions and decisions made under presidents who have already left office, trying to discern, as Mr. Frankel wrote, “the thoughts, debates and calculations of the decision-maker.”

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