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Audio Document Friday: “Out of the Gobbledygook:” The Pentagon Papers and Access to Information

March 12, 2010

Pages from the Pentagon Papers.

Without freedom to access information, Americans accepted “the implicit infallibility of presidents.”  So said Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to President Richard Nixon on the day after the Top Secret Pentagon Papers –which revealed that four US presidents had misled the American public about the Vietnam War– were partially published by the New York Times.

In time for Sunshine Week, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (which relied upon National Security Archive documents) has re-raised the issues of government secrecy, national security, and which types of information the American public has the right to know.  This Audio Hot Doc eavesdrops on Nixon and Haldeman as they professed that the American public should not know what their government was doing in Vietnam.

Nixon Oval Office meeting with H.R. Haldeman.  Monday 14 June 1971, 3:09 PM. Click above to play.

Transcription Here.

In 1971, the American people had no effective mechanism to gain access to their government’s documents about the war in Vietnam; though the Freedom of Information Act was on the books, it was ambiguous, toothless, and ineffective.  To provide the public with the Vietnam War’s unknown history, Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst, chose to use his security clearance to access and illegally copy and disseminate the Pentagon Papers.  He broke the law, he stated, because “I felt that as an American citizen, as responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information [about the Vietnam War] from the American public.”

As Nixonphiles know, the president secretly bugged the Oval Office (The Archive’s annual Rosemary Award –announced today– derives its name from Nixon’s tapes).  This recording, first published and transcribed by the Archive in 2001, records Nixon and Haldeman stewing over the security breech.  The enraged duo made no mention of “the public’s right to know.”  Instead they ferociously leveled blame.  Nixon called Neil Sheehan, who penned the story, “a bastard,” reiterating that, “he’s been a bastard for years.”

The president then reminisced about the Alger Hiss case –the young Representative Nixon secured his anticommunist credentials during the 1948 HUAC hearings– claiming that the Pentagon Papers breech was much more serious than “a few little pumpkin seeds.”  (The civil servant Hiss was accused of passing secret papers in a hollowed out pumpkin.)

After pontificating what would have happened if a similar breech had implicated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for allowing the Pearl Harbor attack to happen (Nixon seems certain FDR ignored an advance warning), Nixon attempted to look on the bright side, gleefully noting that the papers at least “[made] Johnson look terrible.”

Harry Robbins "Bob" Haldeman

After confirming to themselves that the disclosure of the American government’s secret and capricious behavior in Vietnam was indeed “disloyal to the country,” Nixon and his Chief of Staff began preparing their counterattack:  “I wanna prosecute these people,” the president said.

But amidst all the recriminations, insults, and blood-lust, one statement about the disclosure of formerly secret material –made by Haldeman– rings startlingly prescient (7:30 in the audio):

“But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment.  And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants [them] to do even though it’s wrong.  And the president can be wrong.”

Haldeman was correct.  By disclosing the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg, in a sense, ushered the American public across the “information Rubicon.”  Despite injunctions from the Nixon administration, 17 different newspapers published excerpts of the Secret History.  Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel entered the Papers into the Congressional Record.  The Supreme Court confirmed that the First Amendment protected the Times’ right to publish the classified information.  In 1974 Nixon was forced to resign his presidency because he ordered his “plumbers” to secretly break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, and subsequently lied about it.

The reasons we are celebrating Sunshine Week are clear: “Out of the Gobbledygook,” the American people demand access to information and continue to reject the “implicit infallibility” of their government.

  1. March 13, 2010 1:58 am

    ‘“Out of the Gobbledygook,” the American people demand access to information and continue to reject the “implicit infallibility” of their government.”

    Only until their guy or political party achieves power, then the government walks on water and flies on winged horses. Or it until involves government agencies that they happen to like or which serve their purposes. Then, we must all grant them deference because we lack the expertise necessary to second-guess their judgments no matter how incompetent or dishonest they’ve proved in the past.

    If this sounds bitter, it’s because I am.


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