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Can Government Employees Read the Pentagon Papers?

December 14, 2010

Ellsberg on the cover of Time Magazine, 5 July 1971. The more things change...

Those who have been following the wikileaks affair will have noticed the recent prominence of Dan Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Ellsberg, in many respects, was a predecessor to wikileaks, and has provided insightful commentary regarding the current situation.  So what has happened to the  43 volumes that  Ellsberg leaked 39 years ago?

You might be dismayed to learn that the Pentagon Papers are still classified as TOP SECRET!

This is despite the fact that The Pentagon Papers have long been in the public domain. Indeed, US government historians use them in official accounts of the Vietnam War and they are referenced and republished in official US government records, such as Foreign Relations of the United States. Senator Mike Gravel even entered them into the Congressional Record!

The classification of the Pentagon Papers takes on an even stranger significance when one considers the federal government’s recent pronouncement that “unauthorized disclosures of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog, or on websites) do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.”

This is the reason –in the case of Wikileaks– why the Government has been demanding that US government employees refrain from looking at any of these documents, even if doing so hampers their ability to fulfill their mandates.  If this standard holds true, government employees should not be allowed to read (or reference, or cite) the Pentagon papers either.

This classification policy might be more understandable if US declassification efforts were more forthright and better managed.  But the opposite is the case; the Pentagon Papers are an excellent example.  The US government continues to refuse to declassify them—and not for lack of public interest.

The Archive is aware of at least two requests for The Papers’ declassification under the Freedom of Information Act, one in the 1980s and another in the 1990s. Both seem to have been lost in the Pentagon bureaucracy. In 2000, the Archive filed a declassification request for the final four ultra-secret “diplomatic volumes” of the Pentagon Papers, which Ellsberg chose not to leak. In 2003, the State Department declassified these four diplomatic volumes in total.

So today, 39 years later,  the ultra-secret negotiating material from the “diplomatic volumes” of the Pentagon Papers (which even Ellsberg refused to release) has been declassified, but the well-read 43 volumes that have been available to the public to since 1971 remain Top Secret.  The Archive continues to fight for the official declassification of the bulk of the Pentagon Papers.

In the meantime the phoniness of many appeals to secrecy –including wikileaks material– remains readily apparent.

  1. Andrew Breza permalink
    December 14, 2010 7:21 pm

    What was their reason for refusing to release the already-public sections of the Papers? That’s absurd.

  2. PIDB Staff permalink
    May 19, 2011 7:53 am

    We are at a decision point in our history and solicit your guidance. The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) seeks your suggestions for changing our classification system via our blog Transforming Classification (

    We strongly encourage you to weigh in and help us improve our national security classification / declassification system.

    The PIDB would like to invite you to post your comments on any of the eight draft white papers describing an element of our proposed transformation. White papers address the following topics:

    •Using Technology to Improve Classification and Declassification

    •Reconsidering Information Management in the Electronic Environment

    •Regularizing the Declassification Review of Classified Congressional Records

    •Discretionary Declassification and Release of Contemporary National Security Information

    •Simplifying the Declassification Review Process for Historical Records

    •Stewardship of Our Classified History

    •Information Security and Access in the Electronic Environment

    •A Half-Life for Historical Formerly Restricted Data (FRD)

    The board’s eight papers outline proposals intended to improve public access to formerly classified information and to better manage the transition from paper-based to electronic records. In addition, the board invited public submissions of recommendations, which the board has organized into categories and posted for comment.
    We encourage you to post your comments on these white papers under their respective threads and comment on the posts of others. Your thoughts and suggestions on these topics will be of great assistance to us as we finalize our proposals to the President.

    Visit Should you wish to comment and remain anonymous, please email your comments directly to the PIDB staff at, along with your preference to remain anonymous and we will post to the blog on your behalf.

    Additionally, be sure to mark your calendar for Thursday, May 26, 2011, when the Board will host a public meeting on these and prior topics.

    For more information, contact the Public Interest Declassification Board staff at 202-357-5250 or


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