Skip to content

What Were The Eleven Words the Government Intended to Censor from the Pentagon Papers?

September 16, 2011

Available to the public since 1971

9/16/2011 Update:  For the first time ever, all three major editions of the Pentagon Papers are being made available simultaneously online. You can view this unique side-by-side comparison at the National Security Archive website.  This comparison shows readers exactly what the U.S. government tried to hide for 40 years by means of deletions from the original text.

Be sure to check out the Archive’s special contest to nominate the infamous “11 words” that some officials tried to keep secret even this year!  Details can be found here


The Pentagon Papers have been available to the public for 40 years.  Despite this, the federal government recently spent substantial human and monetary capital reviewing and re-reviewing every page, line, and word, of the Pentagon Papers, which Daniel Ellsberg originally leaked in 1971.

Earlier this summer, the National Archives announced that it had finally finished its review of the Papers, and that only eleven words needed to remain redacted.  At a Public Interest Declassification Board Meeting, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, even joked that historians could “play Mad Libs” with the missing eleven words.  (This reference has since been scrubbed from NARA’s blog, but not from Steve Aftergood’s “Secrecy News.”)

In response, I joked at the meeting that I would simply check the already available Gravel edition of the papers and –not wanting to get in trouble– fill in the Mad Lib with the 90-year-old invisible ink recipe the CIA had just declassified.  My “secrecy humor” got just a tepid response from the crowd.

And I was only partially correct.  The eleven words were actually published in the House Armed Services edition of the papers –which had been reviewed and redacted by the DOD in 1972– not the Gravel edition.  (See here for an analysis of the different releases of the Papers.)  Just before the Paper’s “official” publication, an alert archivist at the Johnson Presidential Library discovered that the eleven-word “needle” in the “haystack” of the Pentagon Papers had actually already been declassified.  John Prados of the National Security Archive, another archivist wrote in an email, would quickly find the eleven words and “parade this discovery like a politician on the 4th of July.”  It looks like that expansive (and expensive) declassification review was unnecessary, after all.

Check out for a side by side comparison of the different Pentagon Papers versions.

So what does Prados think the eleven words were?  He takes eleven guesses and provides deep analysis on the Archive’s website.  Here’s a condensed list:

1.  “…the first view was primarily supported by the military and the CIA both in Washington and in Saigon….” (IV. B. 5, p. iv)

2. “‘Initial Report of CAS Group Findings in SVN,’ dated 10 February…” (IV. C. 1, p. 23)

3.  “…small-scale RECCE STRIKE Operations in North Vietnam after appropriate provocation.” (IV. C. 1, p. 83)

4.  “…covering a two destroyer Patrol Group with on-line Crypto RATT…” (IV.C.3, p. 17)

5.  “…it is understood that a Joint State, Defense and CIA committee…” (IV. C. 6 (b), p. 38)

6.  “Of 91 known locks and dams in NVN, only 8 targeted…”(IV. C. 7 (a), p. 53)

7.  “…obvious bid to turn ROLLING THUNDER into a punitive bombing campaign…” (IV. C. 7 (a), p. 83)

8.  “…of ahigh-level defector and concluded with a disturbing estimate…” (IV. C. 7 (b), p. 154)

9.  “…Westmoreland obtained his first authority to use U.S. forces for combat…” (IV. C. 9 (a), p. 63)

10.  “…Lansdale’s group and the CAS, I am canvassing attitude of sect…” (V. B. 3, p. 812)

11.  “…9:30 a.m. today according to a telephone intercept Kosygin called Brezhnev…” (VI.C.3 (1), p. 61-62)

Check Prados’s post for his full analysis of each of these candidates.

Do you have a candidate for the “Eleven Words?”  If so, post it here with an explanation.  Prizes will be awarded for convincing candidates.  (But alas, it won’t be as good as parading around like a politician on the Fourth of July.)

  1. Matt T. permalink
    July 13, 2011 6:56 pm

    A combination of “Saigon”, “Gulf of Tonkin” and “Lord Voldemort”

  2. Xie_Ming permalink
    July 14, 2011 3:45 am

    #11 exposes COMINT.

  3. Siraj al-Haqq permalink
    July 23, 2011 1:08 pm

    Is it valid to assume that this needs to be 11 contiguous words? And why does #1 on the above list consist of 18 words?

    • John Prados permalink
      September 17, 2011 7:27 am

      Yes. For purposes of the contest, the 11 Words must be contiguous. In the contest rules it specifies that you may select 11 words out of a longer passage, but your core 11 should be denoted in BOLDFACE type. In the passage you refer to, if you would look at the Electronic Briefing Book from which it was drawn, you will see that eleven of the words were boldened in exactly this way.

      John Prados
      National Security Archive

  4. September 16, 2011 3:36 pm

    Too long in Vietnam delays robbing the rest of the world.

  5. A. J. Daverede permalink
    September 16, 2011 3:58 pm


    As the NARA Team Leader who processed the Pentagon Papers, I must take issue with two misleading statements in this blog:

    1. “The Pentagon Papers have been available to the public for 40 years.” That statement is not totally correct because some parts have not been published until our release in June. We can quibble about the number of pages that were previously unpublished, but the NDC effort did result in the complete release of the entire Report of the Vietnam Task Force, a document that did not exist in its original form in the public domain.

    2. “Despite this, the federal government recently spent substantial human and monetary capital reviewing and re-reviewing every page, line, and word, of the Pentagon Papers, which Daniel Ellsberg originally leaked in 1971.” This statement is pure conjecture and was made in the face of contradictory statements you heard from panel members (State Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff) at the NDC public forum on August 23, 2011. I can tell you that the total amount of time spent to review the Report for complete release spanned no more than two weeks (10 working days). More time, in fact, was spent physically preparing the records and having them scanned for digital release than was spent on declassification review.

    In addition, the fixation on the 11 non-redacted words does a disservice to the cause you purportedly serve. The complete release of the Report of the Vietnam Task Force makes the 11 non-redacted words irrelevant, unless your purpose is to ridicule those who are trying to perform the difficult work of declassification. Since the vast amount of the records that form the core of NSA’s Electronic Briefing Books and are the source material for a number of NSA authors’ works are the product of interagency declassification efforts, do you think that public ridicule of the declassification process will make your source material easier or more difficult to obtain?

    I firmly believe that the best results in handling declassification matters can be obtained in a positive working environment where mutual respect between public interest groups, researchers, and government declassification professionals exists. We all have a part to play to make declassification efforts successful.

    A. J. Daverede
    Supervisory Archivist
    National Declassification Center

    • Nate Jones permalink
      September 16, 2011 4:32 pm

      Thank you for your comments.

      1. You are correct that the NDC published background papers written by project analysts that had not previously been published. It also provided a more systematic index to the accompanying primary source documents that were published in the Gravel edition in an unorganized manner, and some primary source documents that did not exist in the Gravel Editon. Many of these documents are available through FRUS, NARA or the Presidential Libraries. But the vast bulk of the 43 volumes has been available for 40 years.

      2. The Department of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff did comment that they spent minimal time reviewing the documents. The Central Intelligence Agency, Air Force, and -who-knows-how-many-other-agencies that likely claimed “equity” of the document did not. I would welcome (and publish) information showing which specific agencies claimed equity of this document, how much time they spent reviewing it, and proof that it took only 10 working days.

      And if it is in fact true that this declassification effort was not that big a drain on resources, then The Papers’ continued classification for 40 years –despite this public thirst, and FOIA and MDR requests– is disappointing in itself.

      It is not my intent to “ridicule those who are trying to perform to difficult work of declassification,” whom I have great respect. It is my intent to ridicule –with the hope of improving– a classification system where the Pentagon Papers –which can be found in any library in the US– have to be combed through by declassifiers who would be better served declassifying the other 400 million pages backlogged at NARA.

      My intent is to improve the classification system by shedding light on the inefficient and wasteful “agency equity process” and critically analyzing if it is worth spending *any substantial time* to declassify a document already available to the public. Perhaps the “11 Words Fiasco” will bring attention to this cause.

    • John Prados permalink
      September 16, 2011 5:34 pm

      I want to join Nate Jones in commenting on your remarks concerning declassification of the Pentagon Papers. As the National Security Archive’s project director on Vietnam, it was I who analyzed the papers and proposed our own set of candidates for the “11 Words.” As a result of that effort I did in fact survey every page of the Papers. You must be very well aware that your assertion about releasing much new material is itself misleading–a “quibble.” Since the Gravel Edition contained virtually all the passages now restored in your redaction, Nate is quite correct in that portion of his comment–and your objection is another “quibble.” If you’re referring to footnotes and odds-and-ends, that’s underwhelming. If the reference is to the Diplomatic Volumes, those have been in the public domain since 2002. If you mean background papers NARA has not posted and retains in Hollinger boxes at College Park, it will be someone’s dissertation project to tease out what is actually new there. As a result of our side-by-side display of every page of the Pentagon Papers, readers can now judge for themselves how very little new material has been restored.

      As for reproving Nate Jones on his comment regarding the effort to declassify, he was working from NDC’s own blog comments on its task force operation. Even at two weeks–how many professional staff was that? How many support staff? At the agency level? And how much was spent in rejecting repeated requests for declassification in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and with RAC? Jones has a point–the United States Government has put real money into something where the only thing that was required was to wave a wand and acknowledge reality.

      As you will also know, the United States Government has–since NARA’s release–rejected an FOIA request to identify the actual “11 Words.” On “deliberative process” grounds no less! That action positively invites ridicule.

      I agree that we need to work with mutual respect. –And that respect has to begin with declassification authorities not attempting to put something over on the American people and not claiming more than in fact is being delivered.

      John Prados
      National Security Archive

  6. September 17, 2011 3:37 am

    @A. J. Daverede

    I disagree with the assertion that 11 words are irrelevant. If they prove some mens rea, they might be very important. Imagine for instance that they say: “We want to put a world dictatorship in place, transform everybody outside U.S. in slaves, rob their natural resources, and exterminate a part of the global population to reduce global warming and competition for resources.”


  1. “Redaction Poetry” and Overclassification at the US National Archives | UNREDACTED

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: