Pentagon Papers, Minus 11 Words, To Be Released

The Pentagon Papers that were leaked four decades ago by Daniel Ellsberg have been formally declassified. They will be released in their entirety this month — except for 11 words. Mary Louise Kelly speaks with John Prados of the National Security Archive about what is still a secret.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Later this month, the Pentagon Papers will be released in their entirety. It's been 40 years since Daniel Ellsberg leaked them to the New York Times. Most of what's in them is already well-known, but they've never been formally declassified until now. And there's a catch: 11 words will remained classified.

Well, this piqued our curiosity, so, we've brought in John Prados. He's a senior fellow at the National Security Archive. And, John Prados, why declassify the Pentagon Papers now?

Mr. JOHN PRADOS (Senior Fellow, National Security Archive): I believe that the United States government is embarrassed by the fact that the Pentagon Papers remain secret after all this time. And in fact, there have been repeated efforts in the past to get the Pentagon Papers declassified and every one of them has been subverted by government secrecy authorities.

So, the fact that the papers are still secret today in the face of this overwhelming backlog of 400 million pages of classified material the United States government is still holding on to is an embarrassing fact for the United States government. After all, it's 40 years - as you say - since this material was in the public.

KELLY: It's the anniversary. Now, just to remind people: the Pentagon Papers were the Pentagon's top-secret account of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. They were very embarrassing to the Johnson administration, to the Kennedy administration. How much of them really remained classified? I mean, how much are we actually likely to see that's new?

Mr. PRADOS: The material that Daniel Ellsberg leaked was limited to what he could Xerox on a Xerox machine and what he could get out of the office and then what Senator Mike Gravel was able to insert into the congressional record. So, there are actually pieces that never got into the most substantive version of the Pentagon Papers, which is the one that was published by the Beacon Press of Boston.

It's actually the case that the government itself put out a version of the Pentagon Papers through the House Armed Services Committee, but that was very heavily deleted. So...

KELLY: Heavily redacted.

Mr. PRADOS: Redacted, that's right. What we are going to find out is what's in those gaps between what the Beacon Press was actually able to publish and what the government admitted into the record in its own version.

KELLY: Now, we mentioned 11 words are going to stay secret. Any idea what they might be?

Mr. PRADOS: You know, the Archives for the United States wants to starts a Mad Lib contest to see who can figure out what they are. My speculation - and it is speculative - is that the 11 words concern either a National Security Agency posting of employees to Vietnam or a South Vietnamese official who was on the payroll of the CIA.

KELLY: So, some name that they still don't want out there.

Mr. PRADOS: Some name and some association - both those things. I mean, if it were just a name, you'd only need three or four words.

KELLY: I mean, it seems counterintuitive, because the fact that they're keeping these 11 words secret only makes people more curious about it. Here we are talking about it. Everybody's going to be trying to figure out what's...

Mr. PRADOS: That's exactly right.

KELLY: ...the words to be.

Mr. PRADOS: That's exactly right. It's self-defeating. If they had simply released the material, no one would ever had noticed it because the Pentagon Papers are 7,800 pages long and that's worse than finding a needle in a haystack.

KELLY: We have been speaking with John Prados. He is director of the National Security Archive's Vietnam Project and we've been talking about the Pentagon Papers, due to be formally declassified later this month.

Thanks very much.

Mr. PRADOS: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is NPR News.

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