The National Archives and Records Administration is releasing the full Pentagon Papers today, four decades after they were leaked to news outlets and sparked one of the most high-profile First Amendment court battles in U.S. history.
Federal officials have been working since last fall to prepare the 47- volume, 7,000-page document for today’s public unveiling online, and at the presidential libraries of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
In a telephone interview Monday, Alex J. Daverede III, chief of the production division at the Archives’ National Declassification Center, explained to The Federal Eye how they did it:
Question: Explain what’s happening today regarding the Pentagon Papers:
Daverede: Today we’re making it public. We went to the research room in four different locations across the country – ourselves in College Park, Md., the Kennedy Library in Boston, LBJ’s library in Texas and the Nixon Library in California – we’ve all simultaneously released the records so the public can see them.
At the same time, we have a digital copy available at various sites. We scanned all the pages as PDF files and now anyone can go and look at them now.
When was the decision made to release this?
We picked it out as a special project in the fall of last year. We went to the director [of the NDC], and she wasn’t anticipating having these kinds of projects and she wasn’t really anticipating any kind of project of this type.
But I saw it as an opportunity, I looked in the boxes and said it doesn’t look as if anything here is that sensitive. We got an interagency group together to do it and we got ‘er done.
We wanted to do something, because anniversaries are key. Given the nature of this stuff, this was imminently doable by the anniversary date.
How long did it take to scan the 7,000 pages?
Probably the better part of the week. They broke each of the 47 volumes down as its own PDF.
How many people did it take to do this?
I think it just took one guy on the scanner.
Remember there were 15 copies originally of the report distributed in various ways. We know the provenance of a lot of it. Up at the Kennedy Library, they have Robert McNamara’s copy. Down at LBJ, they have Clark Clifford’s copy. At the Nixon library they don’t know who’s copy it was.
The copy we have here and some extra parts came from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the general counsel’s office, because that’s where the investigation into the leak resided.
I know there was some controversy over plans to redact 11 words. But they will not be redacted, correct?
Declassification is a dynamic process. People find out new things all the time. New information comes to light and every declassification decision has to be decided by any information we receive. People involved with the information obtained new information and determined the words no longer needed redaction.
To be clear – your office isn’t the one deciding what information is declassified, right?
That’s right. The originator of the information is the one that makes those calls. We facilitate those decisions. We’re kind of a gate through which the various agencies who hold the information as classified determine when to release it. We have an advisory capacity, but the decision lies with the originating agency.
Does your office declassify government information on a daily basis?
We do. These [the Pentagon Papers] are diamonds. A lot of the information that we have is much more mundane. It’s still required to be classified, but it doesn’t have nearly the sex appeal as something like this might have.
We have tons of stuff dealing with technical manuals and publications and things dealing with weapons system operations and design. Things that are administrative in nature, but bear classification markings.
The National Declassification Center can find some of these gems out there and show that we’re not just an industrial production facility, but can actually move on these special collections and get it out to the public in a timely fashion.
Is there any particular passage of the Pentagon Papers that people should make sure to read?
No, not that I know of. Ellsberg tried to get various members of Congress to try and deal with this and the staff of one congressman was asking that kind of question. Ellsberg responded in his book that you really have to read 1,000 pages to really capture the enormity of what was going on in Vietnam.
There’s no one document that you can point to and say “Ah ha!”
How does someone get into your line of work?
I spent 12 years in the Navy. After 60 failed job applications to get into the government, they picked me up here in 1996 to work [on declassification issues]. I had no clue what I was getting into. I had a history background, and they needed people who speak the language. I really did luck into this.
What’s it like being part of this release?
I’m going to be 50 next year, and I remember the black and white TV coverage coming out of Vietnam. I joined the Navy in 1979, during the last war that we actually fought. I’ve been following it ever since and have read a bit, but it’s a definite interest of mine.
When you read most stories about the Pentagon Papers, the last line always is, “The Defense Department has yet to declassify the papers.”
I think now we can go out there and say that’s done. Now people can go and try to read it for themselves. It’s not the easiest read in the world. It’s government-ese at it’s best.
[Daniel] Ellsberg himself wrote one of the volumes. They don’t have a unifying theme. They have each their own style, which readers will readily see. It’s good to just have it all out there, because it’s the story of an administration in crisis and it’s a view from inside, at least the things that they were saying to each other.
We know about the infighting among departments during the Johnson administration, but at least you now have it all down on paper and can take secondary sources and have a complete picture.
But this is the snapshot that Robert McNamara wanted after he realized that things weren’t going as well as they should and set up this study in June of 1967.
We’re going to leave it to scholars to figure out what’s new in the Pentagon Papers release. A smart public can go ahead and look at this stuff and it’s online so it’s easier than usual.
I have no doubt that there’s unpublished material that we let loose today.
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