That was the lead of the New York Times’s first earthshaking Pentagon Papers story, published on June 13, 1971. Nearly half a century later, it bears a striking resemblance to revelations about the 18-year war in Afghanistan published Monday in The Washington Post. A confidential trove of documents obtained by Post reporter Craig Whitlock shows U.S. officials made rosy pronouncements about the war they knew to be false.
Here’s how the Afghanistan Papers compare to the Pentagon Papers.
Both studies were commissioned by obscure Defense Department agencies
The study that became known as the Pentagon Papers was originally ordered by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in June 1967, but it was actually written primarily by the obscure Office of International Security Affairs, with assistance from State Department and White House staffers.
From the Truman to Carter administrations, the ISA played a role in policy planning, arms transfers and liaisons with the National Security Council and State Department, according to political scientist Geoffrey Piller in a 1983 paper. But it also played an outsize role in major foreign policy initiatives during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, Piller wrote.
As the Times noted in 1971, many of the officials who wrote the Pentagon Papers “had helped develop or carry out the policies that they were asked to evaluate.”
The Afghanistan Papers come from another obscure agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, which was created by Congress in 2008 to investigate waste and fraud in the war. They are a byproduct of a project called “Lessons Learned” that evaluated policy failures in Afghanistan.
The Lessons Learned reports have been released since 2016; the papers The Post published Monday are the previously confidential interview notes with generals, diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials from which the report drew its conclusions.
Both are massive
The Pentagon Papers comprised 40 volumes — 3,000 pages of analysis, plus 4,000 additional pages of supporting documents including cables, memorandums and draft proposals. The Times originally obtained all but one of the volumes (more on this later). The Post also obtained much of the Pentagon Papers soon after the Times published its first report.
The Lessons Learned reports on Afghanistan are all available on the SIGAR website. The interview records The Post obtained comprise more than 2,000 pages of additional information. The Post also obtained a collection of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s memos, which he called “snowflakes,” from the nonprofit group National Security Archive.
Both involved court battles, but 1971 was more dramatic
The Post obtained the Afghanistan interview records after a three-year legal battle and two federal lawsuits. The Post first became aware of the records in 2016 from a tip that retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, then a Trump surrogate, had given a secret interview railing about the war in Afghanistan.
In 1971, the Times first obtained the Pentagon Papers from an anonymous source, later revealed to be Daniel Ellsberg, a former analyst at the Rand Corp. who had contributed to the report. Two days after the Times published its first stories based on the papers, the Nixon administration obtained a court order to bar the Times from publishing more articles about the contents of the papers.
Ellsberg then smuggled a copy of the papers to The Post, which published its first report on June 18, 1971. This and the ensuing legal battle was the subject of the 2017 Steven Spielberg film “The Post.”
On June 30, 1971, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the newspapers had the right to publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers.
The Pentagon Papers had more missing pieces than the Afghanistan Papers
As Times reporters Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith explained in their original stories, the Pentagon Papers they obtained were “not a complete or polished history.” Due to the short time frame in which the report was produced, its analysis was drawn from internal documents but no personal interviews. The authors did not have access to White House archives or records of conversations between President Lyndon B. Johnson and NSC or State officials. Plus, the Times was missing a key volume covering secret diplomacy during the Johnson administration.
In contrast, the Afghanistan Papers are a remarkable record of officials sharing frank and sometimes bleak opinions of their own failures in interviews. There are a few exceptions: Some of the records are more complete than others, ranging from short summaries of interviews to transcripts and audio files.
Of the 428 people SIGAR interviewed, the agency has kept secret the names of 366 of them. The Post has asked a federal judge to force SIGAR to disclose those names.
Top U.S. officials in both wars ignored warnings and lied
Even with those handicaps, both the Pentagon Papers and the Afghanistan Papers tell a damning story of officials at the highest levels of government, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, misleading the public about the true nature of the foreign wars they waged.
As the Times put it in their first stories, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the White House “concealed from the Congress and the public as much as possible,” that “vigorous, even acrimonious, debate within the Government” was also hidden, and “that the American intelligence community repeatedly provided the policy makers with what proved to be accurate warnings that desired goals were either unattainable or likely to provoke costly reactions from the enemy.”
The Afghanistan Papers are just as damning. John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, told The Post the interviews show “the American people have constantly been lied to” about the war in Afghanistan.
Comparisons of the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan are not new; after all, Vietnam was once nicknamed “the longest war” — until the conflict in Afghanistan took the title.
But on Monday, as the revelations reverberated across the Internet, the similarities appeared even more uncanny.
“I’ve been wondering when our ‘Pentagon Papers’ would be released,” a Newsweek reporter commented.
“Imagine growing up with a war that became famous for its poor execution and management,” one reader tweeted, “and then imagine making the exact same mistakes once your generation comes into power.”
Another reader tweeted: “My brother was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970. Hearing this is not easy. We haven’t learned anything from history. For all of the Gold Star families from the Afghanistan War, I extend my sincere sorrow.”