Secrecy in Government

August 18, 1971

Report Outline
Controversy over the Pentagon Papers
Information Practices of U.S. Agencies
Efforts to Counteract Secrecy Trend
Special Focus

Controversy over the Pentagon Papers

Government Secrecy vs. Public's Need to Know

The pentagon papers have rekindled a conflict dating from the early days of the Republic—the clash between the government's need for secrecy and the public's need to know. Neither need is a right expressly guaranteed by the Constitution, but each is considered essential to a properly functioning democracy. Hardly anyone disputes the argument that the federal government must conduct diplomatic negotiations in secret and withhold details of such things as current military strategic planning or weapons designs. And few would question the assertion that ordinary citizens should know as much as possible about decisions taken in their behalf by elected or appointed officials. The trouble is that the boundary separating secrecy and disclosure shifts continually and defies all attempts at demarcation.

Controversy over the Pentagon Papers brought the problem into sharp focus. At issue was the publication, first by The New York Times and later by several other newspapers, of excerpts from a 7,000-page History of the United States Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy commissioned in 1967 by Robert S. McNamara when he was Secretary of Defense. The study was classified as “top secret-sensitive” and consisted of a critique of U.S. Indochina policy up till 1968, plus texts of relevant documents.

Much of the ensuing uproar centered on the “top secret” label the study carried and, by extension, on the integrity of the classification system itself. Nixon administration officials contended that disclosure of the documents was not only unauthorized but also harmful to the defense and diplomatic interests of the United States. Press executives generally took the position that the study dealt with events long past and thus constituted a historical treatise which the public was entitled to read. The information that appeared in print, they further asserted, was not damaging to national interests; at most, it was embarrassing to those involved in making Viet Nam policy.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Government Secrecy
Feb. 11, 2011  Government Secrecy
Oct. 23, 2009  Conspiracy Theories
Dec. 02, 2005  Government Secrecy
Jan. 16, 1987  National Security Council
Sep. 20, 1985  Protecting America's Secrets
Feb. 16, 1979  Freedom of Information Act: A Reappraisal
Aug. 18, 1971  Secrecy in Government
Aug. 18, 1971  Secrecy in Government
Feb. 07, 1968  Credibility Gaps and the Presidency
Aug. 07, 1957  Secrecy and Security
Dec. 21, 1955  Secrecy in Government
Feb. 23, 1955  Security Risks and the Public Safety
Jun. 24, 1953  Access to Official Information
Feb. 25, 1948  Protection of Official Secrets
Jan. 29, 1929  Secret Sessions of the Senate
Freedom of Information
Freedom of Speech and Press