January 3, 2011


Twin Leaks? How WikiLeaks Stack Up Against the Pentagon Papers

Bank of America has become the latest company to experience the power and reach of WikiLeaks.

The nation's largest bank has not been officially identified as a target, but coming on the heels of the recent release of top-secret State Department cables on the war in Afghanistan, the company is going on the defensive in anticipation of data leaks.

The banking giant has hired a consulting firm and a legal team and is conducting an internal investigation of its data systems.

Last December, pro-WikiLeaks hackers attacked the websites of MasterCard and Visa after they prevented WikiLeaks from collecting donations. Also last month, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was jailed and released from a London prison on an unrelated charge. Assange has reportedly received a book deal worth $1 million and said he would use the profit to maintain the whistleblower site.

The growing controversy involving WikiLeaks raises difficult questions about freedom of speech, national security and the role of the press in protecting both.

The controversy also raises comparisons to the Pentagon Papers, a set of classified reports on the Vietnam War, that were leaked in 1971 to The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who had turned against the war. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. government had held back information, and on certain occasions, outright lied to the public about how the war was going.

On the surface, there are similarities between the two:

  • Like WikiLeaks, the Pentagon Papers included classified White House memos, military reports and CIA and State Department cables.
  • The New York Times and other publications figured prominently in the publication of both sets of documents.
  • Each of the documents overwhelmingly refer to actions taken by the previous administration.

But many news organizations, including CBS News, ProPublica and The Washington Post, point to profound differences. They say the WikiLeaks documents were ground-level reports that moved up through the chain of command. On the other hand, the Pentagon Papers reflected decisions made at the highest levels in Washington.

More importantly, much of the information revealed by WikiLeaks was already widely known. The Pentagon Papers showed significant contradictions between what the government was telling the public about the Vietnam War and the realities of the conflict.

As the WikiLeaks scandal unfolds, Newseum visitors can see copies of the Pentagon Papers in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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