Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lest we forget

One of the best articles in the last issue of The Week is The Pentagon Papers: lonely evenings at the photocopier by Rodney Tiffen. It originally appeared in Inside Story. Here are a few highlights.
In late June 1971, [Daniel] Ellsberg was arrested for violating the federal Espionage Act. Eventually, in 1973, the prosecution collapsed as a result of procedural abuses. First it was revealed that the Nixon White House had illegally raided the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. (His file yielded nothing incriminating or humiliating.) Then it was revealed that they had illegally tapped the phones of Ellsberg and several witnesses. 
No such legal niceties inhibited the treatment of Bradley Manning, who has been held without trial since May 2010. Until April this year (when he was transferred to a somewhat less harsh prison regime) he was in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day – not allowed to exercise, often required to be naked and checked every five minutes when asleep on the pretence of preventing him from harming himself – and underwent a process of physical and mental disintegration. The post-9/11 torture of suspected terrorists by US authorities – directly at Guantanamo and indirectly through rendition to third countries – was being inflicted on one of their own servicemen. The contrast in the two cases is a stark reminder of just how much the rule of law has been eroded in the United States in the last forty years. 
Supreme Court, ... in a six–three decision on 30 June [1971] found in favour of the press. What is perhaps the key argument was put best by District Court judge Murray Gurfein: “The security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. 
....the most consistent narrative running through the New York Times stories was how government statements had deceived the public...  
Several Nixon insiders later wrote that Nixon’s reaction to the leak of the Pentagon Papers was the first step on his road to the Watergate scandal. The operatives, initially ordered to pursue Ellsberg, were then set up as a self-styled “plumbers unit” in the White House basement. Nixon was already obsessed by leaks and convinced that the press was his enemy; now, he became fixated on the idea that not only the Pentagon Papers but also other classified documents were being held by “liberals” at the Brookings Institution. Plans were made to mount an arson attack and, under cover of the resulting confusion, take back all the documents Brookings held. Wiser heads eventually prevailed, but not before plans to acquire a fire engine were well advanced. Eventually, this appetite for undercover operations led to the abortive raid on the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate hotel in 1972, and to Nixon’s resignation – the only president to be forced from office – in August 1974.

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