I recently saw the movie “The Post” and it lived up to the hype. It was well acted, with Meryl Streep effectively portraying how Katharine Graham struggled to assert her control over the newspaper. It was exciting, even though most viewers already knew the outcome. It made abundantly clear that five successive presidents, led by Lyndon B. Johnson, lied through their teeth to the American public about the Vietnam War.
It also made Daniel Ellsberg seem like a hero for stealing and making public the Top Secret documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers. But was he?
Having worked in both the journalism and national security worlds, I have mixed emotions about the events depicted in “The Post.” My college newspaper adviser had a bumper sticker on the bulletin board in our newsroom that read, “The First Amendment is Absolute.” Free speech, whether on college campuses, on the streets of Washington, D.C. or in newspapers, is essential to democracy. But it’s not absolute in all circumstances, as the Supreme Court has ruled.
There have to be limits on free speech when national security is at stake. The Alexandria Times exists to be a watchdog on power, dealing with matters much less lofty than those depicted in “The Post,” though with the same basic principles in play. But I can’t imagine a scenario where this newspaper would print a top secret document pertaining to our country’s national security.
Along with free speech, intelligence agencies and classified documents are also vital to the survival of a democratic republic. In “The Post,” Ellsberg essentially decided to play God. Though he acted on principle rather than for profit, Ellsberg decided he could tell the difference between a betrayal of secrets that would help America and that which would deeply harm it. He decided the deception perpetuated by the U.S. Government for more than 20 years about Vietnam justified his actions.
On my very first day of working at the Central Intelligence Agency, part of our briefing was a review of former employees who stole classified documents and sold them to foreign governments. Those people committed treason and most were in jail. The message
was very clear: If you do the same, you will be caught and punished similarly.
Does the fact that Ellsberg sought no remuneration absolve him for what were very clearly illegal actions? It’s a classic case of whether the ends justified the means. It’s easy to conclude, with the perspective of almost 50 years, that in this case the goal of ending the Vietnam War did justify Ellsberg’s actions.
But to do so means we agree that it was OK for him to make the unilateral decision to release government secrets. There’s a direct line from Ellsberg to the actions of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks and their attempts to indiscriminately reveal government secrets. And the Vietnam War lasted four more years – so it’s not even clear Ellsberg achieved his objective.
Steven Spielberg, with his Hollywood version of events, makes it clear that he thinks Graham, Bradlee, the Post staff and Ellsberg are the good guys and Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon and U.S. military generals are the bad. The audience is pulled along in a thoroughly engaging film to think likewise.
The generals and presidents lied. And Graham, Bradlee and Ellsberg were certainly brave – I’m just not sure they were right.
The writer is editor and co-publisher of the Alexandria Times.