Official Secrets and their Release

Pride of place on some people’s bookshelves is the Complete works of William Shakespeare. Not so for me. The four volumes of the Gravel Edition of The Pentagon Papers have the glamour slot on my own bookshelves. Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the publication of excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a Department of Defense prepared history of the relations between the United States and Vietnam  between the years 1945 through 1967, by the New York Times, the newspaper to which they were leaked.  The released material was ultimately collated, edited and published by Beacon Press under the supervision of Senator Mike Gravel.   It was the Wikileaks of its day and caused a sensation in the United States. Henry Kissinger named Daniel Ellsberg, who was responsible for the leak, “the most dangerous man in America.” Forty years on, the Pentagon Papers have finally been declassified and made available to the public. Ellsberg argues in the Guardian that this is “36 to 40 years overdue.” I think he has a point.

In a democracy the government is elected by the people and should be accountable to the people. We pay taxes to the government and we should have a right to know what the government is doing with the money that it forces us to pay to for its spending.

It is understood that it will often be necessary to keep information in certain documents secret, particularly if one or more lives are at risk from their release. My own concern is how many documents are kept secret and for how long. One would assume that there are various official documents associated with the commencement of the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 that are currently secret and will remain so for many years. I struggle to accept the necessity for keeping each and every one of them secret. Of course, without knowing what these documents contain, this is my guesswork, but I suspect much could be released into the public domain without changing the course of wars that our troops are now fighting.

Consider the following: next year it will thirty years since the Falklands War. This will no doubt lead to numerous documents being made available, some of which might cause a surprise. It is certainly healthy that the documents are made available but surely they could have been released a lot earlier. If it were not for the thirty year rule this might have occurred. They may well have been too sensitive to release in advance of the 1983 general election, but I suspect that had most or all of the documents due for release next year been released before the 1987 general election instead,  it would not have caused a grave threat to our national interest.

I am not in favour of those that break the law and release secret documents to the press. At the same time, I am not in favour of a law that ensures documents are kept secret for so long.