WASHINGTON — The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago stands as one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history. Ever since, in the eyes of the government, the voluminous record of U.S. involvement in Vietnam has remained something else: classified.
In the Byzantine realm of government record-keeping, publication of a document in the country's biggest newspapers does not mean declassification. Despite the release of multiple versions of the Pentagon Papers, no complete, fully unredacted text has ever been publicly disclosed.
On Monday, the National Archives and Records Administration will change that, as it officially declassifies the papers 40 years to the day after portions were first disclosed by the New York Times. In doing so, and in making the papers available online, the Archives could provide researchers with a more holistic way of understanding a remarkable chapter of U.S. history.
It could also bring a small measure of solace to advocates of open government frustrated by what they see as the overzealous classification of important documents. They note that tens of thousands of the classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks also remain classified.
"The fact that the Pentagon Papers were still secret is an embarrassment to the United States government," said John Prados, senior fellow at George Washington University's National Security Archive, a nonprofit research organization. "You've been able to read them for 40 years, but they're still secret."
Over the years, the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers has never been a flawless exercise. While the complete version runs to approximately 7,000 pages, the set leaked to the New York Times by defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg had pages missing and lines that were made illegible during photocopying. (Ellsberg had to lug the volumes in batches to the office of a colleague's girlfriend and, once there, used a copy machine that could only scan one page every few seconds.) Other versions were either heavily redacted or simply incomplete.
It's not clear how many secrets remain within the documents being released on Monday.
There might be small surprises lurking within, including the names of those involved in the project who have not been previously identified. But participants who are already known have reacted to the announcement of the declassification mostly with a shrug.
"I had almost forgotten about them," said Leslie Gelb, who headed the task force that wrote the report and is now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Retired Army Gen. Paul Gorman, a senior military officer who worked alongside Gelb, said, "I haven't given them a thought in 10 years or more."
Nonetheless, Gelb and others say that the documents themselves still have lessons to teach about government and conflict. The Pentagon Papers were created by an administration attempting to quietly rethink the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. But their publication in 1971, at a time when the American public had largely turned against the war, was explosive because it revealed a startling gulf between the optimistic public statements of the nation's top leaders and their increasingly grave private doubts.