I've been asked several times today how the Wikileaks documents compare with the Pentagon Papers. I e-mailed Sandy Ungar, the President of Goucher College, who as a reporter for The Washington Post covered the Pentagon Papers case and subsequently wrote a book about it. Here's what he thinks.
There are some superficial similarities between the Wikileaks documents and the Pentagon Papers. For one, The New York Times studied both sets of documents for several weeks before publishing. For another, both sets were released on one president's watch but mainly affected his predecessor's reputation. The Pentagon Papers were released on Nixon's watch but dealt with Lyndon Johnson's conduct of the war. The Wikileaks documents appeared on Obama's watch but most of them were created during the Bush presidency. But that's where the similarities end.
The Wikileaks documents represent a low level view of the Afghan war - reports, sometimes accurate, sometimes not, filed from the field that made their way up the chain of command. The Pentagon Papers were a high level view of the Vietnam War - an account of decisions and policies made in Washington.
More fundamentally, the Wikileaks documents do not radically alter our understanding of the war. They document what we've known for years - not enough troops, too many civilian casualties, a corrupt and inefficient Afghan government and an uncertain ally in Pakistan. The Pentagon Papers revealed that much of what the public had been told about the war in Vietnam was flat wrong and in many cases deliberately so.
The Pentagon Papers took the blinders off. The Wikileaks documents are more like a microscopic view of the day in day out grind of the war in Afghanistan.
I would add to that one other difference: the Pentagon Papers produced one of the great Supreme Court cases when the Nixon Administration tried unsuccessfully to stop publication. The Obama administration has given no indication it intends to attempt something similar with Wikileaks, which is based overseas and probably beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
Watch CBS News' David Martin and Juan Zarate discuss the significance of the documents on "Washington Unplugged" below:
More CBSNews.com Coverage of the WikiLeaks Documents:
David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.