McGeoge Bundy described the Pentagon Papers as "a first cut of history" about the Vietnam War, and his statement bears directly on the growing controversy over No Easy Day. That just published book reveals classified details of the mission of SEAL Team 6, which killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
Writing under the pen name Mark Owen, the Team 6 member -- whose real name has been widely leaked -- says the terrorist leader was dropped by a shot to the head. Owen and a comrade then killed him with bullets to the chest. The book discusses the raid in detail.
Owen did not first clear his manuscript with the Pentagon, which is threatening legal action against him and publisher Dutton.
The CIA had overall authority for the mission, and has begun issuing ominous statements as well.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to consider whether to prosecute Julian Assange, 41, the founder of WikiLeaks. He has boasted that his mission is "crushing bastards." This is part of his justification for unauthorized publication of tens of thousands of stolen classified U.S. intelligence documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.
Assange has bragged that some documents were withheld, and others edited, to remove names of individuals. However, many names are included, along with details on Afghanistan collaborators' villages and families. There is also classified U.S. and NATO military data, within an enormous avalanche of information, misinformation, gossip and speculation from diplomatic and other cables.
This once-boastful mass leaker lately has been relatively subdued, holed up in the Ecuador Embassy in London. He is seeking to evade extradition, not to the U.S. but to Sweden, where he faces sex-crime allegations. A military trial for Pfc. Bradley Manning, a U.S. soldier accused of helping Assange and "aiding the enemy," recently was postponed until February.
Assange's project has been compared to the Pentagon Papers, but the real analogy is to the criminal behavior of Philip Agee, an unstable, disaffected U.S. intelligence agent who published names of CIA operatives in his 1975 book, Inside the Company. This despicable act could have led to criminal prosecution, but Agee instead fled abroad and lived out his life as a stateless nomad.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated the Pentagon Papers to create an accurate history of the Vietnam War.
After starting the project, he kept hands off, an act of enormous self-discipline by a compulsively domineering and interfering executive. He deserves commendation for this public service.
The result is a well-organized, detailed description of planning, decision-making and improvising at the top of the U.S. government as the Vietnam tragedy unfolded. Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, has a central role.
RAND Corp. staffers Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo leaked the documents to the press, and in consequence were tried for conspiracy, espionage and theft. Bundy's 1973 courtroom testimony included the argument that past events described did not compromise the current Nixon administration.
The paranoid Nixon White House put wiretaps on Ellsberg and burglarized his psychiatrist's office. When this became public, the judge dismissed the case.
Owen's book apparently does not compromise national security, most income will go to military charities and he wisely has retained the same lawyer who defended Republican adviser Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame leak case.
The spirit of Bundy's insightful testimony is that openness should be favored in public policy debate. Before any prosecution, U.S. officials should remember that special ops types are unconventional -- by definition.
(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of After the Cold War.)