This central difference is summed up by David Martin of CBS News:
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.This central reality was highlighted by Hannah Arendt in her essay, "Lying In Politics".
The Pentagon Papers took the blinders off.
There always comes the point beyond which lying becomes counterproductive. This point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive. Truth or falsehood - it does not matter which any more, if your life depend on your acting as though you trusted; truth that can be relied on disappears entirely from public life, and with it the chief stabilizing factor in the ever-changing affairs of men.When "the blinders" were removed, what had been known as "the credibility gap" suddenly became a radical break in the most basic part of the social contract - the government no longer had the public's trust that even its most mundane statements could or even should be believed. We are reaping today, in the Tea Partiers, the Birthers, even nominally Establishment conservative commentators like Jonah Goldberg with his Liberal Fascism nonsense, what was sown so long ago by those Arendt calls, after Neil Sheehan, "problem solvers". David Halberstam referred to them, with irony so thick you needed a jackhammer to cut through it, "the best and the brightest". Again, quoting Arendt:
The basic integrity of those who wrote the report is beyond doubt; they could indeed be trusted by Secretary McNamara to produce an "encyclopedic and objective" report and "to let the chips fall where they may."The period from the summer of 2002 was unprecedented in many ways. Even as the Bush Administration made a massive sales pitch for military action against Iraq, each piece was examined thoroughly at some point by members of the press, even as others certainly served as a conduit for the official position; one need only consider Judith Miller's now infamous series on Iraq's weapons program, based solely on the testimony of a wholly unreliable source as an example of an important journalist failing to ask some fundamental questions regarding the veracity of a story presented to her.
But these moral qualities, which deserve admiration, clearly did not prevent them from participating for many years in the fame of deceptions and falsehood. Confident 'of place, of education and accomplishment," they lied perhaps out of a mistaken patriotism. But the point is that they lied not so much for their country - certainly not for their country's survival, which was never at stake - as for its "image." In spite of their undoubted intelligence . . . they also believed that politics is but a variety of public relations, and they were taken in by all the bizarre psychological premises underlying that belief.
While there were no doubt many who opposed the drive to war in Iraq for any number of reasons, there is little doubt that the constant undermining of each official justification made the presentation of the Administration's case that much more difficult. The insistence by members of the Bush Administration that their case was solid, their facts verified and beyond doubt or question, even in the face of revelations to the contrary, was quite simply breath-taking. Whatever else one can say, the public was, or at the very least should have been, aware the Bush Administration was lying through its teeth concerning the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Unlike the Kennedy and Johnson Administration, there were just not enough people intelligent enough to think of really good lies that could escape notice.
Finally, a note on the Supreme Court case. The Justices who dissented in the Pentagon Papers case each contended that a main reason for their dissent rested with what they felt was the undue haste with which the case was brought before it. Chief Justice Berger, not without reason, insisted that it was simply impossible for all the parties involved - the attorney for all sides, the various federal judges as well as the members of the Supreme Court - to read and understand the documents in question given the expeditious nature with which the case traveled through the system.
Specifically Justice Harry Blackmun noted that there was the possibility of "grave harm" coming from the publication of the documents. Sad to say, Blackmun was correct in this, although incorrect as to where that harm would fall. Publishing the Pentagon Papers did not harm the way the US conducts wars, gathers or analyzes intelligence data, or immediately endanger the lives of US service personnel. Rather, the harm, as Hannah Arendt noted quite clearly, was to the very fabric of the social contract. Unlike the Wikileak documents, which reveal little more than details concerning the conduct of troops in the field, the Pentagon Papers were honest enough in their duplicity to strip away the last shreds of trust between the public and the government.