Why Weren’t 11 Words Redacted from the Pentagon Papers?

06.28.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

On May 26 Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero announced that the Pentagon Papers, the famous history of the Vietnam War, had been formally declassified and would be released — except for eleven words that remained classified.  But then on June 13, the Papers were published in full with no redactions at all.

What happened?  It turns out that the mysterious eleven words had already been published 40 years ago, making their continued classification moot.

Staffers at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library discovered on June 3 that “The full text of that page [containing the eleven words] was released in 1971 [by the House Armed Services Committee] in what appears to be an officially declassified copy,” according to email correspondence (pdf) released this week by the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act.

In other respects the House Armed Services Committee edition of the Papers was “heavily redacted,” officials noted, but it did contain the eleven words.

Given the fact of their prior disclosure, any attempt to keep them classified now would surely backfire, they reasoned.

“The researcher who is most aggressive in pursuing the PP [Pentagon Papers], John Prados [of the National Security Archive], will most likely find the ‘declassified’ occurrence of the page pretty quickly.  So please advise everyone that if they insist on maintaining the redaction, Prados will likely scope out the ‘declassified’ page very quickly.  As you can tell by his NPR appearance [on June 3], Prados will parade this discovery like a politician on the 4th of July,” wrote Alex Daverede of the National Archives.

This argument was persuasive, and the proposed redactions were deemed to be “no longer appropriate.”  But neither the classifying agency nor the now restored eleven words themselves were publicly identified.  Sheryl Shenberger, the former CIA employee who leads the National Declassification Center, told her colleagues somewhat peremptorily that such disclosure was “unnecessary.”

“I think we can all agree that it is unnecessary to provide any further insight into what was originally considered for redaction or which agency or agencies were suggesting those redactions,” Ms. Shenberger wrote.  “It should be enough to announce that we… are delighted to have determined that we can release this historic document in full.”