Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Hey, hey LBJ, got any secrets to give away?

SHOWCASE | July 29, 2006

Personal history: Veteran military affairs reporter George Wilson tells how Lyndon Johnson used classified information for PR purposes, and how, in a secret court session, Wilson thwarted attorneys for Nixon who were trying to block release of the Pentagon Papers.

This is an expanded version of a column that ran in CongressDaily, a National Journal publication.

By George Wilson

It's no secret to anybody who has covered the military for any length of time that our leaders, including Presidents, reveal military secrets to help themselves politically. This do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do philosophy is practiced by leaders in both political parties.

At his very first Presidential news conference on Feb. 29, 1964, Lyndon Johnson revealed to the world that the United States, in deepest secrecy, had developed and flight-tested the A-11 spy plane which could go 2,000 miles an hour and climb to 70,000 feet.

At the time, I was a reporter at Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine. Robert Hotz, the editor, knew about the A-11 but had withheld publishing anything about it at the government's fervent request. White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger told me that Johnson broke the story of the A-11 because the administration had learned that Aviation Week was about to publish it. This was not true.   

Several Air Force officers came to the editor’s office after Johnson’s Saturday press conference and apologized to Hotz for not living up to the Air Force’s promise to alert him to the upcoming announcement before it was made so the magazine could print its long-held story before the government went public with it. Then Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester, a former newsman himself, said the government should have lived up to its promise to Hotz.

I learned from other government officials that Johnson felt the political need to make headlines at his very first Presidential news conference. Another reason, they said, was Johnson’s feeling that at every opportunity he should combat charges by Republican presidential challenger Barry Goldwater that Johnson was soft on defense.

Five months later, on July 24, 1964, when the Johnson-Goldwater campaign was heating up, Johnson, at another White House news conference, revealed another big military secret: the United States had developed an even more capable spy plane than the A-11. It was designated the SR-71. New York Times humorist Russell Baker noted in his column of Sept. 20, 1964: “President Johnson has developed an odd habit. Whenever he comes under political attack, he hits back with news bulletins from the wonderful world of hardware.”

In 1967, when I was a military correspondent at The Washington Post, I learned this top secret: The United States had perfected a technology called MIRV – multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle – which enabled one intercontinental ballistic missile to drop H-bombs on several Soviet cities hundreds of miles apart during a single flight.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara asked The Post not to run the story and told me his research director, Harold Brown, would explain why. Brown told me the Soviets almost certainly knew we had perfected the technique of packing several H-bombs into the nose of one missile and sending them against a single target, shotgun style. But they probably didn’t know, he said, that we had advanced the MIRV technology to the multi-city capability.

If The Post still felt compelled to run a story on MIRV, Brown said, it would be in the national interest to leave out the latest technical advances.  My editors decided that MIRV had such huge implications for arms control, missile defense and offense that the public and Congress should know about the technology.

My story ran on Jan. 29, 1967. It was short on secret technical details and long on policy implications. McNamara, the same McNamara that had asked The Post not to publish anything at all on MIRV, revealed more details about the technology in an interview with Life Magazine published Sept. 29, 1967. He chose to deprecate the thoughtfully considered – including hearing out him and his deputy before publishing - and carefully crafted Post story when asked by Life, “Does the public know about MIRV?” He replied: “There have been allusions to it in the press but it has not been described publicly.” The Post’s “allusion” was featured on page 1. 

In 1971, I was the only reporter cleared to attend the secret federal court sessions on whether The Post should be allowed to resume publication of the top-secret Pentagon Papers. My role was not that of a reporter, but to advise Post lawyers on the validity of government claims that the Pentagon Papers contained deep, dark secrets that would harm the country if revealed.

The Post team showed the judges time after time that what government prosecutors were claiming as deep secrets had actually been in the public domain. The thinly prepared government prosecutors fell back on one crucial disclosure in the Papers to make their case that publishing it would endanger American lives. No less an alleged secrecy expert than Adm. Noel Gayler, director of the National Security Agency, sent a Navy captain to the chambers of Federal Appeals Court Judge David Bazelon to show him the potentially dangerous disclosure. Government prosecutors, the Pentagon’s general counsel, Post lawyers and I were all gathered before the high bench where Bazelon was sitting when the captain placed a locked attaché case in front of the judge.

“Well, open it,” Bazelon commanded.

The captain from NSA did so with what I thought was great ceremony, unlocking a series of locks, one after the other, with pauses in between. The captain opened the lid of the tan attaché case and stepped back from Bazelon’s desk. The judge fished out a large manila envelope; opened it; found a slightly smaller manila envelope; opened it; found a large white envelope inside; opened it; drew out a business-sized, cream colored envelope. Turning the envelope over to open it, Bazelon’s fingers were greeted with a big, red wax seal remindful of what kings of old used to seal their royal messages.  Once through the seal, Bazelon withdrew Gayler’s top secret letter; held it aloft, causing a red ribbon to flutter from the top secret communication from the director of the hush-hush NSA.

I thought I detected a look of amusement on Bazelon’s face as he read the admiral’s letter. He passed the letter to the lead government prosecutor. That prosecutor read it; handed it to the deputy next to him. The letter went on down the row of men standing before Bazelon’s desk. I was the last man in the formation. The Post’s lead lawyer, Bill Glendon, handed me the letter and asked, “What do we do now, George?”

I held onto the letter and read the admiral’s message over and over.  The judge’s chambers were quiet and palpably tense. Finally I told Bill, “I’ve read this some place before.”

“Jeez, George,” he whispered, “don’t fake it here.”

“No, really.  This has been in the public domain.”

The government prosecutor saw us conferring and said acidly, “What are you doing? Putting Wilson up against Admiral Gayler?”

I persuaded Glendon to ask Bazelon for a time out so I could go through some of the stuff I had crammed into the green, plastic, giveaway briefcase I had carried into the judge’s chambers. What Gayler had cited was the text of a radio message in the Pentagon Papers. He said the message, if printed by The Post, might well tip off the North Vietnamese to the fact that we were intercepting their military communications from a station on an island in the South China Sea and impel them to shut it down. The loss of these intercepts would hurt the war effort. That was the thrust of the Gayler argument in 1971 when the United States was very much at war with North Vietnam.         

Sometimes when you are under pressure your memory brightens. I saw my memory brightening as if watching a print come to life in a photographer’s developing tank. I remembered seeing the message Gayler had cited on the left hand side of a printed hearing put out by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1968. The page number, 34, then came into my mind. I dumped out the contents of my crowded brief case on the floor at the rear of Bazelon’s chambers. And there it was: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing book entitled “The Gulf of Tonkin, the 1964 Incidents.” 

On page 34, which was indeed a left hand page, there was this text: “In the message sent by CTU72.1.2 to AIG-181 dated [deleted] the following sentence is included: ‘RCVD info indicating attack by PGM/P-4 imminent. My position 19-10.7 N 107-003 proceeding southeast at best speed.’”

This message had been cleared by the Pentagon for publication in the public hearing book. The message had been cited in 1968 when Defense Secretary McNamara was trying to convince a skeptical William Fulbright, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that North Vietnamese torpedo boats really had attacked American warships in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964. Therefore, went the government’s argument in 1968, President Johnson had just cause for bombing the North Vietnamese in retaliation.

Long after he left the Pentagon McNamara said he no longer believed the North Vietnamese attacked our warships in 1964. The point is that justification for government secrecy often is in the eye of the beholder. Our government saw it as a political plus to publicize the radio message in 1968 but not in 1971.

The government too often uses the flag as a secrecy cloak to hide its embarrassing conduct which the public has every right to know about. Presidents often try to shoot down the messengers that manage to pull back the secrecy cloak, as President Bush tried to do rhetorically to The New York Times after it revealed his warrantless wire tapping of telephone calls and the monitoring of banking transactions.

But with the Republican-controlled Congress willingly becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bush administration rather than fulfilling its constitutional oversight obligations – to the point of refusing to hold hearings on Bush’s questionable if not illegal practice of eavesdropping on thousands of telephone calls without obtaining warrants – The Times and other publications have by default become the check on executive power that the Founding Fathers had in mind.

We should be grateful for this thin, red line of defense. 

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.