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40 years after leak, the Pentagon Papers are completely out

WASHINGTON -- Call it the granddaddy of WikiLeaks. Four decades ago, a young defense analyst leaked a top-secret study packed with damaging revelations about America's conduct of the Vietnam War.

On Monday, that study, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, finally came out in complete form. It's a touchstone for whistleblowers everywhere and just the sort of leak that gives presidents fits to this day.

The documents show that almost from the opening lines, it was apparent that the authors knew they had produced a hornet's nest.

In his Jan. 15, 1969, confidential memorandum introducing the report to the defense chief, the chairman of the task force that produced the study hinted at the explosive nature of the contents. ''Writing history, especially where it blends into current events, especially where that current event is Vietnam, is a treacherous exercise,'' Leslie H. Gelb wrote.

Asked by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to do an ''encyclopedic and objective'' study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1967, the team of three dozen analysts pored over a trove of Pentagon, CIA and State Department documents with ''ant-like diligence,'' he wrote.

Their work revealed a pattern of deception by the Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and prior administrations as they secretly escalated the conflict while assuring the public that, in Johnson's words, the U.S. did not seek a wider war.

The National Archives released the Pentagon Papers in full Monday and put them online, long after most of the secrets spilled. The release was timed 40 years to the day after The New York Times published the first in its series of stories about the findings, on June 13, 1971, prompting President Richard Nixon to try to suppress publication and crush anyone in government who dared to spill confidences.

Prepared near the end of Johnson's term by Defense Department and private analysts, the report was leaked primarily by one of them, Daniel Ellsberg, in a brash act of defiance that stands as one of the most dramatic episodes of whistleblowing in U.S. history.