…The Deceit and Conflict behind the Leak of the Pentagon Papers …


Fifty years ago this spring, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a seven-thousand-page top-secret history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

The study revealed systematic lying to the American people by four U.S. Presidents, from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson.

The Nixon Administration tried to halt publication by the Times and the Washington Post, but was thwarted by the Supreme Court in a landmark victory for press freedom.

A federal judge’s subsequent dismissal of criminal charges against Ellsberg, which carried a sentence of up to a hundred and fifteen years in prison, was seen as a validation of whistle-blowing.

All of this is well known.

But the death, in January, of Neil Sheehan, the Times reporter to whom Ellsberg leaked the papers, brought new revelations, which have altered the heroic narrative surrounding the historic leak.

The process was more contentious, combative, and duplicitous than was previously understood. In hours of interviews recently, Ellsberg revealed new details about his struggle to leak the papers, including that he provided portions of them to officials at a left-wing Washington think tank before the Times published. He vented about the extent to which Sheehan had deceived him about the newspaper’s intentions to publish the papers without ever telling him that the decision had already been made.

And he provided new information about how Sheehan had surreptitiously made a copy of the papers, defying Ellsberg’s direct request that he not do so. When Ellsberg later gave Sheehan a copy of the papers, the journalist did not reveal that he already had one. “It turns out that Neil and I were both very much in the dark in 1971 as to what the other was thinking and doing, and why,” Ellsberg said recently.

A Harvard graduate who became a zealous marine and then a committed Pentagon Cold Warrior, Ellsberg turned his back on the culture of secrecy that he had long served in order to leak the papers. Convinced that President Richard Nixon, like his predecessors, would continue the war, Ellsberg hoped that the documents’ release would shorten American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Fifty years later, it is clear that the publication of the Pentagon Papers did just that—but in a way that Ellsberg never expected.

Ellsberg, who turned ninety on Wednesday, lives with his wife, Patricia, in the hills above Berkeley, California; their house is nestled in a grove of redwoods, with a sweeping view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Still one of the country’s leading symbols of dissent, Ellsberg said that his story shows that more whistle-blowers are needed to keep Presidents, and all of Washington officialdom, on the constitutional straight and narrow.

“I had been convinced that it was Nixon’s intention to continue the war in the air throughout his term,” he recalled. After Ellsberg leaked the documents, Nixon’s obsession with destroying him prompted the President to commit various crimes that culminated, ultimately, in his resignation from office. “In short, the criminal actions that the White House took against me were extraordinarily revealed in ways that led to this absolutely unforeseeable downfall of a President, which made the war endable.”

Ellsberg would become a through line to the Watergate scandal. “In the end,” he said, reflecting on the confusion and mistrust of that period of his life, “Things couldn’t have worked out better.”

Ellsberg grew up in Detroit, the son of Jewish parents who converted to Christian Science. He went to Harvard on a scholarship, and, in 1952, graduated third in his class. Wanting to prove his physical mettle and shun a life of Ivy League privilege, Ellsberg enlisted in the Marine Corps. In 1956, with the Suez crisis looming, he extended his tour by a year, hoping for a combat stint. He was discharged the following year as a first lieutenant.

After his service, Ellsberg would earn a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. His dissertation was on decision theory, the attempt to quantify the costs and risks of various strategies, which was then coming into vogue as an important part of military planning. In June, 1959, he joined the rand Corporation, in Santa Monica, the Air Force-affiliated think tank that was then at the center of the application of decision theory to military issues.

In the summer of 1964, Ellsberg was assigned to the Pentagon to work under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was mostly consumed by the war in Vietnam. Ellsberg spent most of his time reading top-secret cables and other dispatches from military officers based in Saigon. Wanting to see for himself what conditions in Vietnam were like, Ellsberg spent the period from 1965 to 1967 in the country, under the auspices of the State Department.

Working with John Paul Vann, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who had been critical of U.S. strategy in Vietnam, Ellsberg assessed American and South Vietnamese efforts against Vietcong guerrillas. He approached his task with great ardor, visiting nearly every province, often going on patrols with U.S. soldiers and South Vietnamese troops—and occasionally engaging in firefights himself.

What Ellsberg saw on the ground prompted him to become increasingly disillusioned by the war. His disaffection only increased when, in 1967, he was assigned to work on a secret study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that McNamara had commissioned, which became known as the Pentagon Papers. Participating in the study gave Ellsberg access to highly classified cables and field reports.

When it was completed, the study consisted of forty-seven volumes, in thick binders, containing government documents and a narrative history written by Ellsberg and the other researchers. What struck Ellsberg most was the pattern of deception engaged in by military and political leaders. He concluded that the critical calculation for each President was domestic politics: no one wanted to be the first to “lose’’ Vietnam.

In August of 1969, Ellsberg crossed a personal and political Rubicon by attending an antiwar conference, near Philadelphia. While still working for rand and the Pentagon, he passed out antiwar leaflets. A speech given by Randy Kehler, a draft resister at the gathering who was about to go to prison, convinced Ellsberg that he was not doing enough to end the war.

Two months later, Ellsberg began secretly smuggling out seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers from his office at randand, in that era, laboriously copying them one at a time on a friend’s Xerox machine.

Ellsberg had initially planned to give copies of the papers to a U.S. senator, who he hoped would hold hearings and thereby shift the onus of the release from him. Ellsberg secretly met with William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in Washington. Fulbright seemed intrigued, Ellsberg recalled.

He told Ellsberg that his staff would read the material and then set up a hearing. But Fulbright dithered for months and ultimately declined to proceed. Ellsberg tried a few other senators, including George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat. McGovern was also initially supportive, but later told Ellsberg he feared that releasing the papers would hurt his plans to run against Nixon in the 1972 election.

In the summer of 1970, some nine months after copying the report, Ellsberg, increasingly frustrated, decided to give some of the Pentagon Papers to the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank in Washington. He knew the institute’s co-founder, Marcus Raskin, and later gave an interview to Raskin’s staffer Ralph Stavins, for a study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that the organization planned to publish in book form.

During the interview, Ellsberg told Stavins about the Pentagon Papers, and agreed to share some of its contents with the institute to help inform its examination of the war. In dribs and drabs over the next several months, Ellsberg gave the group more than a thousand pages of the papers. But since the institute was a far-left think tank, he feared that its liberal bent would taint the historic impact of what the study contained. He wanted a more mainstream launch.

Raskin and Stavins knew that Ellsberg had been trying, without success, to get the Senate to hold hearings on the papers. Frustrated with the pace of Ellsberg’s efforts, and wanting to limit their own legal liability in writing about the papers, Raskin and Stavins decided to give the stash that Ellsberg had given them to Sheehan, a star correspondent in Vietnam for both United Press International and the Times, who was then based in Washington for the newspaper.

At a dinner in Washington, on February 28, 1971, Raskin and Stavins suggested to Ellsberg that he give a full set of the papers to Sheehan. They did not tell Ellsberg that they had already given Sheehan a portion of those very documents.

Thirty years later, according to Ellsberg, Raskin confessed that he had deceived him, saying he felt “abashed and guilty’’ about it. Raskin—whose son, the Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, was the lead House manager in the second impeachment of Donald Trump—died in 2017. Stavins did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Ellsberg did reach out to Sheehan, whom he had met when they were both in Vietnam. He had also done business with Sheehan before: in March of 1968, making his first leak to a reporter, Ellsberg had given Sheehan classified reports and cables on U.S. estimates of North Vietnam’s troop strength, which led to three major stories in the Times that President Johnson considered damaging.

Neil Sheehan working at a desk in The New York Times office
Neil Sheehan, the Times reporter who broke the Pentagon Papers story, in the newsroom, in May of 1972.
Photograph by Barton Silverman / NYT / Redux

On March 2nd, Ellsberg met with Sheehan at his house in Washington, and they talked late into the night. Ellsberg told the reporter about the Pentagon Papers and said that he had the study in his possession—all of it. As the two men talked, Ellsberg recalled, Sheehan said that in the course of reporting a story about war crimes in Vietnam, he had recently consulted with I.P.S. and got the “impression that they had copies of documents’’ about America’s involvement in the war.

Sheehan did not tell Ellsberg that the institute had already given him the papers. “[Sheehan] asked me not to go back to the institute to tell them he had been talking to me because he said they might get suspicious—they might go off on their own and give it to someone else,’’ Ellsberg told his lawyer, Charles Nesson, several months later, according to a transcript of their meeting.

As they concluded their conversation that night in Washington, Ellsberg said he told Sheehan that he would show him the Pentagon Papers study, and they arranged to meet in Cambridge, outside Boston, on March 12th. By this time, Ellsberg had resigned from rand and taken a position at M.I.T.’s Center for International Studies. “Neil didn’t let on he already had some of the papers,’’ Ellsberg recalled. Sheehan would later assert that Ellsberg agreed at the March 2nd meeting that he would give him a full copy of the documents. Ellsberg strongly denies that.

On March 12th, the two men met in Cambridge, and Ellsberg took Sheehan to the apartment of his brother-in-law, Spencer Marx, where he was hiding the papers for safekeeping. Sheehan, who by then had turned strongly against the war himself, began reading them with great interest. Ellsberg agreed to give him copies of a few pages, which he could show his editors, and Ellsberg said that Sheehan could read as much of it as he wanted, and take notes.

But Ellsberg refused to let him copy the entire study. He first wanted assurances that the Times would, in fact, publish the papers and treat them as a “big story”—a multipart series that would be given ample space, so as to reproduce some of the actual documents. Without these conditions, Ellsberg did not want to cede control of the papers by giving them to Sheehan, and he worried about extra copies being made at the newspaper, where security could be lax; the F.B.I. might get a whiff of what was afoot.

Sheehan had taken a hotel room in Cambridge, intending to stay a few days, and after a while, Ellsberg let him continue reading alone. He recalled telling the reporter that he was counting on him not to go against his wishes and take a bundle of the papers out to Harvard Square to make copies. After a time, Sheehan left for home to consult with his editors.

When he returned soon after, Sheehan told Ellsberg that his editors were interested but they needed more information about the contents of the papers. Ellsberg was still not ready to allow the journalist to make copies without a commitment to publish, so Sheehan settled down for more reading and note-taking.

Around this time, Ellsberg told Sheehan that he and his wife would be going away for a few days. Sheehan asked if he could stay and continue reading and taking notes on the papers. Ellsberg agreed and gave him a key to the apartment, while again warning Sheehan not to make copies. “The issue here was, would the Times go ahead and publish the stuff?’’ Ellsberg recalled.

“All I wanted was for them to take it seriously. Unknown to me, they already were.” After the Ellsbergs left for their trip, Sheehan quickly seized the opportunity to summon his wife from Washington to help him copy the entire set of papers at a local copy shop.

According to Ellsberg, Sheehan called him the following month, in April, to report that the Times had given him another assignment and the newspaper was no longer pursuing the Pentagon Papers story. But Sheehan said that he wanted to keep following the story on his own, so he again asked Ellsberg to give him a full copy of the papers, in case Sheehan could get his editors to change their minds.

Feeling like he was out of options, Ellsberg this time agreed. In fact, it later emerged, the Timeswas going full speed ahead with plans to publish. It had rented a suite at the New York Hilton hotel, where a team of editors and reporters had been poring over the papers for at least a month, and planning a ten-part series.

Sheehan, who died in January, at the age of eighty-four, would admit that he had been stringing Ellsberg along. In a 2015 interview with the former Times reporter Janny Scott, Sheehan also conceded that he had disregarded Ellsberg’s explicit instructions not to copy the papers, and gave him no warning before the Timespublished its first article, on June 13, 1971.

In the interview, which Sheehan gave on the condition that his comments not be published until after his death, he tried to justify his deception. He told Scott that Ellsberg had been behaving recklessly, torn between his desire to get the papers published and his fear of going to prison. And since Ellsberg had already discussed the papers with senators, Sheehan said he also feared that someone on Capitol Hill could call the Justice Department and tip off officials there that the Times might be planning to break the story. Sheehan told Scott that he felt Ellsberg was “out of control.’’ He added, “It was just luck that he didn’t get the whistle blown on the whole damn thing.”

Ellsberg denied that he was ever out of control, but acknowledged that he felt “frantic and pressured’’ when Sheehan visited him in Cambridge because he feared that the F.B.I. might be closing in on him. He and his wife had also been staying up late at night making additional copies of the Pentagon Papers to store with friends in case he was arrested. He added that if Sheehan had simply told him that the Times was committed to the story, he would have given the reporter an entire set of the papers immediately.

Shortly after Sheehan’s death, in January, the Times published an obituary, as well as Scott’s story on the reporter’s fraught relationship with Ellsberg, including Sheehan’s 2015 statements questioning the whistle-blower’s behavior at the time. It did not include any comment from Ellsberg himself.

The omission subjected the Times to criticism for not following the journalistic convention of allowing the subject of a story to respond to disparaging remarks. In an interview, Scott said that she had been assigned to write Sheehan’s obituary in advance. In 2013, Scott wrote Sheehan a letter and requested an interview. Two years later, Sheehan agreed to speak with her. “Then I sat down with Sheehan and he told me this extraordinary version of what happened,” Scott said.

Her editor had told her that he wanted the obituary to be fourteen hundred words. After she told him she could write that amount just on Sheehan’s dealings with Ellsberg, he agreed that she should do a separate article about that. When asked why she did not call Ellsberg for comment, Scott replied, “What I’m going to say here is an explanation and not an excuse.” She said, “When Sheehan died, I knew they obviously were going to run the obit immediately, but I didn’t know what the plans for the second piece were. I didn’t assume it would run instantly, but that should have been in the front of my mind. I stupidly did not say, ‘Please hold the second story until I can speak to Ellsberg.’ I should have.” She added, “I’ve had a few second thoughts.”

Scott’s story also did not mention the fact that Sheehan had obtained more than a thousand pages of the papers from the Institute for Policy Studies before getting the full set from Ellsberg. Scott said that Sheehan did tell her of his dealings with the I.P.S. but she chose not to write about that because she didn’t feel it was relevant to the reporter’s dealings with Ellsberg.

She added that what was “fascinating’’ to her about the Sheehan-Ellsberg relationship was that “both of them were pursuing the same goal—to try and accelerate the end of the war, but neither of them trusted the other because each felt the other was going to blow it.”

Today, Ellsberg holds no grudge against Sheehan and called him “an outstanding journalist.” He chalked up their mutual grievances to a “misunderstanding.” “I was so right, and so lucky, to have given the Pentagon Papers to Neil,” Ellsberg said. “No one—no one—could have done better with them.’’

After the Times ran three stories on the papers, Nixon and his Attorney General, John Mitchell, accused the newspaper of violating the Espionage Act by releasing classified material, and they obtained a federal injunction forcing the Times to cease publication. Ellsberg, meanwhile, arranged to pass another copy of the papers to the Washington Post, which then began publishing its own stories on June 18th, but soon it, too, was enjoined from further publication.

By this time, Ellsberg had been widely reported to be the prime suspect in the leak. After hiding underground until the papers were published—next in the Boston Globe, and subsequently in more than a dozen other newspapers around the country—Ellsberg turned himself in to authorities in Boston on June 28th and was charged under the Espionage Act. Two days later, the Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of 6–3, in favor of the Times and the Post.

Publication of the papers infuriated Nixon. In an Oval Office meeting with Henry Kissinger and other top aides, he discussed how to retaliate against Ellsberg. Kissinger told Nixon that “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America,” and said, “He must be stopped at all costs. We’ve got to get him.’’ Nixon fervently agreed. “We’ve got to get him! Don’t worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press,” the President said. “These fellows have all put themselves above the law, and, by God, we’re going to go after them.’’

Nixon ordered the formation of a Special Investigations Unit directed out of the White House, which became known as the Plumbers, an inside joke that referred to its stated mission to stop leaks, though the operatives actually carried out political dirty tricks. For its first operation, the group decided to break into the Beverly Hills office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, hoping to gather material that they could use to blackmail Ellsberg or smear him.

This escapade, which proved unsuccessful, amounted to a Watergate trial run. The same ex-C.I.A. and F.B.I. operatives who oversaw it, Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were the ones who plotted the bugging and burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building some nine months later in 1972.

The C.I.A., prohibited from engaging in any domestic operations, was nonetheless ordered to produce first one and then another psychological profile of Ellsberg, based on press reports as well as F.B.I. and State Department files. Meanwhile, Liddy and Hunt searched Ellsberg’s F.B.I. files for damaging material.

When they learned that Ellsberg was due to be in Washington in September, to receive an award from a peace group, Liddy and Hunt concocted a bizarre plan to slip LSD into his soup before he made a speech, hoping that he would become disoriented during his remarks and embarrass himself. But they couldn’t procure the LSD in time.

Then, in May of 1972, when Ellsberg was scheduled to appear at a Vietnam War protest at the Capitol, a group of operatives was sent to assault Ellsberg and disrupt the rally by shouting that Ellsberg was a traitor. They tore down antiwar signs and started brawls with several of the demonstrators, but couldn’t get close to Ellsberg. Police broke up the fight, and the assailants slipped away.

Ellsberg’s 1973 trial, in Los Angeles, sparked a brazen effort by the Nixon White House to influence the trial judge by offering him a job as head of the F.B.I. while the case was in progress. During a break in the trial, Judge Matthew Byrne secretly travelled to San Clemente to meet with the Nixon counsel John Ehrlichman, who made Byrne the offer. When that and the Plumbers’ role in breaking into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist became public, along with their other activities, the compromised judge was forced to dismiss the case owing to government misconduct.

At the White House, Nixon seethed at the dismissal and said, of Ellsberg, “The sonofabitching thief is made a national hero . . . and the New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. . . . What in the name of God have we come to?’’

In the years after Ellsberg’s trial, he plunged into the anti-nuclear movement, a part of his life for which he is little known, compared to the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg has taught courses on the nuclear-arms race at Stanford and Harvard Medical School, and given hundreds of lectures on the subject. He has been arrested in nonviolent civil-disobedience actions close to ninety times. “I don’t expect to have a gravestone, but if there were to be one, I would want it to say that I was a member of the antiwar movement on Vietnam, and the anti-nuclear movement,’’ he said.

At ninety, Ellsberg appears to have aged well. He has avoided contracting covid-19 thus far, and other than a longtime hearing problem and a balky sciatica condition, he’s in good health. He has a shock of white hair, a lined, craggy face, and hard blue eyes. His mind remains razor-sharp. Questions posed to him elicit no short answers; he’s never met a tangent he’s found unwelcome.

Looking back on the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg conceded that their publication had no effect on the conduct of the war. “Nixon went right on with his aims, and, a year after the Pentagon Papers, we had the heaviest bombing of the war,’’ he said.

“People asked me, ‘What did the Pentagon Papers do?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ I never convinced anyone that Nixon was doing the same thing as his predecessors. Nobody wanted to believe that, and I did not convince them. The Times’ slant on the Pentagon Papers was, ‘This is history.’ The message I wanted to get out was: this is history being repeated.’’

Today, Ellsberg lends his name to progressive causes and nurtures other whistle-blowers in an effort to promote the exposure of government secrets as patriotic, not traitorous. Fifty years after he was put on trial, Ellsberg said that the government continues to misuse the Espionage Act to criminalize whistle-blowing and deter would-be leakers. He conceded, “My efforts to encourage that have been much less effective than the efforts of the government to deter and prevent it.’’

Ellsberg said that every government wants to conceal its mistakes, its lies, and its abuses of power from the public.

“Here’s what I learned long before age ninety: that many virtues—like loyalty, obedience to authority, and courage—can be put toward dangerous and bad causes,’’ he said.

“Officials are reluctant to recognize that loyalty to the President can, and regularly does, conflict with the higher loyalty they owe to the Constitution.

By Ben Bradlee, Jr.

April 8, 2021

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………reserved …. w

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