For many, it is the biggest news first in a generation: the publication of a 7,000-page government report that exposed how successive US administrations had escalated the Vietnam War while hiding doubts that the action could ever succeed.
That report, the Pentagon Papers, was released in 1971 by New York Times on legal objections by the Nixon administration. But the way the documents were obtained by Times reporter Neil Sheehan has always been a mystery.
This week, a year after Sheehan’s death at age 84, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s account of how he obtained the report has finally come to light. During a four-hour interview in 2015 that he ordered not to be published while he was alive, Sheehan recounted how he had challenged Daniel Ellsberg, a former defense department analyst, who had allowed him to read, but not copy, documents that Ellsberg had illegally. Copied while working at Rand Corporation.
Instead, Sheehan smuggled the papers out of an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ellsberg had hidden them, and took them to a copy shop. Initially, he hid the duplicates in a locker at the bus station.
“You had to do what I did,” Sheehan explained in an interview with the New York Times, describing Ellsberg as conflicted between releasing the documents and fearing for his freedom if he revealed himself as their source. Ellsberg, Sheehan said, had repeatedly wavered, knowing that if he handed them over, he would “lose control.”
In his memoirs of 2002, Secrets: A Memory of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg wrote that he was not sure that the Times he would publish the documents in their entirety, as he had wanted. Sheehan said he believed Ellsberg was “totally in conflict.”
“I was pretty upset when Ellsberg said, ‘You can read, take notes, but you can’t copy,'” Sheehan recalled. “He didn’t realize he had decided: ‘This guy is just impossible. You cannot leave it in their hands. It’s too important and too dangerous. ‘
“Xerox it,” reminded his wife, Susan Sheehan, a writer for the New Yorker, advising him. While Ellsberg was away, leaving him with a key to the apartment, the couple began their task, checking into separate hotels under aliases, making copies, hiding them in a locker at the bus terminal and another at Boston’s Logan Airport.
Ultimately, when the newspaper was preparing the story for publication, Sheehan said he returned to Ellsberg to request the documents. This time Ellsberg consented, which the reporter took as consent to publish. “This was an exercise to give Ellsberg some warning, if he remembered what he had said, and a little relief of conscience on my part,” Sheehan recalled. “Maybe it’s hypocritical, but we were going to the press and I wanted to try to give him some kind of warning.
Still, the publication of the newspapers took Ellsberg by surprise. After her cover was discovered as a source, the two met. Ellsberg, Sheehan said, was “unhappy about the monumental duplicity.”
The Nixon administration, which had requested a court order on a later publication, understood the importance of the story. “One thing very clear emerges from the gibberish… You cannot trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; And you can’t trust their judgment and the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been accepted in the United States, is seriously affected by this, “said White House Chief of Staff HR Haldeman. he told Nixon.
The administration lost the effort to prevent the publication of a landmark ruling that is now considered a cornerstone of press freedom. Nixon, however, went further in his campaign against the leaks and Ellsberg. White House employees, under the supervision of John Ehrlichman, created an undercover investigative unit, “The Plumbers,” which would later lead to the Watergate robberies and the Nixon indictment.
In her account, Sheehan said she had never wanted to talk about how she had obtained the copies for fear of contradicting Ellsberg’s account of handing over the papers or embarrassing the leaker by reading her mental state.
Years later, Sheehan and Ellsberg reached an understanding. “So you stole it, like I did,” Sheehan recalled Ellsberg saying. Sheehan said he responded that neither of them had stolen what was rightfully public property.
“I didn’t steal it. And you neither. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their children, and they are entitled to it. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism