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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 RAND and, 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 New York Times reporter who broke the Pentagon Papers story, at his desk at the newsroom in Manhattan, May 1, 1972. The Times’ decision to publish a leaked, top-secret history of the decision-making behind the Vietnam conflict had dramatic consequences for press freedom and the presidency.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.

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