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How the NY Times Got the Pentagon Papers

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2021

NY Times reporter Neil Sheehan, who was a Vietnam War correspondent, won a Pulitzer Prize, and obtained the Pentagon Papers for the Times, died yesterday at the age of 84. In an interview to be published posthumously, Sheehan revealed for the first time how he obtained the classified report on the Vietnam War from Daniel Ellsberg.

He also revealed that he had defied the explicit instructions of his confidential source, whom others later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had been a contributor to the secret history while working for the Rand Corporation. In 1969, Mr. Ellsberg had illicitly copied the entire report, hoping that making it public would hasten an end to a war he had come passionately to oppose.

Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to The Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to The Times.

Over the next two months, he strung Mr. Ellsberg along. He told him that his editors were deliberating about how best to present the material, and he professed to have been sidetracked by other assignments. In fact, he was holed up in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan with the documents and a rapidly expanding team of Times editors and reporters working feverishly toward publication.

What a wild tale. Read the whole thing…the kicker is worth it. Thanks to the efforts of Ellsberg, Sheehan, and other journalists, you can now read the complete non-redacted report on the National Archives website.