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Seeing the Pentagon Papers in a New Light

We know the government lied about Vietnam. But should the reporter who published the Pentagon Papers have lied to his source?

In 1973, a federal judge dismissed the case against Daniel Ellsberg that could have placed him in prison for 100 years for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. (Bettman/Getty Images)

This column was originally published in Not Shutting Up, a newsletter about the issues facing journalism and democracy. Sign up for it here.

On Jan. 7, The New York Times published an obituary for Neil Sheehan, the veteran foreign correspondent who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. Department of Defense’s deeply critical secret history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The obituary was accompanied by an article, which Sheehan insisted be published only after his death, that purported to reveal for the first time Sheehan’s account of the “greatest journalistic catch” of a generation: how Sheehan had obtained the top secret documents from Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand Corporation analyst who had turned against the war.

“Contrary to what is generally believed,” the story reported, “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.”

The story was mostly lost in the frenzy following the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but it seemed like a perfect subject for this column. I planned to explore questions about journalistic ethics and whether the ends of getting a scoop that might change history and save lives can ever justify lying to a source.

I set out on the journey that every ProPublica reporter undertakes on every story, the work of verifying the basic facts. And that’s when the column I had already written in my head began to fall apart.

I reached a former Times colleague who knew the Pentagon Papers story. He told me that Sheehan’s account was both old news and disputed. He said that Ellsberg, who is still alive, had replied to the Times story online. A quick search brought me to Ellsberg’s website, where on Jan. 12 he had posted passages from his 2002 book “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.”

In the book, Ellsberg recounted how he stashed a copy of the top secret documents in a Cambridge, Mass. apartment and gave Sheehan a key in March 1971. He said he told Sheehan he could take notes but not make his own copy of the papers “unless and until someone high up there had decided the newspaper was ready to publish, and to publish large quantities of them.”

Soon after, Ellsberg wrote, Sheehan and his wife Susan, a New Yorker writer, came to Cambridge on a weekend when he knew Ellsberg would be out of town, removed the full set of papers from the apartment, and took them “to a copy shop in Medford.”

A 1980 book by Harrison Salisbury, a former Times editor, draws from what the author describes as “repeated interviews” with Ellsberg and Sheehan to tell much the same story, noting that a couple identifying themselves as “Mr. and Mrs. Thompson" (Neil and Susan Sheehan) checked in to the Treadway Motor Inn in Cambridge on March 19, 1971, entered the apartment, stuffed 60 pounds of classified documents into shopping bags, and headed to a copy shop.

The notion of centering my column on “new” revelations about the origins of the Pentagon Papers seemed to be collapsing. I reached out to Janny Scott, who conducted the posthumously published 2015 interview with Sheehan and wrote his obituary and the accompanying piece for the Times, to ask how to square the historical record with her framing of the story. She acknowledged that many parts of the story had already been told, but argued that Sheehan’s own account of his “cloak and dagger” pursuit of the papers was new and fascinating. “[He] had been interviewed at length hundreds of times over the years,” she wrote in an email, and “went to some lengths to keep the details of his actions obscure.”

As I often tell reporters at ProPublica, one door closes, another opens. Sheehan’s revelations might not have been as fresh as I first thought, but that didn’t prevent me from exploring the ethics and history of the Pentagon Papers as we near the 50th anniversary of their publication in June. I found contact information for Ellsberg and we agreed to meet by Zoom.

Daniel Ellsberg in 2018. (Mark Mahaney/Redux)

The Ellsberg of 2021 bears a strong resemblance to the brilliant, dashing character at the center of one of the most pivotal moments in legal and journalistic history. The shock of black hair that jumps out of 1970s photos is thinning and white — he is now nearly 90 — but Ellsberg retains the precise, detailed recall of events, memos and history that made him a top analyst at the Rand Corporation.

I asked him about how he felt all these years later about Sheehan’s duplicity. His answer was surprisingly equanimous. “Then and now, who better understands that there are very strong procedural, moral and ethical rules that have to be re-examined and in some circumstances violated?" he told me.

Sheehan, he said, was a “good guy” and “it all came out all right in the end."

The high-stakes dealings between source and reporter are frequently complicated. People who turn over secret documents are taking enormous risks, and they often want assurances that the revelations will have the largest possible impact. Ellsberg said he understood that Sheehan and his editors couldn’t make binding promises, but he wanted to push the Times to make the Pentagon Papers more than a one-day story. The papers were a 47-volume history that documented how a succession of presidential administrations from the 1940s to 1968 had misled and lied to the American people about the war. Ellsberg hoped that the release of the documents in their proper context would lead to Congressional hearings in which the key players would be grilled on national television, creating pressure for President Richard Nixon to end the war.

In his posthumously released interview with the Times, Sheehan asserted that he “had to do” what he did because Ellsberg was behaving recklessly and sharing the papers with a widening circle of other people. “It was just luck that he didn’t get the whistle blown on the whole thing,” he told Scott.

Ellsberg vigorously disputed that point, saying it was Sheehan’s lies to him that made him begin to look for other possible ways to make the material public. According to Ellsberg, in the weeks after Sheehan smuggled out the papers, he falsely told Ellsberg that the Times was moving slowly, that he was being given other assignments, and that he could only work on the blockbuster story on nights and weekends. (In fact, the Times had rented rooms at a Hilton near its 229 W. 43rd St. newsroom and put dozens of reporters and editors on producing what was planned as a multi-day series.)

Ellsberg said he ultimately gave Sheehan a copy of the papers he had in a New York apartment in April. (The Salisbury book based on late 1970s interviews with the two protagonists says Sheehan obtained that set of the papers “open and above board” in May, a date Ellsberg acknowledged might be correct.) Sheehan continued to provide misleading cues on the Times’ slow progress on the story, prompting Ellsberg to step up efforts to find a member of Congress who would make the material public.

Ellsberg contacted multiple legislators, but none would play ball. On June 12, 1971, Ellsberg received a panicked call from a Times editor to whom he had given a portion of the papers for a book the editor was writing on the Gulf of Tonkin incident that had precipitated America’s deeper involvement in the war. The editor was correctly worried that his book, which was not slated to come out for weeks, would be overshadowed by the imminent publication of a massive series of stories on the papers, including their revelations about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. He told Ellsberg the Times was on high alert, expecting the FBI to raid the building at any moment.

Ellsberg had heard nothing from Sheehan and frantically called him. “They’re expecting the FBI any moment and Neil hasn’t mentioned that to me; he hasn’t given me any warning over the last week or the last month or, for Christ’s sake, this morning!” Ellsberg wrote in his book. According to Salisbury’s account, Sheehan did not attempt to return the call until the next day, and only after 100,000 copies of the paper had been printed.

The publication of the papers had enormous consequences, but hardly any of the ones intended by those involved. They did not prompt Congressional hearings; Ellsberg speculates that the Democrats who controlled Congress quickly realized that the bulk of the lies documented in the study had been told by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.

A federal judge halted the paper’s multi-part series after the Nixon administration alleged that further disclosures posed a grave threat to national security. The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers obtained their own set of the papers from Ellsberg and continued to publish as federal prosecutors dashed from city to city in a futile effort to obtain injunctions that would stop the presses.

Amazingly, Ellsberg and his wife evaded the FBI for 11 days, spreading copies of the Pentagon Papers across the country through a network of activists. He eventually turned himself in and faced federal charges that could have brought a sentence of more than 100 years in prison. Ellsberg was acquitted only after the Nixon administration was forced to reveal its extensive misconduct, including a burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office by the same group of 'plumbers' who were later caught breaking into the Watergate Hotel.

As for the papers themselves, the Supreme Court ruled that the judges could not impose “prior restraint” on news organizations without extraordinary justification, a decision that made possible countless subsequent investigations into government misconduct under the cloak of secrecy, from Seymour Hersh’s famed exposes of the CIA to Edward Snowden’s leaks of National Security Agency documents to reporters writing for The Guardian and Washington Post.

The questions about the ethics of Sheehan’s dealings with Ellsberg linger. Every major news organization, including ProPublica, has a written ethics policy that lays out broad rules. Don’t lie to readers or pose as someone else to sources. Don’t pay for interviews or accept money from people or industries you cover. Don’t advocate for political candidates or parties. Give everyone a chance to respond to stories about them.

In that regard, Ellsberg has a new bone to pick with the Times. The piece on Sheehan concludes with an anecdote told by Sheehan in which he described bumping into Ellsberg on the streets of Manhattan and discussing what had happened.

“So you stole it, like I did," he recalled Mr. Ellsberg saying.

“No, Dan, I didn’t steal it," Mr. Sheehan said he had answered. “And neither did you. 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 sons, and they have a right to it."

Once again, Ellsberg lamented not receiving a phone call from the Times before the Sheehan story was published. Had he been asked, he would have said the story was untrue and that he would never have said Sheehan “stole” the papers. His view then and now is that it wasn’t theft; Sheehan simply copied them. “Why didn’t they call me?" he wondered.

Scott said she wrote the story with the understanding that it would be confidential until Sheehan’s death. For that reason, she did not feel she could interview Ellsberg or anyone else about Sheehan’s statements. The decision to post the story without further comment, she said, was one for “editors."

“Speaking only for myself," Scott said. “I think that in retrospect I should have asked that the piece be held."

Dealing with sources is not as rigidly defined as some aspects of journalism ethics, but it remains a crucial aspect of our business. Fifty years later, it seems easy, and a bit unfair, to render judgments on Sheehan, a superlative but tormented reporter who had come to passionately oppose a war he knew was fueled by government lies.

For me, I find it very hard if not impossible to imagine ever allowing a ProPublica reporter to copy documents in defiance of a confidential source’s wishes.

Of course, investigative reporting involves ambiguities. If a government official places a juicy document on her desk and says she’ll be out of the office for the next hour but feel free to stay as long as you need, can you put the document in your backpack and walk out? (I would say yes; she clearly wants you to take it.) If an official glances down at a document and you have learned the art of reading upside down, is it fair to look? (I would say yes again, although of course anything you see is just a tip that needs to be checked out and verified.)

Lying is lying. If an official or legislator is an “off the record” source for our story, should we quote that person on the record as having said “no comment”? No. In fact, hell no.

To say otherwise when the stakes are high is to adopt the least morally defensible excuse of the people and institutions we investigate: The ends justify the means. At a time when one survey found 56% of Americans agree with the statement "journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations,” it is imperative that we think through our ethics and be prepared to offer a cogent explanation for our decisions when they become known.

Can the ends justify the means? Not for me.

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