Saturday, 08 July 2023 07:03

The Pentagon Papers: Secrets, Lies and Leaks

Credit: Anna Vignet for Reveal

Daniel Ellsberg worried that the Vietnam War would spiral into nuclear apocalypse. So he secretly copied a 7,000-page report that exposed the reality of U.S.’s role in Vietnam.

Before Jeffrey Wigand blew the whistle on the tobacco industry and Edward Snowden showed the National Security Agency could spy on all of us, there was Daniel Ellsberg, one of the original champions of free speech. He died last month at 92, and this week’s episode revisits a historic event along with our CEO and editor in chief, Robert “Rosey” Rosenthal.

In 1971, then-22-year-old Rosenthal got a call from his boss at The New York Times. He was told to go to Room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel, bring enough clothes for at least a month and not tell anyone.

Rosenthal was part of a team called in to publish the Pentagon Papers, an explosive history of the United States’ political and military actions in Vietnam that shattered the government’s narratives about the war. Ellsberg, a former military analyst, leaked the secret papers to the press. We hear the experiences of both Ellsberg and Rosenthal.

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, he was turning his back on a long career close to power, immersed in government secrets. His work as a nuclear war strategist made him fear that a small conflict could erupt into a nuclear holocaust.

When the Vietnam War flared, Ellsberg worried his worst fears would be realized. He wonders if leaking the top-secret report he’s read could help stop the war. Soon, he was secretly copying the 7,000-page history that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers and showing them to anyone he thought could help.

President Richard Nixon wakes up to the biggest leak in American history. But his first reaction is a little surprising: The Pentagon Papers might make trouble for the Democrats – this instinct starts a chain reaction that helps bring down his presidency.

This episode originally aired in May 2016.

Dig Deeper

Read: A Young Journalist Witnesses History With Pentagon Papers (Reveal)

Listen: Caught on Tape – the Presidential Edition (Reveal)


Reporter and producer: Michael Corey | Editor: Kat Snow | Production managers: Steven Rascón and Zulema Cobb | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Sound design and music: Jim Briggs and Claire Mullen with help from Katherine Rae Mondo | Episode art: Anna Vignet | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers | Host: Al Letson | Special thanks to Ken Hughes and Jeffrey Kimball for historical research, Luke Nichter for help with archival audio, and Robert Thompson at the National Archives.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Robert Rosenthal: I was at a friend’s place and…
Daniel Ellsberg: Okay, I heard a laugh there. What’s the laugh? What was going on at the Friend’s…
Robert Rosenthal: [inaudible] was also high, I guess. Smoking a Joint.
Al Letson: That’s Robert “Rosey” Rosenthal, our CEO and editor-in-chief. He’s talking to our former colleague, Mike Corey. Rosey’s a born storyteller, and the story we’re about to bring you has become one of our favorites. I guess I love it so much because it intersects with history, free speech, and the power of the press, and of course, Rosey. The story begins in 1971, and Rosey is about six months into an entry level job at the New York Times.
Robert Rosentha…: And the phone rings, and we didn’t pay any attention. But then I hear his mother’s voice saying, “Robert,” she called me Robert, “Robert, it’s for you.” So I’m going, “Who knows I’m here?”
Al Letson: It was one of the top editors at the Times. He told Rosey, “Don’t come into the newsroom in the morning. Go to room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel.”
Robert Rosentha…: “Don’t tell anyone where you’re going, and bring enough clothes for at least a month.” And I was like, “What?”
Al Letson: So Rosey showed up the next day, and the Times had set up a whole mini newsroom in the middle of this giant hotel, where they figured no one would notice them if they were careful.
Robert Rosentha…: “You’re going to be working on a really incredible story that is top secret. It involves the US government, and it’s going to be risky.” And I remember saying, “Risky? What’s risky?” Well, within a few hours, I was xeroxing the Pentagon Papers and looking at things that said, “Top secret. For your eyes only.”
Al Letson: The Pentagon Papers, a trove of classified documents about the Vietnam War, published by the New York Times and other newspapers. They were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a government insider, who became one of the most famous whistleblowers in US history. Daniel died in June at the age of 92. So we thought we’d revisit the story of the Pentagon Papers and how in 1971 they would contribute to President Richard Nixon’s downfall. Rosey was just 22 years old, and he had a front row seat.
Robert Rosentha…: That whole experience for me really shaped my career, in terms of taking risk, and working with great people, and understanding the power of the press. And it was fun. It was really fun.
Al Letson: Rosey shared a close bond with Daniel Ellsberg because of the Pentagon Papers. The two guys spent more time than probably anyone else on Earth, secretly photocopying them, all 7,000 pages. Daniel and Rosey knew each other for decades, but they never sat down and talked in detail about their experience. So a few years ago, we visited Ellsberg at his house in Berkeley.
Robert Rosentha…: Thank you for doing this.
Daniel Ellsberg: I’m used to getting filmed here a lot. They don’t have such fancy sound equipment.
Al Letson: They ended up talking for hours. Now, one of the things they remembered was how much work it was to just copy the documents. Took Ellsberg a year.
Daniel Ellsberg: I got very jealous later of these machines, going, “Ch, ch, ch,” you know, and they collate.
Al Letson: Yeah, not that kind of copy machine. This is old school. Open the big heavy cover, put one page in, close the cover, press start, wait, open cover, repeat 7,000 times.
Daniel Ellsberg: Page by page. And finally, it was just too slow, so I would put it in without putting the heavy cover on, and wondering what this was going to do to my eyes. I was possibly going to go blind, obviously.
Robert Rosentha…: I remember the green light, the green ray thinking, “Is this going to sterilize me?”
Daniel Ellsberg: Oh, so you had the same concern?
Robert Rosentha…: Yeah.
Al Letson: Before Jeffrey Wigand blew the whistle on the tobacco industry, and before Edward Snowden showed us the NSA could spy on us all, there was Daniel Ellsberg. History generally remembers Ellsberg as a hero, a champion of free speech. On the other hand, Snowden’s in exile in Russia. So what’s the difference? Not as much as you might think. At the time of the leak, all the same things people say about Snowden, “He’s a traitor, threatening national security,” people said about Ellsberg too. He was charged with espionage. He expected to go to prison, but somehow, he got away with leaking classified government documents. You can draw a straight line from what happened in the ’70s to today and the debate over government secrets and what happens to people who expose them. Here’s Michael Corey with a story we first brought you in May of 2016.
Michael Corey: Most of us have at least heard of the Pentagon Papers. What I remember from high school is that they’re about Vietnam, they got leaked to the press by some guy named Daniel Ellsberg, and it was a big deal. The Pentagon Papers were a thing, then Watergate happened. But if that’s what you learned in school, you missed the important part. I never learned it this way, but without the Pentagon Papers, there would probably be no Watergate and maybe no Nixon resignation. And that’s the story I’m going to tell today. First off, who is this guy Ellsberg?
Daniel Ellsberg: Well, my early life was spent entirely playing the piano because my mother’s ambition for me was that I should become a concert pianist.
Michael Corey: That didn’t happen. When Ellsberg was 15, his mother and sister were killed in a car crash. He and his father survived, but he wasn’t destined to be a pianist, and Ellsberg didn’t start out a radical. Like many young Americans in the 1950s, he was deeply patriotic. He graduated from Harvard, did a fellowship in England, then in 1954, he ditched the pacifism of his Christian Science parents and joined the military. And he didn’t mess around. Ellsberg signed up with the Marines.
Daniel Ellsberg: I wanted to see if I was up to it. There was a Marine poster that said, “Are you man enough to be a Marine?” And well, like a lot of people, I wanted to find that out.
Michael Corey: Ellsberg was up to it, and he even re-upped and served on a ship during the Suez crisis. For a while, his life was basically the Marines, Harvard, the Marines, Harvard. Who does that? Finally, he got a PhD in what’s called decision theory. It’s a dry sounding corner of academia that asks, “How should people make rational choices when confronted with uncertainty?” But in 1958, this wasn’t a theoretical question. It was a question about nuclear weapons, specifically the big scare of the time, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Daniel Ellsberg: So that was the period of the so-called missile gap, where it was understood that the Soviets would have a large force of ICBMs before we did.
Michael Corey: By 1961, Ellsberg had started consulting for the Kennedy administration and was now directly involved in planning America’s nuclear war strategy. In this era, that strategy was called first strike, meaning we launch our nuclear weapons before the other guy does.
Suddenly, instead of abstract research, Ellsberg was deeply engrossed in some of the nation’s greatest secrets, and he found that in nuclear war, there was plenty of uncertainty, like how could the President decide quickly if an incoming attack was a false alarm?
Daniel Ellsberg: If he waits too long, he won’t have anything to respond with. So the incentive to get planes off the ground in particular, and even perhaps to commit missiles, is very strong, and yet, there’s a possibility of a false alarm. And that could have meant a war being triggered by these warnings on either side.
Michael Corey: If that sounds like a movie you’ve seen, you’re right.
Daniel Ellsberg: I went with my boss, Harry Ron, to see Dr. Strangelove in the afternoon in D.C. because it was a working problem for us.
Michael Corey: If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, after you finish listening to this episode, drop whatever you’re going to do next and watch it. It’s a comedy about nuclear war. Hilarious, right?
Actor: If we were to immediately launch an all out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases, we’d stand a damn good chance of catching with their pants down.
Michael Corey: In this scene, a rogue commander has launched American planes carrying nuclear bombs, and a general, played by George C. Scott, is arguing that maybe the president should let the planes drop them.
Actor: But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable post-war environments. One where you’ve got 20 million people killed, and the other where you’ve got 150 million people killed.
Actor 2: You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.
Actor: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops!
Daniel Ellsberg: And I remember we came out of that movie, and we both said, “That’s a documentary.” It was a documentary. Everything in that thing, aside from the laughs, everything could have happened just the way, as in the movie. For example, the fact that they had no way to call the planes back once they had given a go order.
Michael Corey: Ellsberg wondered if the joint chiefs of staff had ever even totaled up how many people would be killed if the US carried out its first strike plan against the Soviet Union and China. He asked. He figured he’d embarrass them because there was no way they had done that. But as he told me and Rosey, it turned out they had.
Daniel Ellsberg: So that was a total of 600 million, which was 100 Holocausts, and this was from our first strike. So any fighting with Soviet troops, we carry out this attack first, right away, and kill 600 million people.
Robert Rosentha…: So you’re 30 years old, you’re getting access to documents that say, “Top secret. Eyes of the President only.”
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.
Robert Rosentha…: And you have this number in your head. At that moment, if you go back to it, what was your reaction?
Daniel Ellsberg: I remember my reaction very, very well. I thought, “This is the most evil plan that has existed in the history of the human species. This is an evil piece of paper. It shouldn’t exist.”
Michael Corey: But Ellsberg knew better than most people that this wasn’t just a piece of paper. He knew because he wasn’t the kind of analyst who stayed in his office. He had visited the airfield and actually touched one of the bombs.
Daniel Ellsberg: I had seen the planes on alert, 10 minute alert. I’d felt one of the bombs, actually. I remember it happened to be lying there on a trolley, and it was warm from radioactivity.
Michael Corey: Ellsberg says he tried to push the Kennedy administration to make the war plan less rigid, but he didn’t really get anywhere.
Daniel Ellsberg: I don’t think I had any effect.
Michael Corey: So if he couldn’t get Washington’s hand off the nuclear hair trigger, the only hope he saw was to keep any small conflict from escalating. And it just so happened there was a small conflict that was about to explode in Vietnam.
Al Letson: When we come back, we pick up the story of the Pentagon Papers. Next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
On August 4th, 1964, panicked telegrams started pouring into the Pentagon. One of the people reading them was Daniel Ellsberg, the focus of our show today. He’s the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers, those classified documents that revealed how the government lied to the American people and Congress about the Vietnam War.
Daniel passed away in June at the age of 92. Back in 1964. Ellsberg was a war analyst at the Pentagon. It was actually his first day on the job, and those telegram messages were coming from a Navy captain off the coast of Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf. The captain said, “North Vietnamese PT boats, super fast, armed with torpedoes, were firing at him.” That’s what Ellsberg told Michael Corey and Reveal CEO, Robert Rosenthal.
Daniel Ellsberg: One torpedo, four torpedoes. We’re taking evasive action. 10 torpedoes. Eventually, 22 torpedoes had been fired, and then after an hour and a half, a message comes through, saying in effect, “Hold everything. An over eager sonar man has been mistaking the beat of our ship’s propeller against our wage as we take evasive action as torpedo reports.”
Al Letson: So all of this might have been for nothing. There might not have been any torpedoes, but you wouldn’t know it from what happened next. Michael Corey picks up the story
Michael Corey: That night, President Lyndon Johnson went on TV to tell the nation that he had ordered airstrikes, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara briefed reporters in a midnight press conference.
Robert McNamara: Earlier tonight, the President told the nation the United States would take appropriate action to respond to the unprovoked attacks on US naval vessels by torpedo boats of North Vietnam. I can tell you that some of that action has already taken place. US naval aircraft have already conducted airstrikes against the North Vietnamese bases from which these PT boats have operated.
Michael Corey: By the time McNamara made that statement, he already had good reasons to question what had happened. It took him decades, but he would eventually acknowledge the whole attack had never happened in the first place. But on this night, if he had any doubts, he wasn’t showing them.
Robert McNamara: Furthermore, the United States has taken the precaution of moving substantial military reinforcements to Southeast Asia from our Pacific bases. We are also sending reinforcements to the Western Pacific from bases in the United States.
Reporter 1: Does that mean ground forces are being put into Vietnam?
Robert McNamara: No, it does not.
Reporter 2: Mr. Secretary, how can-
Robert McNamara: It means that we are reinforcing our forces there with such additional forces as we think may be required, and we have placed on alert for a movement such forces as might be necessary.
Reporter 3: Could you repeat that first part about no troops in Vietnam?
Michael Corey: But this right here, this was the tipping point that mired America in Vietnam.
Reporter 3: …have combat units been moved into North Vietnam?
Robert McNamara: [inaudible] I should say.
Michael Corey: In response to the Tonkin Gulf incident, Congress authorized the President to do whatever was necessary, order bombing raids, send ground troops. Within a year, there were more than 200,000 American troops on the ground. Here’s Rosey again.
Robert Rosentha…: So as you see this sort of political escalation, and you’re inside the Pentagon, and you’re aware that this is equivocal at best…
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, and that they’re lying about it.
Robert Rosentha…: And did you ever think then, “I’m trapped here. How do I get the truth out?” Did that begin the process?
Daniel Ellsberg: No, no, because really not at all on that point.
Michael Corey: What happened next changed Daniel Ellsberg in ways that would make him the person who would leak the Pentagon Papers. In 1965, Ellsberg was invited to go to Vietnam as part of a State Department study. Just going to Vietnam sets him apart from a lot of Pentagon colleagues, but this wasn’t some junket. This was Ellsberg, the former Marine. He stayed in Vietnam for two years, and he did some pretty crazy stuff. He drove around on back roads no one thought were safe. He went out on patrol with combat units. He got shelled, got caught in an ambush, and he learned that much of what war commanders were telling Washington was a lie.
The Pentagon was getting inflated body counts of how many soldiers we killed, and there were glowing reports, complete with tables and charts, reporting statistics on patrols that never happened. Ellsberg also talked with the Vietnamese people, saw their fear and rage. Thousands of civilians were dying, hundreds of thousands. American and South Vietnamese soldiers were burning villages, bombing towns, spraying Agent Orange, and stripping the jungle to dust and sticks. Ellsberg tasted the war, and he came home convinced we were never going to win.
Daniel Ellsberg: The people we were fighting were not going to give up. We weren’t going to beat them. They were very good soldiers, and they were fighting in their backyard.
Michael Corey: When Ellsberg got back to the United States, it was 1967.
News anchor: The stated purpose of the demonstration was to again, stop the draft.
Michael Corey: And the news media was full of protestors marching in the streets.
Ellsberg didn’t know it at the time, but even Secretary of Defense McNamara had concluded Vietnam was a lost cause. McNamara had ordered a secret study about decision making in Vietnam. It was so secret, even President Johnson didn’t know what was happening. This study, which covered the entire history of the conflict going back to World War II, would later be called the Pentagon Papers. They were looking for researchers who had expertise in Vietnam, so they asked Ellsberg to help write it. He didn’t have to help plan the war anymore. Now we could write about why it all went wrong.
Daniel Ellsberg: I was still thinking of this as something that we’d had a right to do and might be doing again somewhere. And obviously, we had not been successful, so the question was what could we learn from our past experience?
Michael Corey: While he worked on the study, Ellsberg was still seeing top secret communications about the war. And one day in 1968, he saw a memo from Commanding General William Westmoreland that raised his deepest fears.
Daniel Ellsberg: I knew there was a possibility of their using nuclear weapons that was being discussed in the White House, and I also knew that Westmoreland was asking for a couple hundred thousand more men basically to invade North Vietnam, which would bring the Chinese in, which would mean nuclear war.
Michael Corey: Ellsberg showed the top secret memo to Senator Bobby Kennedy, who was running for President. He didn’t think he was out of bounds here. After all, Kennedy had been Attorney General for his brother, JFK, so clearly, he had security clearances. A few days later, a story about the troop request showed up in the New York Times. Someone had leaked it. Ellsberg says it wasn’t him, and he doesn’t know who it was. But the story blew up, and Democrats in Congress started openly turning against Johnson’s war escalation. This got Ellsberg thinking about the power of leaks. Could leaks slow down the war?
Daniel Ellsberg: My idea was one a day, so that the President would know that somebody with very high access, which I had at that time, was leaking.
Michael Corey: He thought that if Johnson did decide to escalate the war again, he probably wouldn’t tell the American people how many troops he really wanted.
Daniel Ellsberg: That’s what he had done for three years at this point, lied every time about what he was actually sending. This time, he would know that somebody who knew what he was doing was going to leak it, and he couldn’t do it secretly. That was my idea.
Michael Corey: Ellsberg had spent years in the inner circle of government secrets, but now the patriotic cold warrior went rogue.
Daniel Ellsberg: So for the first time now, I break my promise, not my oath of office, but my contractual promises not to reveal secrets.
Michael Corey: That’s important to understand. Secrecy was an article of faith to Ellsberg and everyone he worked with, but he decided now that secrecy wasn’t his highest duty.
Daniel Ellsberg: Every member of Congress, every member of the armed services, every officer in the armed services, and every official in the executive branch takes the same oath, and it’s not an oath to the President, and it’s not even an oath to secrecy. It’s an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Michael Corey: So in 1968, a full three years before the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg staged his first real leak. He gave New York Times journalist, Neil Sheehan, a report claiming that the US had Viet Cong and other communist troops on the run across the country. General Westmoreland had written this report for the White House at the end of the year. Problem is, it was totally wrong. Just a couple of weeks later, the communists suddenly attacked military command posts all over South Vietnam in the Tet Offensive. Not bad for a force that was supposedly all but defeated.
Daniel Ellsberg: So I leaked Westmoreland’s year-end report, “Top secret. Eyes only for the President,” saying that we have emptied South Vietnam of the Viet Cong.
Michael Corey: Westmoreland was removed from command the next day. Leaking, it turned out, could work. Though Ellsberg was still running in elite national security circles, he started meeting anti-war activists and even hanging out at peace rallies. He was leading a double life, peace activist and top secret military researcher.
Daniel Ellsberg: You’ve asked what, in my understanding, changed. In the summer of 1969, I read the earliest parts of the Pentagon Papers, which I had put off till last on the assumption that they were least relevant. In a way, that part had more effect on me than anything else because it made the effort seem illegitimate from the start.
Michael Corey: Now, here’s more history I didn’t learn in high school. I learned, and maybe you did too, that America got into Vietnam to stop communists in the north from taking over the Democratic and independent South Vietnam. We were stopping aggression, right? Well, not exactly.
Vietnam had been a French colony before World War II. Then in 1945, the Vietnamese declared independence. No north, no south, one country. That lasted for about two seconds. The French want their former colony back and asked the US for help. But Americans aren’t ready to do that. “Colonialism’s dying, let it go.” But then in 1949, China falls to the communists. Could Vietnam just south of the border be next? Suddenly, the US is ready to help the French, and starts pouring in money and supplies.
Daniel Ellsberg: So when I looked at that, and I read that history, and I said, “This isn’t in the American ideals or the spirit. We’re against empire. We’re against colonialism.”
Michael Corey: To Ellsberg, that meant the war was illegitimate from the beginning. He believed Americans should never have been there, and that meant all the people killed on both sides were not casualties of war.
Daniel Ellsberg: The unjustified homicide seemed to me murder, and a process of murder that was still going on. I wasn’t interested just in setting the record straight or putting out history or something. I was interested in educating people to the need to stop this war.
Michael Corey: Around the same time, Ellsberg learned something else that pushed him into action. The new president, Richard Nixon, wasn’t actually going to deescalate the war. Nixon wanted leverage for peace talks, and he decided a secret expansion of US bombing would be the way to get it.
Ellsberg didn’t know it at the time, but Nixon was even considering a nuclear attack in Vietnam. Nixon talked about it with his advisor, Henry Kissinger, in a real Dr. Strangelove moment that actually happened. This recording is from 1972 after the Pentagon Papers were leaked, but it gives you a sense of where Nixon’s head was at. The tape is super scratchy, but Ellsberg knows it by heart.
Richard Nixon: [inaudible]
Daniel Ellsberg: He said, “You know, oh, Henry, I’d use a nuclear bomb. Got that Henry?” Kissinger would say, “Well, Mr. President, I think that would be just too much.” Too much, Henry? That’s too big. I just want you to think big, for Christ’s sake.”
Richard Nixon: I just want you to think big Henry, for Christ’s sake.
Michael Corey: It occurred to Ellsberg that the files in his top secret safe at work, the Pentagon Papers, might be a weapon to use against the war if he could get them to the public.
Daniel Ellsberg: I felt, “I have here thousands of pages of documentation of murder. Maybe I can convince people that it’s still going on.” So I asked my friend, Tony Russo, if he knew where there was a Xerox machine.
Michael Corey: Keep in mind in 1970, a Xerox machine was high-end technology. It wasn’t like everyone just had one, but it turned out Tony’s girlfriend did have one at her advertising agency.
Daniel Ellsberg: So we started that night to, I took the papers out from my safe, and began copying them. And I did that really for most of the next year.
Michael Corey: He didn’t just copy the papers once. He made a bunch of copies and handed them out to friends to hang onto, in case he was ever arrested. He was also showing bits of the papers to historians, think tanks, and pretty soon, reporters. He called his old contact at the New York Times, Neil Sheehan, and told him what he had.
Daniel Ellsberg: And I didn’t think the Times would do it at that point. Neil Sheehan had actually told me in the fall of ’70 that he’d been taken off Vietnam Affairs.
Michael Corey: But if Ellsberg could get him a full copy, Sheehan would try to keep looking into it on the side. Eventually, Sheehan persuaded him to hand over all 7,000 pages.
Daniel Ellsberg: He kept telling me that. He says, “No, they’re not interested. This is back burner as far as they’re concerned.” But I want to keep at it, working at it, so that eventually, I’ll be able to do something with it.
Michael Corey: It turns out the story was definitely not on the back burner. The New York Times was actually putting together a small secret team on the Pentagon Papers. And that’s where Rosey Rosenthal gets pulled back into the story. Remember he was a 22-year-old, editorial assistant at the paper when he got that call from a Times editor.
Robert Rosentha…: And he said, “I want you to come to room 1111 at the Hilton Hotel tomorrow. Don’t tell anybody where you’re going, and bring enough clothes for a month or more.” And I basically said, “Who is this?” And he said, “I’m serious.” Because I had no idea. It was a strange phone call.
Daniel Ellsberg: So you stayed at the Hilton?
Robert Rosentha…: Yeah, I slept in a room with two huge filing cabinets that had thousand… I slept with the Pentagon Papers.
Daniel Ellsberg: How many other people were doing what you were doing?
Robert Rosentha…: The whole team was probably, when the time it got finished, over 20. There was tremendous amount of pressure and a sense that any moment, that the FBI could come in and grab everything and arrest everybody.
Michael Corey: The Times decided to do more than just report about what was in the documents. They wanted people to be able to read the Pentagon Papers for themselves. Back then, the only way to get the documents to the public was to print them verbatim. And that’s what the Times was planning to do. It would look like a wall of black text, almost no ads, for page, after page, after page. The New York Times was about to air out the dirty laundry of four presidents, and no one knew what would happen.
Robert Rosentha…: It was an amazingly elaborate process. They had to set up another room and built a room within the Times to set the type secretly. Actually, they didn’t want any of the union people to do it, so they took foremen and managers to set the type secretly.
Michael Corey: Ellsberg didn’t know any of this was happening until he got a call on a Saturday afternoon from a Times editor who wasn’t on the project. Ellsberg had shown him part of the study, and the editor was planning on using some of it in a book.
Daniel Ellsberg: He said, “Well, that study you told me about, they have the whole study now.” I said, “Oh, really?” And he said, “They’re coming out with it, and the building is locked up. They have private police around here to check everybody who comes in and out because they’re afraid of an injunction.” I said, “Oh, really?”
Michael Corey: This was especially interesting news to Ellsberg because he happened to have a full copy of the papers in his apartment. He usually kept copies spread out in empty apartments or with friends he could trust. If the FBI happened to stop by on this day, he’d be caught red-handed.
Daniel Ellsberg: So I hang up the phone, and I call Neil Sheehan. Neil is not available. So…
Robert Rosentha…: Do you know who you talked to?
Daniel Ellsberg: Hmm?
Robert Rosentha…: Do you know who you talked to at the Times?
Daniel Ellsberg: No, no. I forget. Wait, were you?
Michael Corey: Spoiler alert. It was Rosey.
Robert Rosentha…: I answered the phone at the foreign desk, and it was about four o’clock maybe on a Saturday afternoon.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, right.
Robert Rosentha…: The tension in the newsroom was incredible because of, you know.
Daniel Ellsberg: Coming out that night.
Robert Rosentha…: Paper was coming out in the Bulldog, the early edition, and we were worried still that the feds would come in and stop it. The presses were literally about to start rolling, and I answered the phone, and I hear the voice said, “Is Neil Sheehan there? I have to speak to him. It’s urgent, urgent. I need him. Where is he?” And you were intense on the phone. I didn’t know who it was. And I said, “Who is this?” And you said, “It’s Daniel Ellsberg.” And I said, “Well, hold on.” And I put my hand over the phone, and I turned to two of the editors right there, and I said, “It’s some guy.”
Daniel Ellsberg: Was Neil there?
Robert Rosentha…: No.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.
Robert Rosentha…: He was back at the Hilton. I said, “It’s some guy who really sounds like he has to talk to Sheehan. He said his name is Daniel Ellsberg. And the two editors went white in the face, and they looked at each other, and one of them said, “It’s the source.”
Michael Corey: The editors waved their arms back at Rosey, “Get rid of the guy!”
Robert Rosentha…: And I said, “I don’t know. I’ll tell him you called.” I think I probably said, “I don’t know where he is,” and…
Daniel Ellsberg: Okay.
Robert Rosentha…: …hung up.
Daniel Ellsberg: So Neil is not available, so I then pick up the phone and call Howard Zinn, who I was going to see that night to go see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid for the fourth time or something for me. I’d given Howard about 1000 pages of it and Noam Chomsky about 1000, as historians, you know, for their interest. They were keeping it under their bed.
Michael Corey: And this next part makes you wonder, “What was he thinking?”
Daniel Ellsberg: So I said, “Howard, I’ve got to store some more stuff with you. The FBI may come any minute.” I said, “Let me come by your place, and I want to drop something off.” So somebody else also had given me a lit of grass.
Michael Corey: A lit of grass, that’s about an ounce of marijuana.
Daniel Ellsberg: And I thought, “Okay, they’re going to come any minute here.” So we took the lit of grass there, and I gave Howard the stuff, and then we smoked as much as we could and flushed the rest down the toilet.
Michael Corey: Yeah. So while Ellsberg was dodging the FBI in a movie theater, baked and watching Butch Cassidy, the presses were rolling for the Sunday paper.
Al Letson: It’s June 13th, 1971, and just past midnight, the first edition hits the street. The team at the New York Times is huddled, wondering what comes next. At the White House, President Nixon will wake up to get a briefing he didn’t expect.
Richard Nixon: Okay, nothing else of interest in the world?
General Alexand…: Yes, sir. Very significant. This God damn New York Times exposé of…
Al Letson: Next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
It’s June 13th, 1971. A team of journalists has been working in secret out of hotel rooms for weeks. It’s a Sunday morning, and the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, hits newsstands. Americans are about to learn much of what they’ve been told about the war is a lie. Our former colleague, Michael Corey, picks up the story, which first aired in May of 2016.
Michael Corey: At the New York Times, everyone was waiting for the hammer to drop. Robert Rosey Rosenthal remembers wondering, “Would the FBI swoop in and confiscate the documents? Would they all get arrested?”
Robert Rosentha…: Nothing happened that Sunday. I remember being in the Hilton with Neil Sheehan and all the reporters Sunday, New York Times, and nothing was happening, and they were bummed. We were all bummed.
Michael Corey: You might expect that at the White House, Nixon was blowing his stack over this. You’d be wrong. Thanks to all those secret recordings Nixon made, we know exactly what he was thinking. Here he is talking on the phone that Sunday to General Alexander Haig. Just a note, there’s some salty language in some of these tapes.
Richard Nixon: Okay. Nothing else of interest in the world?
General Alexand…: Yes, sir. Very significant. This God damn New York Times exposé of the most highly classified documents of the war.
Richard Nixon: Oh, that. I see. I didn’t read the story, but you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?
General Alexand…: This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I’ve seen.
Richard Nixon: Well, what’s being done about it then? I mean, I didn’t…
General Alexand…: Well, I called…
Richard Nixon: Did we know this was coming out?
General Alexand…: No, we did not, sir.
Richard Nixon: Yeah, now I’d just start right at the top, and fire some people. I mean, whatever department it came out of, I’d fire the top guy.
General Alexand…: Yes, sir.
Michael Corey: So no, he’s not happy. But for Nixon, this is more than a little tame. And what he hears next is interesting.
General Alexand…: But it’s something that it’s a mixed bag. It’s a tough attack on Kennedy. It shows that the genesis of the war really occurred during ’61.
Richard Nixon: Yeah, that’s Clifford. I see.
General Alexand…: And it’s brutal on President Johnson. They’re going to end up in a massive gut fight in the Democratic Party on this thing.
Richard Nixon: Are they?
Michael Corey: See, Nixon kind of likes the idea that the New York Times is giving the Democrats trouble. This next call is from Monday morning after the Times ran another section of the Pentagon Papers. It’s Nixon with one of his White House aides.
Richard Nixon: Hello.
Aide: It’s Mr. Ehrlichman calling you, sir.
Richard Nixon: Yeah, okay.
Aide: You are.
John Ehrlichman: Thanks. Hello?
Richard Nixon: Yeah.
John Ehrlichman: Mr. President, the Attorney General’s called a couple of times about these New York Times stories, and he’s advised by his people that unless he puts the Times on notice, he’s probably going to waive any right of prosecution against the newspaper. And he is calling now to see if you would approve his putting them on notice before their first edition for tomorrow comes out.
Richard Nixon: Hmm.
John Ehrlichman: I realize there are negatives to this in terms of the vote on the hill. You mean to prosecute the Times?
Richard Nixon: Right? Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the times. My view is to prosecute the God damn pricks that gave it to them.
John Ehrlichman: Yeah, if you can find out who that is.
Richard Nixon: Yeah, I know. I mean, could the Times be prosecuted?
John Ehrlichman: Apparently so.
Richard Nixon: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Well, could he wait one more day? They have one more day after that. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Michael Corey: Next, Nixon calls Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell wants to put the Times on legal notice that they’re violating the law by possessing or publishing the papers. Nixon finally agrees.
Richard Nixon: Well look, as far as the Times is concerned, hell, they’re our enemies. I think we just ought to do it. And anyway…
Michael Corey: As Rosey told me, and Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, the Times was about to learn that they had the White House’s full attention.
Robert Rosentha…: Monday stories came out, and it got some more attention, but it exploded when Attorney General John Mitchell asked the Times not to publish.
Michael Corey: How did he ask the Times?
Robert Rosentha…: It was in a brief telegram in those days, and I happened to be in the room where all the stuff came in, and the teletype machine, “Clack, clack, clack, clack.” And it was a Telex to Punch Sulzberger, a telegram basically requesting ceasing publication because of national security. And that was on Monday, and if you go back and look at the third date…
Daniel Ellsberg: You saw it? You’re the one that saw it coming?
Robert Rosentha…: Yeah, I actually saw it. I ripped it off and ran. I happened to be there, and I ran down to the foreign desk.
Michael Corey: This set off one of the fiercest debates that has probably ever happened inside a newsroom. Should the Times stop, or should they defy the Attorney General of the United States? They needed to consult with Publisher Punch Sulzberger. But at that moment, he was on a plane to London.
Robert Rosentha…: And all the editors went up to his office and kept the line open, and I was literally in the room because I had to hold the phone.
Daniel Ellsberg: Which room?
Robert Rosentha…: The publisher’s office on the 11th floor at the Times because they were waiting to see what he would do.
Daniel Ellsberg: And you were actually there?
Robert Rosentha…: Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg: Geez.
Robert Rosentha…: In the room, and hearing this incredible discussion around what to do.
Daniel Ellsberg: Do you remember anything of the discussion?
Robert Rosentha…: What I recall was a very intense argument, and I kept sitting there going, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here.” I was 22 years old, and I’m listening
Daniel Ellsberg: 22?
Robert Rosentha…: Listening to everything.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, wow.
Robert Rosentha…: And it was real. It was hot again and intense.
Michael Corey: The editors and the paper’s lawyers went back and forth. The Attorney General’s note said they were violating the Espionage Act. That’s serious stuff. “Do we have the right to publish classified documents? What good is freedom of the press if we can’t do this? Well, what good is freedom of the press if the FBI shuts us down? Are we going to take a financial hit? How much will it cost to fight this? What about our reputation? Is this worth it?”
Robert Rosentha…: It was the only time I’ve ever seen a scene that was out of the movies because they had to stop the press… It wasn’t clear what would happen, so they literally stopped the presses.
Daniel Ellsberg: They did stop the presses.
Robert Rosentha…: Well, they hadn’t started, but they delayed them.
Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.
Michael Corey: The paper’s London Bureau Chief, Tony Lewis, was on the other end from a phone booth at the airport, waiting to snag the publisher as soon as he got in. And that’s where one of the most important decisions in the history of journalism got made, inside a phone booth at Heathrow.
Robert Rosentha…: And they were waiting to ask the publisher what he wanted to do, and he ordered. He said, “Let’s publish.”
Michael Corey: The editors crowded into an elevator with Rosey to go tell the newsroom. The Times’ top editor was Abe Rosenthal, who’s no relation to Rosey Rosenthal. But Rosey’s father, who was a prominent journalism professor, had actually gotten Abe his first newspaper job.
Robert Rosentha…: And he’s in the elevator, and he turns around, and he looks at me, and he pokes me in the chest, and he goes, “Don’t ever repeat a word you heard tonight to a living person. Not even your father.” And…
Daniel Ellsberg: Wow.
Robert Rosentha…: And then he came down into the newsroom, and it was quite dramatic, and he put his hand up and said, “We’re going to publish,” and there was literally a cheer.
Michael Corey: On Tuesday, Attorney General John Mitchell was done asking. He went to court and got a temporary restraining order. The Times was now officially banned from publishing the papers until a judge could decide on the case. The Times announced they would abide by the temporary order and stopped publication. But Ellsberg, now very much a wanted man, wasn’t done. Nothing in the temporary order said another newspaper couldn’t publish the papers, so he leaked them again, this time to the Washington Post. The story led the evening news.
News anchor 2: Good evening. The dispute between the government and the press over publication of secret Pentagon documents on the Vietnam War has spread to a second newspaper. The Justice Department late today asked for a federal court order to stop the Washington Post from printing any more information from the documents.
Michael Corey: Now the Post was sidelined, so Ellsberg gave a section to the Boston Globe. Another injunction. Next, they popped up in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Injunction. Then the LA Times, the Night Papers, the Christian Science Monitor.
News anchor 3: The substance of the Pentagon Papers is virtually lost today in the legal process drama that is rapidly turning into a farce.
Michael Corey: The news media was now in full revolt. After enjoining four papers, the Justice Department couldn’t keep up. A new one was popping up as soon as they stopped the last one. More than 20 newspapers eventually published portions of the Pentagon Papers, and once the Supreme Court ruled, the formerly top secret papers which few had even known existed, were now very public.
News anchor 4: Good evening. The Supreme Court said no to the government and yes to the newspapers, voting six to three to let the New York Times and the Washington Post…
News anchor 5: The latest batch of Pentagon Papers shows how deeply the US was involved in Vietnam, even during the Eisenhower administration. For example, by 1958…
News anchor 6: One possible way of dealing with all out Chinese intervention, which was secretly discussed at the time, was with nuclear weapons.
Michael Corey: But after the smoke cleared, Ellsberg figured he had failed.
Daniel Ellsberg: No impact on the war. The war went on.
Robert Rosentha…: Right.
Daniel Ellsberg: It was bigger the next year. The public knew more, and they were even more against the war, but they were already against the war, and that had no effect on Nixon. With the Pentagon Papers alone, nothing.
Michael Corey: And that might have been it, except remember Nixon’s initial reaction to the Pentagon Papers on that first day? How he liked that the leak might make trouble for the Democrats? That was not a fleeting thought. In that first week, while the Times was under the temporary injunction, Nixon takes this idea over the edge. He’s trying to deflect as much of the heat as possible to former President Lyndon Johnson. He wants Johnson to hold a press conference about the Pentagon Papers. Johnson isn’t interested, and Nixon is getting pretty steamed about it. His chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, has an idea.
H. R. Haldeman: The [inaudible] blackmail Johnson on this stuff.
Richard Nixon: What?
Michael Corey: Maybe they could blackmail Johnson.
H. R. Haldeman: You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.
Richard Nixon: Oh.
Michael Corey: Haldeman explains that White House aide, Tom Huston, thinks there might be copies of classified files that would embarrass Johnson at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Richard Nixon: Now you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it.
H. R. Haldeman: But couldn’t we go over… Now Brookings has no [inaudible].
Richard Nixon: I mean it. I want it implemented on a thievery basis. God damn it, get in, and get those files. Go to the state and get it.
Michael Corey: Did you catch that? Nixon says he wants Huston’s plan implemented on a thievery basis. He’s ordering his aide to commit a crime, on tape, by orchestrating a break-in at Brookings. As it turns out, the break-in Nixon asked for doesn’t appear to have ever happened, but this sounds familiar, right? This started in motion a chain reaction.
Robert Rosentha…: So that gave birth to the Plumbers.
Daniel Ellsberg: To the Plumbers. To find out what else I had, and stop me from putting it out.
Michael Corey: If you don’t remember from that history class, the Plumbers were a group of former CIA guys and Nixon loyalists who did illegal work for the President. They famously got arrested while trying to bug Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. But did you ever wonder why they were called the Plumbers? Originally, one of their jobs was to stop and start leaks. And leak number one was the Pentagon Papers.
Ellsberg didn’t know this at the time, of course. He was more worried about preparing for his trial. He figured he’d be spending the rest of his life in prison, and the government was certainly going to try.
News anchor 7: A federal grand jury handed down new indictments today in the case of the Pentagon Papers. The charges were against Dr. Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. The former defense Department Aide could receive a maximum of 115 years in prison and fines up to $120,000.
Michael Corey: So Ellsberg got acquitted, right? Nope, because the trial never got that far.
News anchor 8: In Los Angeles today, federal judge Matt Byrne interrupted testimony at the Pentagon Papers trial with a dramatic announcement. Byrne said he had received a memorandum from the Justice Department, stating that two Watergate conspirators, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, had burglarized the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. ABC’s Dick Schumaker has details.
Dick Schumaker: The judge Matt Byrne read the memo to a shocked courtroom. He said the government didn’t know if any information from the files was communicated to the prosecution. He wants to know if Liddy and Hunt worked for the White House at the time of the alleged crime. The defense held a hurried conference, and they said the burden of proof is now on the government to show Ellsberg hasn’t been compromised. It’s certain there’ll be a motion for a mistrial.
Michael Corey: I bet you thought Nixon resigned because of Watergate, but that’s only sort of true. If the Plumbers had only been caught in the Watergate, yeah, some heads would probably have had to roll, but the burglars didn’t actually have any evidence that implicated the President. But Nixon knew that if investigators got the Plumbers talking, they’d find out about the other illegal operations that the White House had authorized, like the planned burglary at Brookings and the Ellsberg break-in.
Daniel Ellsberg: And so they had to be paid off to keep them quiet and keep them perjuring themselves in front of a grand jury about what other crimes they knew.
Michael Corey: When it comes to Nixon, we all know it was the coverup, not the crimes, that forced him to resign. And the news media followed every twist and turn as the scandals piled up.
News anchor 9: Finally denied a word about the Watergate and other matters. When it was learned today that some of the Watergate conspirators had been involved in illegal actions relating to the Pentagon Papers case, the whole affair took on a new and more sinister air. It began with a comic opera burglary of the Democrats, and then in the past few days, the focus has shifted from the burglary to the much more important question of a possible coverup in the White House itself, a possible obstruction of justice. And now, with word that these men with connections to the White House were engaged in other illegal practices, one frightening question must be asked. What else did they do, and what else are we to learn?
Al Letson: The public would learn enough about Nixon to end his presidency. As for Daniel Ellsberg, the espionage case against him ended in a mistrial. Reveal’s Robert Rosey Rosenthal joins me now. Hey, Rosey.
Robert Rosentha…: Hello, Al.
Al Letson: So this is such an incredible story, a real personal journey for you. And listening to it again just reminds me of what a remarkable man Daniel Ellsberg was.
Robert Rosentha…: He was someone who really, I believe, has one of the more remarkable lives of any American. Not only did he have the genius really, and to be part of a secret world, but then to really see what he believed was not truthful, and step away from that world, and break from, in a sense, his tribe, and reveal injustice and truths that he felt people had to know.
Al Letson: Daniel had a cancer diagnosis in February, and he knew he didn’t have a lot of time left. You two were close. I wanted to ask what kind of things you talked about in his last months.
Robert Rosentha…: Well, in the last conversation I actually had with him on the phone, he actually said he was happy in a way because he sort of knew what he had to do. He had no regrets. And then he said he was busy. I said he had to go out, and I said, “What are you going to go do?” And he said, “I’m going to go see Titanic again.” He wanted to see the movie again. And he also in a way felt liberated from some restraints he had health-wise on what he could eat. I know he was eating bagels and lox, and sweets, and salt. I think he really felt he’d done all he could in his life.
Al Letson: Yeah. Daniel became such a champion for a lot of whistleblowers today. How would you sum up his legacy?
Robert Rosentha…: He used to say courage is contagious, and what he did created a contagion, I think, or a belief that others could follow in his path. And that when you’re inside something, whether it’s the government, corporate world, maybe in your own life, how do you really have the courage and the ability to stand up, and reveal the truth, and take the consequences, good and bad?
Al Letson: Robert Rosenthal is Reveal’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Rosey, thanks so much for talking to me about your friend, Daniel Ellsberg.
Robert Rosentha…: Thank you, Al.
Al Letson: Michael Corey was our lead producer and reporter this week. The show was edited by Kat Snow. This week’s update was produced by Michael Montgomery and edited by Cynthia Rodriguez. Special thanks to Jeffrey Kimball, Ken Hughes, and Luke Nichter, and also Robert Thompson at the National Archives. Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. Victoria Baranetski is our general counsel. Our production managers are Steven Rascone and Zulema Cobb. Score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando “My Man Yo” Arruda. They had help from Claire “C. Note” Mullen and also Brett Simpson. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.