On the night of March 23, 1971, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan excitedly called Max Frankel, the Times’s Washington bureau chief, to give him the news he had been waiting weeks to hear. “I got it all,” Sheehan told Frankel.
Sheehan had just accomplished one of the greatest journalistic coups of the 20th century. He had obtained the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s 7,000-page secret history of the Vietnam War, which revealed that the government had been lying to the American people about the brutal conflict since it began. It was the first mass leak of classified documents in modern American journalism, four decades before WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.
But Sheehan had lied to his source, Daniel Ellsberg, a disillusioned former defense analyst turned whistleblower, to get the documents. He had secretly copied them after he had promised Ellsberg he wouldn’t.
Sheehan confessed to his editors that he had “Xeroxed the materials without permission and the source was unaware that he had done so,” according to a remarkable and previously unpublished 1971 legal memo obtained by The Intercept. When confronted by an anxious Times lawyer, Sheehan insisted that the Pentagon Papers “were not stolen, but copied,” according to the memo.
The long-buried memo contains Sheehan’s contemporaneous and confidential account of his relationship with Ellsberg, as well as Sheehan’s version of events inside the Times as it prepared to publish the Pentagon Papers. It offers an unprecedented, real-time depiction of Sheehan’s actions — including his phone call to Frankel and his admission to his editors that he had lied to his source.
“He Stole Our Glory”
For decades after the Times published the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg quietly seethed about what he saw as the deceitful way he was treated by Sheehan and the newspaper. He was furious when he discovered that Sheehan had lied to him repeatedly, and he remained mystified as to why Sheehan had misled him in ways that Ellsberg felt violated the basic tenets of a reporter-source relationship. To Ellsberg, the lies seemed gratuitous, as when Sheehan told him that the Times hadn’t decided whether it was really interested in the Pentagon Papers, even as Sheehan and other reporters were furiously drafting stories based on the documents that Sheehan had secretly copied. He only found out that Sheehan had been lying to him when he was alerted by someone else at the Times the day before the first Pentagon Papers stories were splashed across the front page of the June 13, 1971, edition.
Sheehan’s behavior has been “a great puzzle for me for 50 years,” Ellsberg said in an interview conducted just months before he died in June at the age of 92. “Why did Neil Sheehan not tell me that the Times was coming out with this stuff?”
In his final months, Ellsberg was eager to talk — at greater length and in far more detail than ever before — about the dramatic backstory of the Pentagon Papers, and especially about his intense and volatile relationship with Sheehan and the newspaper. That relationship is further detailed in the newly unearthed memo, which is historically significant because it is based on confidential conversations between Sheehan and his lawyer in the days immediately after the Pentagon Papers were published.
Mitchell Rogovin, Sheehan’s lawyer in 1971, wrote the 14-page memo describing how Sheehan had obtained the documents, based on Rogovin’s discussions with Sheehan right after the publication of the Pentagon Papers. At the time the memo was drafted, a federal grand jury in Boston was considering whether to indict Sheehan and the Times in connection with the publication of the classified documents. Rogovin wrote the memo for James Goodale, then the Times’s general counsel, while both the Times and Sheehan were fighting the government’s efforts to charge them. The Boston grand jury was disbanded without ever charging Sheehan or the Times, but the memo has survived, buried in legal files, and is only now being made public, long after the deaths of both Sheehan and Rogovin. Goodale mentioned the Rogovin memo and briefly quoted from it in his 2013 memoir, “Fighting for the Press,” but The Intercept is publishing the full document here for the first time.
“In February of 1971 Neil Sheehan was offered what has since been called the ‘Pentagon Papers,’” the memo begins. “His source would make these materials available to the Times if it ‘would handle it properly’ — certain conditions were set forth.” One Times editor told Sheehan that he was trying to obtain “the journalistic hydrogen bomb.”
The Rogovin memo and Ellsberg’s extensive interviews in his final months offer competing views of what happened from the two main protagonists in the Pentagon Papers saga. Along with new interviews with other key figures, they offer a clearer and more nuanced view of the story behind one of the most significant events in American journalism.
One Times editor told Sheehan that he was trying to obtain “the journalistic hydrogen bomb.”
The publication of the Pentagon Papers is the origin story of the modern New York Times in the same way that Watergate is the origin story of the modern Washington Post. The decision to publish the classified documents transformed the Times from a staid centerpiece of the American establishment to a far more aggressive and professional news organization that no longer saw itself solely as a purveyor of official statements and authorized leaks. With the Pentagon Papers, adversarial journalism became the Times’s ambition, rather than just an accidental byproduct of its conventional reportage. The backstory of how the Pentagon Papers ended up at the Times — and particularly the fraught relationships between Ellsberg, Sheehan, and the Times — has never been fully told. That is due in part to the fact that the Times, like most news organizations, has long resisted thoroughly recounting its own history. The newspaper is reluctant to shatter the myths that have grown up around its most famous act of journalism.
That hidden backstory is complicated and messy, and for many years, none of the people involved wanted to speak publicly about what really happened. For his part, Ellsberg was happy that the Times actually published the documents, and he forgave Sheehan for his lies, even though he did not quite forget them.
Despite his age, Ellsberg’s memory was sharp during interviews conducted near the end of his life both for The Intercept and for my book, “The Last Honest Man,” as he recounted the stunning story behind the historic leak, one that revealed his risk-taking and persistence as he stubbornly navigated the analog world of the late 1960s and early 1970s to reveal government secrets. Ellsberg did this in an era of rigid orthodoxy, when the idea of revealing classified material was considered heresy and terrified every political leader in Washington, even those deeply opposed to the Vietnam War. The defining moment in Ellsberg’s life came when he finally succeeded in getting the story out and found himself at the center of a political firestorm sparked by the first mass leak of classified documents by a whistleblower in American history.
Ultimately, Ellsberg became an iconic figure, an activist for democracy and press freedom; his fame was enhanced by the Nixon administration’s decision to prosecute him for leaking the Pentagon Papers, followed by the revelation of the burglary of his psychiatrist’s office by the infamous White House Plumbers, which led to the dismissal of his legal case and was a precursor to the Watergate scandal. Yet his prominence only served to worsen his ragged relationship with the Times, which didn’t want to share the spotlight with its source.
For decades after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Times distanced itself from Ellsberg. The newspaper’s identity and status became so wrapped up in the groundbreaking stories that some at the paper were angry that Ellsberg’s fame overshadowed the Times’s and diluted the credit they thought was due the newspaper for its decision to publish the documents.
“He stole our glory,” Goodale said in an interview.
An Accidental Source
At first, Daniel Ellsberg didn’t intend to go to the press. For the man who would be remembered as one of the greatest sources in the history of American journalism, the press was a last resort.
Before he became a world-famous rebel, Ellsberg was in the process of building a blue-chip career that easily could have taken him to the top of the American establishment. Born in Chicago in 1931, Ellsberg grew up in Detroit, went to Harvard, and served as an officer in the Marines before joining the RAND Corporation, an influential defense-oriented think tank, where he worked as an analyst focusing on nuclear strategy. He earned a doctorate in economics, specializing in decision theory, and by 1964, he was a staffer at the Pentagon under the ultimate technocrat, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He later spent two years in South Vietnam working under Gen. Edward Lansdale, who tried and failed to apply the counterinsurgency and psychological warfare tactics he had used in the Philippines in the 1950s to the Vietnam War. His time in Vietnam convinced Ellsberg that the murderous war could not be won.
After returning to RAND in 1967, Ellsberg joined other analysts to work on a secret, 47-volume history of the war commissioned by McNamara. To help write the history, Ellsberg gained access to highly classified documents that revealed in stunning detail the deceit at the heart of U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Ellsberg realized that the American people needed to know the truth. He came to believe that exposing the secret history could help end the war. In September 1969, he covertly took a copy of the Pentagon Papers from RAND. Along with his friend Anthony Russo and Russo’s girlfriend, Linda Sinay, Ellsberg began to copy the Pentagon Papers, while trying to decide how best to publicize their findings.
After talking with a lawyer about the odds that he would be prosecuted for leaking the documents, Ellsberg said that he calculated that he was less likely to be charged for giving the papers to a member of Congress than he would be if he gave them to the press. He also believed that congressional hearings would give the Pentagon Papers greater credibility and have a bigger impact than stories in a newspaper.
He first turned to Sen. J. William Fulbright. Ellsberg sought out the Arkansas Democrat in November 1969 because he was the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had led congressional hearings that gave voice to the war’s skeptics. Ellsberg took the risk of providing some of the Pentagon Papers to Fulbright in a meeting with the senator’s staff present. “I wanted them all to witness that [Fulbright] had held some of these papers, so he couldn’t say afterwards, ‘Oh, that was some staff thing’” that the senator didn’t personally know about, Ellsberg recalled in an interview. “So, in front of everybody, I hand him this thing.” Ellsberg gave Fulbright highly classified sections of the Pentagon Papers relating to U.S. diplomacy that he later refused to give Sheehan and the Times because he thought they were too sensitive to be published in a newspaper, according to the Rogovin memo. But after initially expressing interest, Fulbright backed off, fearful of the consequences of going public with stolen classified material. In December 1970, Fulbright finally told Ellsberg he wasn’t going to do anything with the documents.
Ellsberg tried other lawmakers in early 1971, believing that Congress was the safest and most effective place for him to make the Pentagon Papers public, but he was repeatedly rebuffed, including by Sen. George McGovern, the anti-war liberal Democrat from South Dakota who later ran for president; Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin; and Sen. Charles Mathias, a liberal Republican from Maryland.
Ellsberg had naïvely hoped that his efforts to publicize the documents would remain secret even as he was rather recklessly talking to so many different senators. But inevitably, his conversations on Capitol Hill were soon shared. When Ellsberg talked with McGovern again a week after their initial meeting, McGovern told him that he and Nelson had compared notes and found that they were both talking to Ellsberg about the Pentagon Papers. “He tells me he’s talked to Gaylord Nelson,” Ellsberg recalled. McGovern said that when he’d told Nelson about the classified documents he had been offered, Nelson responded: “Was that Ellsberg?”
Discouraged, Ellsberg was having lunch in the Senate cafeteria by himself when he recognized I.F. Stone, the famous independent journalist, sitting at a nearby table. Ellsberg was a fan of Stone. “I recognized [Stone] by his bottle glasses,” Ellsberg recalled. “And so I decided to tell him what I was doing. ‘I have these top-secret documents, the whole history of the war.’” Ellsberg poured out his frustrations to Stone about his inability to get any prominent senator to go public with the Pentagon Papers. “He looked at me, and he did have tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘God bless you for what you’re doing.’”
A Secret Deal
Even as he continued to try to get someone in Congress to take action, Ellsberg turned to a left-wing Washington-based think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. In August 1970, he gave the group about 1,000 pages of the 7,000-page history. One of the organization’s leaders was Marcus Raskin — the father of Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who played a leading role in the House investigation of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Ellsberg agreed to let Marcus Raskin and two others at IPS — Richard Barnet and Ralph Stavins — use the documents for a book they were working on about the Vietnam War, as long as they did so only on background, meaning they wouldn’t acknowledge publicly that they possessed the classified history or quote from it directly.
Without Ellsberg’s knowledge, the IPS researchers gave a copy of the 1,000 pages to Neil Sheehan.
Rep. Jamie Raskin said in an interview that his father gave Sheehan copies of the Pentagon Papers because he was frustrated that Ellsberg was being too cautious and taking too long to make them public. “I recall my dad telling me that he urged Dan to go public as quickly as possible,” Raskin said. “At a certain point my dad decided to share the Pentagon Papers with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan to hasten public exposure of the criminality of the war.”
Without Ellsberg’s knowledge, the researchers gave a copy of the 1,000 pages to Neil Sheehan.
Decades later, Marcus Raskin finally told Ellsberg what had happened: Raskin said that he and the other IPS researchers thought they had secretly reached a deal with Sheehan.
In return for giving the Times the documents, Sheehan had told Raskin and the other IPS researchers that the Times would agree to coordinate the publication of its stories based on the documents with the release of the think tank’s book on Vietnam. In addition, Sheehan agreed to two other conditions: On the same day that the Times published its stories on the documents, it would also publish a review of the think tank’s book and a column by Raskin about U.S. war crimes in Vietnam.
Raskin, Barnet, and Stavins had originally proposed the deal to Sheehan, who said that he would have to check with his editors before he could agree to the conditions. Sheehan later told Raskin and the others that the Times editors had approved the deal, so the IPS researchers gave him the documents.
But the Times did not abide by that deal, and there is no evidence that Sheehan ever actually talked to any of his editors about it.
By the time Raskin and Barnet finally told Ellsberg about their supposed deal with Sheehan, he had long known that the IPS researchers had given Sheehan the documents, and he had been angry for years that they had done so behind his back. But Ellsberg found that they were also bitter over what they saw as Sheehan’s betrayal.
“I learned from Raskin and Barnet, bit by bit, but then, all of it, the story” of what had happened, Ellsberg said. “They gave [the documents] to him, both Raskin and Barnet told me, on a deal that probably no newspaper had ever made, before or since.”
Ellsberg said he was flabbergasted. “‘Jeez,’ I said to Raskin, ‘is there any newspaper that ever made a deal like that?’ And he said, ‘No, but those were our conditions for giving him the stuff.’”
“Raskin was very firm on this point,” Ellsberg said. “He said, ‘Absolutely, we had those conditions, he agreed, and they betrayed us.’”
When he asked why they had not told him about this supposed deal decades earlier, Ellsberg said that Barnet admitted that they had felt humiliated by the entire episode. “I learned this 30 years later,” Ellsberg said. “I said, ‘Dick, how could you not have told me this stuff?’ He said, ‘We were embarrassed. I was embarrassed at the way we treated you.’”
“When he told me the story, Marcus was very angry,” Ellsberg recalled. Sheehan “simply lied to them as a reporter,” Ellsberg said. That was “totally in line with my dealings with Sheehan.” (Marcus Raskin died in 2017, Barnet died in 2004, and Stavins died earlier this year.)
Former New York Times editors who were directly involved in the publication of the Pentagon Papers said in interviews that Sheehan never told them he had agreed to a deal with Raskin and IPS. In fact, they said, they didn’t even know at the time that Sheehan had first obtained a portion of the Pentagon Papers from IPS, rather than from Ellsberg.
“Sheehan never told me he got some of the documents from Raskin and IPS,” said Frankel, Sheehan’s boss when the outlet published the Pentagon Papers and one of the handful of senior editors directly involved in the project. “I never heard of any deal that Sheehan had made with IPS and Raskin. They would have to have been very naïve to believe that Sheehan could make that deal.”
“At the time, I was under the assumption that all 7,000 pages were all from Ellsberg,” added James Greenfield, the Times’s foreign news editor in 1971 and the project manager for the Pentagon Papers.
The Rogovin memo doesn’t provide conclusive answers about Sheehan’s interactions with IPS or reveal exactly what Sheehan told his editors about IPS’s role. The references to IPS in the memo are intriguing, but fragmentary.
On April 2, 1971, according to the memo, Sheehan told Frankel about “the book that IPS was working on and how this could be used as a lever against the source.” That suggests that Sheehan told Frankel that IPS had some of the documents and that he thought he could somehow use that knowledge to pressure Ellsberg to the Times’s advantage. But it doesn’t indicate that he told Frankel that he had obtained those documents from IPS. Later, during an April 21, 1971, meeting with Times editors, Sheehan mentioned “the involvement of the Institute for Policy Studies,” but the memo doesn’t say whether Sheehan said anything more about IPS than what he had previously told Frankel, whom the memo shows also attended the meeting. The memo’s final reference to IPS indicates that at some point not long before the Pentagon Papers were published, Sheehan arranged for a Times secretary to travel from New York to Washington “to deliver some materials” to Sheehan’s wife. Susan Sheehan then “in turn, gave them to IPS,” the memo states. It seems likely that after he obtained the full set of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, Sheehan asked his wife to return the portion of the Pentagon Papers he had obtained from IPS. But it is not clear from the memo whether anyone else at the Times knew that’s what he was doing.
Susan Sheehan said in an interview that she doesn’t recall the episode involving her and the delivery of materials to IPS that is described in the memo. She also said that she doesn’t recall any sort of deal between her husband and the IPS researchers, adding that they all remained on good terms after the Pentagon Papers were published.
Yet it is easy to see why Neil Sheehan might not have been completely forthcoming with his editors about the role of IPS. At the time, Raskin, Barnet, Stavins, and other IPS researchers were considered wild-eyed leftist activists by the Washington establishment, and Times management might have been concerned if they had known that some of the documents were coming from the group.
“They did not want to be associated with IPS,” Ellsberg said.
In early 1971, Raskin, Barnet, and Stavins met with Ellsberg and urged him to meet with Sheehan. Ellsberg, frustrated by the failure of his other plans for making the documents public, agreed.
“They Won’t Let Me Cover Vietnam”
By the time they began to discuss the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg and Sheehan had known each other for several years. Ellsberg said in an interview that he had secretly leaked some information to Sheehan for a story about Vietnam in 1968; they met again two years later at a dinner party hosted by Tony Lake, a former aide to Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Lake had recently resigned from Kissinger’s staff in response to the June 1970 invasion of Cambodia. (Lake later served as national security adviser for President Bill Clinton.)
At the time of the dinner in the fall of 1970, Sheehan was working as a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Times. He had spent years in Vietnam covering the war, first for UPI and later for the Times, and had gained a stellar reputation; along with Times reporter David Halberstam, Sheehan had been among the first American reporters to write skeptical stories about the war.
But at the dinner, Sheehan seemed adrift. He told Ellsberg he was frustrated with the Times, complaining that he couldn’t get the newspaper’s editors interested in the stories he wanted to write about the ongoing war, Ellsberg recalled. Sheehan told Ellsberg that the paper “is done with Vietnam.”
Ellsberg did not mention the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan at the dinner; instead, he came away from their conversation convinced that the Times would not be interested in them. Sheehan “says, ‘They won’t let me cover Vietnam. They’ve got me covering other domestic stuff. They’re just not interested.’ And so I had the feeling from that, well, no use giving them top-secret stuff,” Ellsberg said in an interview.
So when Raskin and the other IPS researchers later recommended that Ellsberg meet with Sheehan — still not revealing that they had already given the reporter a portion of the documents — Ellsberg was skeptical. “I had lunch or dinner with Stavins and Raskin and Barnet, and they say I should put this out in the New York Times,” Ellsberg recalled. “And they say, ‘Do you know Neil Sheehan?’ I say, ‘Yes,’ but that I had gotten the impression from him that [the Times] are not … promising. And they say, ‘We think you ought to try him again.’”
“I wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t suggested it.”
“You Have Clearance”
Early in 1971, Ellsberg came to Washington for dinner with some friends. He was planning to stay with his friend John Paul Vann, whom he knew from Vietnam, where Vann had served as a senior civilian adviser. But Ellsberg couldn’t find Vann that night, so he called Sheehan to see if he could spend the night at his house. (Sheehan later wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Bright Shining Lie,” about Vann and his role in Vietnam.)
Sheehan set up a cot for Ellsberg in his basement, and they stayed up all night talking about Vietnam. Sheehan showed Ellsberg the galleys of a review he had written for the Times of books about American war crimes there. “He said, ‘I’m having a lot of trouble with the editors on this,’” Ellsberg recalled. “I read it in his D.C. basement. Very good! This is very good stuff. So I thought, ‘OK, he’s the guy.’”
So that night, Ellsberg began to tell Sheehan about the Pentagon Papers. “And I mention to him that Dick Barnet and Marcus Raskin had suggested [that I talk to him], and I told him that I had given [the documents] to IPS. He said, ‘I had some inkling that IPS had some of this material, I have heard of it before.’ He didn’t admit at all that they had given [him] any” of the documents.
Ellsberg offered to show Sheehan the Pentagon Papers, and Sheehan agreed to come to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ellsberg was then living, to read them.
“He could have told me, ‘I’ve got some of this already, and we’re going with it,’” Ellsberg said. “He didn’t tell me. He didn’t say he had it, or that they were going full speed with the 1,000 pages.”
“Around March 3, 1971,” Sheehan first told his editors at the Times about the possibility of “publishing the D.O.D.’s history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War,” the Rogovin memo states. A few days later, the memo adds, James Reston, the legendary Times Washington columnist and editor, “walked up to Neil as he was entering the elevator and told him ‘You have clearance, young man.’”
On March 13, at the Gridiron Club dinner, an annual gathering of politicians and journalists in Washington, Frankel “called Jim Goodale aside and told him to read the law on classified documents because they might have a story involving a lot of classified documents,” the memo states.
About two weeks after their all-night talk in Washington, Sheehan went to Cambridge to read through the full set of the Pentagon Papers. But Ellsberg imposed some conditions on the reporter. He told Sheehan that he didn’t want him to just write a quick daily story based on the documents, but instead wanted the Times to do a big, deep dive into the secret history. “I don’t want it to be a one-day story,” Ellsberg recalled telling Sheehan. He said he wanted the Times to “give a lot of space to it.” Ellsberg said in an interview that he didn’t want to go to prison for a news story that came and went without much impact.
Frankel told Sheehan that the Times would probably go along with that demand, according to the Rogovin memo. “We might well take it under the conditions your source wants, i.e. using it all or very large chunks. We’re very interested,” Frankel said, according to the memo.
But Ellsberg’s other big condition was more difficult. He told Sheehan that he could read the documents — but not make copies. “You can read as much as you want, you can take notes as much as you need, but I’m asking you not to copy them until we have an agreement, an interest at the Times” in publishing stories about them, Ellsberg recalled telling Sheehan. “Because I had gotten the impression from Neil earlier that they were very unlikely to print this top-secret stuff.”
By that time, Ellsberg had discovered to his horror that IPS had copies of the Pentagon Papers openly lying around “all over the place” in its Washington office. He feared that if he let Sheehan copy the documents before the Times had agreed to publish stories about them, they might wind up lying around openly at the newspaper as well, and that someone might discover them there and call the FBI. So Ellsberg wanted an assurance from Sheehan that the Times was serious about publishing before he agreed to let him copy the documents. Sheehan wouldn’t give him that assurance and in fact, misled him into thinking that the Times was still on the fence.
“I said, ‘I don’t want this stuff sitting around the Times indefinitely,’” Ellsberg said he told Sheehan. “‘If they are really interested and think they would like to use them, you got it, you got the whole thing.’ He wouldn’t tell me that. He never did. He could have said, ‘Yes, they intend to do it.’ They were already working on it. He didn’t tell me that. He lied.”
When Sheehan arrived in Cambridge, Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, were frazzled and burned out by an unexpected development. While they had waited for Sheehan to arrive, Ellsberg had met with Tom Oliphant, a reporter for the Boston Globe, and mentioned the Pentagon Papers. Oliphant quickly wrote a story in the Globe about the secret history, which thus became the first news story disclosing the documents’ existence. When he read the Globe story, Ellsberg panicked. Even though he had not leaked the papers to the Globe, he feared that the story might convince the government that he was about to leak them to the press.
In an interview, Oliphant said that Ellsberg’s recollection about his story for the Globe was accurate, adding that the response he got to his story suggests that Ellsberg was right to worry about the government. “The day after my story ran, I was contacted by Kissinger’s office,” Oliphant recalled. “They wanted multiple copies of it.”
“Patricia and I started making more copies, literally without sleep. … For five or six days, we had hardly any sleep, waiting for the FBI.”
Ellsberg and his wife worked around the clock to make as many copies of the documents as they could. “Patricia and I started making more copies, literally without sleep. … We start putting them in more places around Harvard Square” in the apartments of people Ellsberg trusted. “For five or six days, we had hardly any sleep, waiting for the FBI,” he recalled. When Sheehan arrived, Ellsberg was jittery and off-kilter.
“Looking back, I knew he regarded me somehow as kind of wild,” Ellsberg said. “Patricia and I hadn’t slept for a week, and we were both on caffeine.” What’s more, when Ellsberg showed Sheehan the Globe story, “he seemed scared.” With Ellsberg talking openly about the Pentagon Papers to another reporter, Sheehan may have feared that his source was out of control.
Ellsberg then made a puzzling decision. He went on vacation and left Sheehan with a key to the apartment in Cambridge where the Pentagon Papers were stored, telling Sheehan he could continue reading them while Ellsberg was gone. “I gave the key to Neil and said, ‘Neil, I’m counting on you not to copy this. Just, you know, you can make notes, but no Xerox.’ And he says, ‘Absolutely, absolutely, no problem.’”
On their vacation, Ellsberg recalled, his wife told him: “He’ll copy it.” “And I said, ‘I don’t think so, he promised me he wouldn’t.’”
But that is exactly what Sheehan did.
“On March 20 or 21st, Neil called [Times editor] Bill Kovacs and asked him to obtain a Xeroxer for him,” under an assumed name and to “get money from New York to pay for reproduction,” the Rogovin memo states. “The following day, when Kovacs brought [$400] to Neil, he was told in very general terms why Neil was in Boston.”
On the night of March 23, Sheehan made his call to Frankel to tell him he “got it all,” according to the Rogovin memo. The next day, Sheehan met with his editors in Washington and “told them what he had and why he had handled it the way he did. Neil stressed his obligation to protect his source.”
Frankel asked Sheehan to write a memo “on what the materials contained and how the stories might be written.” Sheehan gave him the memo on March 28, which Frankel delivered to the newspaper’s top brass. Frankel told Sheehan that “New York was excited.”
Weeks before the Times published the Pentagon Papers, Sheehan called Ellsberg and told him that the Times had still not decided whether it was interested in the documents. “He phoned me from New York,” Ellsberg recalled. “He said, ‘They have not made a decision, they are waffling on this.’ False.”
Ellsberg recalled that Sheehan then told him that “‘they have me working on other things, but I want to be ready to use it if they ever do make a decision on this, so I want to continue to read it, so I need a copy for that.’”
That was when Ellsberg finally agreed to let Sheehan copy the Pentagon Papers, telling him to go to Patricia’s New York apartment, where he had stored a copy. Ellsberg said he would arrange for the doorman at the apartment building to let Sheehan in.
“I said, ‘All right, you can have a copy.’ I said to him, ‘When I give you a copy, I understand it is out of my hands. I know I don’t have any control over it.’”
Ellsberg recalled that the phone conversation was in April 1971, but Rogovin’s memo states that “on May 27th Neil’s source gave him ‘official permission’ to possess the papers.”
(While the memo never mentions Ellsberg by name in order to protect his identity, it is clear that whenever Sheehan talks about the “source,” he is referring to Ellsberg. In the memo, Sheehan described the “source” as someone who had “seen a number of senators in an effort to have them publicly reveal the content of the papers but to date had been unsuccessful.”)
When Ellsberg gave Sheehan permission to copy the documents, Ellsberg still didn’t know that Sheehan had long since done so.
When Ellsberg gave Sheehan permission to copy the documents, Ellsberg still didn’t know that Sheehan had long since done so, or that Sheehan and other reporters and editors were holed up at a New York hotel writing stories about them. Based on what Sheehan told him, Ellsberg still believed that the Times wasn’t interested in the documents, so he kept searching for other ways to make them public, even after he told Sheehan to go to Patricia’s apartment to pick up a set of the papers.
Why did Sheehan take the risk that Ellsberg would find another outlet for the documents, Ellsberg wondered, decades later. “If he’d said, ‘Dan, I have to tell you, I have a copy of it,’ I would have said, ‘You know, OK, fine,’” Ellsberg said, just so long as the Times was committed to writing about the secret history.
In fact, the Rogovin memo shows that the Times was worried that Ellsberg was still distributing the documents to other people, and that other news organizations might soon get them. As it scrambled to publish its stories, the Times discovered that Ellsberg had given some documents to Rep. Pete McCloskey, a liberal, anti-war Republican from California, and Times editors feared that McCloskey would give the documents to the Los Angeles Times, according to the Rogovin memo. To determine McCloskey’s plans, Bob Phelps, an editor in the New York Times’s Washington bureau, met with the politician, who promised that “he would not turn over what he had to another paper,” the memo states.
While Sheehan tried to keep Ellsberg at bay and the Times prepared to publish the documents, the newspaper was grappling with other problems.
The Times editors felt they had to be careful in choosing which reporters to bring onto the project to work with Sheehan, according to the Rogovin memo. “The people selected were picked for competence and loyalty,” the memo states. “One reporter was rejected because his wife was a ‘peacenik,’ he wasn’t considered discreet and she might talk.”
The reporters and editors worked in secret in the New York Hilton, which was chosen after the editors rejected proposals to move the operation to either Tarrytown, New York, or Charlottesville, Virginia, according to the memo. By late April, they had two copies of the Pentagon Papers at the hotel, where the Times had also moved typewriters, filing cabinets, a safe, and other supplies. A third copy of the papers was stored at Greenfield’s apartment after Goodale insisted that none of the copies be kept inside the Times building, according to the memo. “During the next month work began, additional people joined the Hilton group and the pressure to meet deadlines started to build,” the Rogovin memo says.
But even as the Times built a large Pentagon Papers team, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the Times publisher known by his nickname, Punch, still hadn’t given his final approval to publish. He was under pressure from some Times executives, as well as the paper’s outside law firm, which strongly urged against any publication at all, even of stories about the documents, according to Goodale, Greenfield, and Frankel. (The outside firm, Lord Day & Lord, dropped the Times as a client right after the publication of the Pentagon Papers.)
Sulzberger was especially hesitant about publishing the actual documents. “He tried to split the baby in half, and only publish stories without publishing the documents,” recalled Frankel in an interview. “We said that you have to publish the documents to provide strong evidence of what the Pentagon was thinking. He finally agreed, after I made it clear to him that there were no real secrets in these papers. They were policy studies, not military secrets.” Punch Sulzberger died in 2012. His son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who succeeded him and served as publisher until 2018, declined to comment for this story.
In the end, Punch Sulzberger agreed with his editors. The Rogovin memo states that “by June 6 Neil finished his second piece [in the Pentagon Papers series] … around that time Greenfield came over to report on the publisher’s decision regarding publication.”
“The Place Is Locked Down”
On Saturday, June 12, 1971, Ellsberg got a call from Tony Austin, who worked on the New York Times Magazine. Ellsberg had given Austin the volume of the Pentagon Papers that dealt with the Gulf of Tonkin incident for a book Austin was writing. In August 1964, when U.S. Navy ships ventured into North Vietnamese territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Lyndon Johnson misled Congress about the North Vietnamese response, particularly about a second purported North Vietnamese attack against the U.S. ships that didn’t happen. Johnson then used the trumped-up incident to win Congressional passage of what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which became Johnson’s justification to dramatically escalate the war by sending in conventional combat forces.
“So on Saturday, June 12, I get a call from Tony Austin, and he’s almost in tears,” recalled Ellsberg. “He says, ‘Dan, my book is ruined. You know that study you gave me? They have the whole study, and they are going to publish starting tonight. They are totally going to scoop my book.’”
“I asked him how he knew what the Times was planning. He says, ‘The place is locked down.’”
Ellsberg had not heard anything from Sheehan. He tried to call but couldn’t reach him. Sheehan later confessed that he was avoiding Ellsberg.
But Ellsberg did reach Greenfield that day. “He got me on the phone, and he expressed some doubts about what was happening,” Greenfield recalled. “He seemed rattled.”
“I said, ‘It’s too late now. It’s all in print.’”
“At 6 p.m. June 12th, the presses began rolling,” the Rogovin memo states.
That night in Cambridge, Ellsberg, his wife, and some friends smoked marijuana and went to see the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” “We got stoned out of our minds to see ‘Butch Cassidy’ for about the fourth time, and it was most enjoyable,” Ellsberg recalled. After the movie, he went to the kiosk in Harvard Square where the early editions of the next morning’s New York Times were on sale.
“Of course, I’m furious at Neil for not telling me. But when I go and there is the paper at midnight, wow, great, all is forgiven, you know, no problem.”
Months later, Ellsberg ran into Sheehan walking on Fifth Avenue in New York. It was the first time they had spoken since the Pentagon Papers had been published. “So we go into a doorway, and I grill him a little bit,” Ellsberg said. “And he said, ‘Dan, it was bigger than both of us, you know, I had to do what I had to do,’” Ellsberg recalled.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
After Neil Sheehan died in 2021, the Times published an interview he had done with the paper six years earlier on the condition that it not be released until after his death. In it, Sheehan acknowledged that he had kept Ellsberg at arm’s length because he didn’t think he could trust him with the knowledge that the Times was going ahead with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Sheehan knew that Ellsberg had already talked to a wide range of people both in Congress and elsewhere about the documents, and that it was only a matter of time before the Nixon administration discovered what Ellsberg was doing. That would lead the government to the Times.
“There’s no way The Times can protect this guy,” Sheehan told the Times in the interview. Ellsberg had “left tracks on the ceiling, on the walls, everywhere … sooner or later, I was afraid he was going to run into a politician who’d go right to the Justice Department.”
The relationship between Ellsberg and the Times following the publication of the Pentagon Papers was equally messy. In particular, Ellsberg complained that the Times was sloppy in its efforts to protect him as a source. Soon after the newspaper began publishing the Pentagon Papers, Sidney Zion, a freelance writer who had previously worked for the Times, went on a New York radio show and revealed that Ellsberg was the source of the documents. “The only person I had dealt with was Neil Sheehan, and no one else at the paper was supposed to know,” Ellsberg said — a statement at odds with Greenfield’s recollection that Ellsberg called him the day before the documents were published. Zion, who died in 2009, said that Ellsberg’s identity was common knowledge in New York media circles.
More recently, Ellsberg was angered by the 2021 Times story based on the interview with Sheehan. He especially took issue with Sheehan’s claim that “contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never ‘gave’ the papers to The Times. … Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies.” The Rogovin memo shows that account to be inaccurate, since the memo says that Ellsberg ultimately gave Sheehan “permission to possess the papers.”
“Never gave it to them?” Ellsberg said in an interview. “That’s crazy.”
Nixon initially didn’t plan to take any action to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers once it had begun because the secret history was primarily about Vietnam policy during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, rather than his own. But Kissinger convinced Nixon that the leak represented a major national security breach and that the president couldn’t ignore it. So Nixon ordered the Justice Department to seek a court-ordered injunction against further publication by the Times.
On June 14, 1971, the day after the Times began publishing the papers, Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell warned the newspaper to halt further publication of the documents. The Times refused, and the government obtained an injunction. Ellsberg went into hiding, while a small team of his supporters, led by historian Gar Alperovitz, acted quickly to covertly get copies of the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post, which was then hit with an injunction as well. Ellsberg then directed the team to get more documents to an expanding list of other newspapers to try to continue their publication. In the process, they were creating their own version of the internet, trying to make the documents so widely available that the court injunctions would be moot.
Ellsberg turned himself in to face charges in connection with the leak and suddenly became one of the most famous people in America.
On June 28, Ellsberg turned himself in to face charges in connection with the leak, making him the public face of the Pentagon Papers. He was mobbed by reporters in Boston and suddenly became one of the most famous people in America. Two days later, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, lifted the government’s injunction against further publication by the Times and the Post.
For Nixon, the aftereffects of the Pentagon Papers case continued to reverberate. The president became obsessed with leaks and created the infamous White House Plumbers to go after them. In September 1971, the Plumbers broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles to search for material they could use to smear him. The burglary was a precursor to the Watergate break-in a year later, which was also conducted by the White House Plumbers and which led to Nixon’s downfall.
In May 1973, the judge in Ellsberg’s trial in Los Angeles dismissed the government’s case against him after the Justice Department turned over a memo written by the Watergate special prosecutor disclosing the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. (Ironically, Ellsberg learned some of the details of Sheehan’s betrayal during his trial, when Ellsberg’s lawyers obtained notes written by White House Plumber E. Howard Hunt showing that Sheehan and his wife had checked into Cambridge hotels under assumed names and taken the Pentagon Papers to copy shops in Boston and Medford, Massachusetts. The White House Plumbers clearly knew more about what Sheehan was doing than did Ellsberg, who later wrote about Hunt’s notes in his 2002 memoir, “Secrets.”)
The Nixon administration’s obsession with Ellsberg — whom Kissinger called “the most dangerous man in America” — turned Ellsberg into an international icon. His fame lasted the rest of his life, long after the secrets revealed in the Pentagon Papers had faded from memory.
“Why Would They Hate Me?”
Ellsberg waited many years to talk publicly about his relationship with the Times, and even then, he only rarely expressed bitterness toward Sheehan and the newspaper.
After all, the Times had ultimately published the Pentagon Papers, which is what Ellsberg wanted. “I didn’t want to make the Times my enemy,” he said. In fact, he said that after the Pentagon Papers, he eventually reconciled with Sheehan and agreed to be interviewed for his book, “A Bright Shining Lie.” Susan Sheehan said in an interview that over the years after the Pentagon Papers were published, she and her husband developed a good relationship with Ellsberg and his wife.
The Times won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for publishing the Pentagon Papers, but the paper still quietly resented the fact that Ellsberg had garnered so much attention for his role in making the secret history public. Ellsberg said that a Times reporter once told him told him that Abe Rosenthal, the newspaper’s managing editor when the Pentagon Papers were published and later its executive editor, hated Ellsberg. (Rosenthal died in 2006.)
“Why would he hate me?” Ellsberg asked.
“Because you took the story away from the Times,” the reporter replied. “It wasn’t just the Times, it was Ellsberg.”
Correction: October 18, 2023
An earlier version of this story misidentified the political party affiliation of Sen. Charles Mathias. The article has also been updated to include a more detailed description of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.