Monthly Archives: October 2010

By Chris Daly

Senior Analyst


Dear readers of my blog: One thing I have learned from the whole Juan Williams-Fox-NPR dust-up is that you are really nobody in the media commentariat if you do not have a fancy title. And it seems like you are absolutely nobody unless you are called “Senior Analyst.”

Therefore and henceforth, whenever I express any opinions on this site, and whenever I analyze anything (which will be more or less all the time, or else what am I doing here?), I will identify myself as the site’s “Senior Analyst.”

My pay will remain the same, but now I will feel freer to analyze the hell out of whatever comes along. Just so you know.

Full disclosure: I am the “senior” analyst around here not because there are any “junior analysts” running around, but because there is no one above me on the organizational chart. (In fact, luckily for me, there is no boss who can fire me or even tell me to go see my psychiatrist. That is what makes this job different from all other jobs I ever had — in or out of the media.)


This just in: Wow. I just googled NPR to see if Juan Williams is still listed anywhere and to see if I could find his old title, and I notice that in my Google search, the first thing at the top is an ad urging me to “DEFUND NPR” (Yikes! If they are going to follow my advice in my previous post, they better get cracking before it’s too late.) In searching the NPR website, I could not find anything resembling a masthead, which is probably just as well. They usually just breed resentment. Anyway, when I searched the NPR site, the most recent item I could find that mentions Juan Williams going back before last week was on Sept. 28, when he was identified as a plain-ol’ “NPR News Analyst.”

Over on the Fox News website, Williams is pretty easy to find. (He just did a victory lap tonight on O’Reilly.) In the Fox News copy about Williams, he is also identified as a plain “Fox News Analyst,” so at least I outrank him. He will have to console himself with the $2 million contract Fox just gave him (presumably for accomplishing the impossible — making Fox News look more responsible than NPR; actually, maybe it’s not enough).

Hey: Who do I talk to around here about a raise???




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by Chris Daly

The Juan Williams affair has not only exploded throughout the blogosphere, it is already producing echoes. I will stipulate that it is entirely possible that there is nothing to add at this point. That said, I also observe that it is imperative for anyone who comments on the performance of news media to step up and say something about this episode.

So, here goes:

NPR should not wait in fear as Rep. DeMint and other Republicans sharpen their knives to cut the taxpayer-funded portion of NPR’s budget. Estimates of the size of that public subsidy vary, but they all fall within a range that NPR should be able to live without.

As a news organization, NPR should stop taking public funding, period.

In fact, NPR should have done so long ago.

The fact is, no news organization is worth anything unless it is in a position to tell other people — including especially the government — to buzz off. (Michael Kinsley has called this “fuck you” money.) Journalism cannot be done without independence. In the long run, NPR would be far better off by freeing itself from any taxpayer funding.

The company should probably change its name, too. They could save money in the transition if they just called themselves something like Non-Profit Radio, or NPR. Has a nice familiar ring to it.

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Is the iPad magic?

Here is a characteristically thoughtful, original essay by my friend and neighbor Dan Bricklin — a software pioneer who knows whereof he speaks.

Cool photo too.

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The Power of Reporting

By Chris Daly

That’s what David Carr has on-offer in this piece about Tribune Co.

Instead of attitude and adjectives, he has facts and quotes.

One moral of this story: This mess inside Tribune appears to be the fruit of the “zoo radio” culture — which gave us Glenn Beck and which seems to be one of those places that provides a haven for teenage boys who don’t want to grow up.

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The latest on Fox News.

Here, in Politico. And here, in the Times.

Actually, I will venture to ask this question:

Is Fox News the fourth U.S. television network, or the third U.S. political party?

What do you think?

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A tip of the hat…

. . . to David Frum, the Canadian-American former speechwriter for George W. Bush (despite his robust credentials as a member of the “elite,” based on his degrees from Yale and Harvard Law).

I don’t agree with him about much, but I was impressed by the points he made in this recent talk.

Well put.

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Ouch !

By Chris Daly

This new study from Gallup really hurts. It suggests that the people who are waging war on the news media are winning.

Possible hidden headline (based on the second chart):

“Number of Americans Who Say Media

Are ‘Too Conservative’ Rises 36% Since 2002″

What do you think?

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The vig

I suppose that if I owed a large amount of money to a fat man named “Slim,” I would try to pay it off early, too.

The downside of all this is that it appears that this money was very expensive for the Times, according to Reuters.

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Remembering Halberstam

By Chris Daly

The City of Cambridge (Mass.) plans to dedicate a memorial to the late, irreplacable David Halberstam on Wednesday of this week. It will be in a small public space in a traffic island in Harvard Square.

It seems like a good occasion to recall who Halberstam was, how important his work was, and how good he was at it. I am posting some excerpts here from my forthcoming book, “Covering America.” These passages are from the chapter on the 1960s, in which Halberstam plays a prominent part, as a critic of the war in Vietnam and as a journalist whose work taught an important and timeless lesson: question authority.


Chapter 11

Rocking The Establishment


Believe half of what you see

And none of what you hear

–Marvin Gaye

(“I Heard it Through the Grapevine”)

Vietnam (Part I)

In the fall of 1962, a young correspondent arrived in Vietnam to take over the Saigon bureau of the New York Times. The new man was David Halberstam, and he was succeeding a reporter who was a living legend: Homer Bigart. Having covered both World War II and Korea, Bigart had seen more combat than most of the U.S. military officers serving in Vietnam. Bigart was eager to leave, but first he sat down and typed out a three-page letter to Halberstam. It was a classic handoff from a veteran to a rookie, full of advice on everything from news sources to food.

Dear Dave:

I am very glad you’re going to Saigon . . . The Caravelle is a good hotel, and the food is better than in New York . . .

A good guy at the Embassy is Barbour, in the political section. The Ambassador [Frederick Nolting] is rather complicated; sometimes he won’t tell you anything, at other times he will drop a few clues in an offhand way. He’s no genius, but I’ve seen worse . . .

The city is full of American spooks trying to silence the few honest Americans who will level with correspondents. Never reveal your sources of information . . .

The climate is like West Africa, except for some pleasant months in mid-Winter. Take a sweater for the highlands. You can have some bush jackets made up in Saigon (the 55 Tailor) in a few days and quite cheap. I left a lot of essential gear, canteen, messkit, belt, etc. . . .


Homer Bigart

PS: I never really got to know the new Vietnamese chief of information, but I hear he is a decent fellow, not like the crummy bastard that tried to throw me out . . . [i]

In a sense, it was a handoff not just from Bigart to Halberstam but from the World War II generation to a rising group of younger reporters. Bigart, who had seen a lot of action in World War II and won a Pulitzer Prize for his Korean War reporting, was then fifty-five years old; Halberstam was just twenty-eight. Halberstam was part of an in-between generation–too young for WWII and even Korea, but too old to be among the Baby Boomers, who were born starting in 1946. Halberstam turned out to be a pioneer for many of the younger American journalists who came after him in the 1960s and 1970s–a fearless reporter who would fight for stories and fight just as hard to keep his stories from getting suppressed by the regime in Vietnam, by certain editors back home on the Times’s foreign desk, or by the president of the United States. Halberstam’s reporting from Vietnam not only set the standard for those who followed, it also proved to be the opening wedge of a cultural and political trend that would come to mark the era—the “credibility gap.” This change, in turn, opened American journalism up to an approach that was much more skeptical, often more honest, and ultimately more creative than it would have been otherwise.

Even in 1962, as he took over the Saigon job, Halberstam was already a rising star. Born in 1934 in the Bronx to a doctor father and schoolteacher mother, Halberstam grew up in the small town of Winsted in northwestern Connecticut and attended the local schools (where one of his classmates was Ralph Nader). In 1951, he entered Harvard and stepped up onto a new trajectory when he joined the reporting staff of the independent student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. After graduating in 1955 with a degree in history, Halberstam did something very unusual for a talented, connected young Harvard grad from New York: he went to Mississippi and got himself a job on the smallest daily newspaper in the state, the West Point Daily Times Leader, where he banged out as many as a dozen stories a day. The next year, he moved up to the Nashville Tennessean, a progressive paper in the thick of covering the civil rights movement. The lunch counter sit-in movement was gathering force in Nashville just as Halberstam arrived, and he was assigned to cover it. As a young Northerner in sympathy with the movement’s goals, Halberstam was trusted by the demonstrators, who granted him more access than any other reporter.[ii] In the process, he was learning the ropes of covering conflict. During these years, Halberstam also took care of his military obligation by spending six months in infantry training with the Army, picking up some more valuable experience.[1]

In 1960, he was hired by James Reston to join the New York Times in its Washington bureau. After less than a year, Halberstam shipped out to cover a big chunk of Africa for the Times from a bureau in Congo, one of many Third World flashpoints in the global conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In Congo and the surrounding countries, Halberstam got his chance to report on the standard issues of Cold War journalism in the Third World–coups, communism, and combat (usually involving guerrilla tactics).

When he arrived in Vietnam in 1962, Halberstam, who later became famous as a critic of U.S. policy, was very much a creature of the Cold War and therefore wanted the U.S. mission in Vietnam to succeed.[iii] By training and perhaps by temperament, he was a skeptic, but he was no rebel. He was not an anti-imperialist, and he was certainly not anti-American. In an early dispatch from Vietnam, Halberstam wrote the following (in its original cable form):

young american officers have been highly impressive here comma and are admired not only for their conduct in the field but their conduct as unofficial diplomatic representatives of their country stop they and their younger vietnamese counterparts generally enjoy good personal relationships . . . [iv]

He was, by his own account, “probably a Democrat” and, to that extent, inclined to want to see Kennedy succeed in Vietnam. His gripes were about tactics, not strategy–about how to succeed, not about how to define success. But presidents and their aides rarely make such nice distinctions. They tend to see reporters as for them or againstthem. In Halberstam’s case, it appears that the American mission in Vietnam took a reporter who wanted to be for them and left him nowhere to go but into the opposition.

Almost from the beginning, something about Vietnam wasn’t quite right. Normally, a foreign correspondent for a prestigious newspaper like the New York Times would immediately be welcomed by the American elites abroad and become a fixture in the American establishment in that country. The correspondent would know the U.S. ambassador, the CIA station chief, and everyone else who mattered. In fact, it was routine practice for American journalists in the years after World War II to coordinate with the CIA when heading abroad or returning home. At a minimum, reporters could count on a briefing by the CIA about the country or region they would be covering; when they got back, it was expected that the journalists would return the favor by meeting with CIA officers to divulge anything of interest that was not already made public in their stories or columns.[2] Not surprisingly, then, soon after Halberstam arrived in Saigon in 1962, one of his first stops was lunch with John Richardson, the CIA chief for Vietnam.

The real friction arose between Halberstam and the two most visible officials responsible for U.S. policy in Vietnam: the ambassador, Frederick Nolting, and the ranking military officer, Gen. Paul Harkins. Halberstam expressed his views of both men in a memo he wrote to a reporter from Esquire magazine who was preparing a profile of Halberstam, titled “Our Man in Saigon.” Halberstam referred to Nolting as “a fool, mind you, but worth talking to” and observed that he was “never invited to Nolting’s house for any meal.” As for the general, Halberstam wrote that “Harkins hated our guts and tried to have our sources investigated.” Halberstam came to loathe both men, but there was far more involved than personal pique. Long before most Americans came to understand, Halberstam pointed to deeper sources of friction between the American mission and the press corps:

Some of it was an allout attempt to keep a nice easy unruffled relationship with the [ruling] Ngo family–our stories traditionally ruffle that relationship–and part of it was that they themselves were reporting this optimistic crap [to Washington] and they didn’t want any other stuff getting out.[v]

[1] Later, while reporting from Saigon, Halberstam got in trouble with his draft board in a mix-up over his obligation to keep the board informed about his movements after he was assigned overseas. With help from the Times, he managed to placate the draft officials. He had joined the Army under the Reserve Forces Act, which attempted to allow the Pentagon to shrink the size of the active military while keeping a large reserve force on hand that could be mobilized rapidly. (See William Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War, pgs. 197-8.)

[2] Sometimes, these would be at quite high levels. When Walter Lippmann made his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1958, he was briefed by no less a figure than CIA Director Allen Dulles at the agency’s headquarters. (See Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, pg. 510.) Many other revelations about press-CIA cooperation tumbled out in 1975 when the Senate’s Church Committee released its findings about U.S. intelligence agencies and their methods. Also see a lengthy article by Carl Bernstein, “The CIA and the Media,” Rolling Stone, Oct. 20, 1977. These arrangements are partly to blame for the persistent belief in some parts of the world that all American journalists are spies.

[i] Homer Bigart to David Halberstam, Aug. 6, 1962. David Halberstam Collection, Gotlieb Archives, Boston University.

[ii] See Roberts and Klibanoff, The Race Beat, 226.

[iii] See, for example, Halberstam’s own oral history in Reporting America at War.

[iv] Cable from David Halberstam Collection, Box 2, Gottlieb Archive, Boston University.

[v] Quotes are from a two-page, single-spaced memo Halberstam wrote as guidance for the Esquire writer, George Goodman, better known by his pen name, Adam Smith. Memo is in the Halberstam Collection, Box 3, Boston University.


A later excerpt:

Stories revealing the conflict between the military and the press abound.[1] But there is no better example than the Battle of Ap Bac.[i] In February of 1963, American “advisers” finally got their wish–they got to fight regular enemy forces, in the daytime, using armor and air support. From the beginning, U.S. military experts had been frustrated by the guerilla tactics used by the communists: ambushes, hit-and-runs, booby traps, night raids. Vietcong forces usually picked their spots, assembled quickly, then broke off and melted back into the jungle or the rural villages. The Americans, with their technological edge and their legacy of victory through massed forces, were spoiling for what they considered a fair fight.

When the moment arrived at Ap Bac, there was one serious problem: the army doing the fighting was not America’s own. Instead, the Americans were mere advisers, limited to supporting, cheering, and even cursing out the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN, pronounced like “Arvin”), the military force of the Diem government in Saigon. ARVN was supposed to be taking the lead role in defeating the Viet Cong, the communist guerilla movement (usually referred to as the V.C.). No one tried harder to get ARVN to fight than Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, then a rising star among the hundreds of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam. In the Battle of Ap Bac, the ARVN forces eventually had a V.C. regiment hemmed in on three sides and needed only to call in reinforcements to seal the enemy forces in and wipe them out. In the end, the Vietnamese commander, fearing casualties, dropped his men on the wrong side and left the Vietcong an escape route, which they took as soon as darkness fell. ARVN did inflict some casualties that day, but it was hardly the great victory that the Diem government claimed. In fact, as Vann explained to Halberstam and Sheehan and anyone else who would listen, it was a wasted opportunity. As the reporters told the story, it was hard to miss the point that America was trying to fight a war with an ally that did not want to fight. It was like pushing on a chain.

[1] To take one notorious case: In December 1961, the U.S. aircraft carrier Core docked at the foot of Tu Do Street in Saigon, towering over the nearby buildings. Plainly visible on the deck were dozens of olive-drab Sikorsky H-21 helicopters. Mal Browne was among a half-dozen reporters who wanted to know what was going on, since the U.S. was officially only advising South Vietnam, not arming it. The reporters went to the U.S. Information Service office and asked the director about the massive ship.

“Aircraft carrier?” he asked. “What aircraft carrier? I don’t see any aircraft carrier.”

V.C. spies, of course, managed to see the ship and even record the serial numbers of the aircraft as they were unloaded. (See Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks, pgs. 107-8.)

[i] This story is told in detail in Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, as well as in Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, and in Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War.


And one more…

While Kennedy pondered his relations with Diem and the Buddhists expanded their campaign against the government, Browne and Halberstam and the rest of the reporters in Saigon pressed on. Soon, they began coming under attack from an unlikely quarter: the journalism Establishment. Leading the criticism were a number of older columnists, reporters, and editors who made only occasional forays to Vietnam yet considered themselves more informed–based on their chats with their high-ranking sources in the White House and the Pentagon–than the reporters who were there on the ground. In what became known as the “press crisis” of 1963, the Saigon-based reporters found their reporting challenged, their motives questioned, and their patriotism attacked.

One of the most prominent of the critics was the veteran of reporting World War II and Korea, Maggie Higgins. Now married to an Air Force general, Higgins saw Vietnam in the same frame as her two earlier wars–a straight-up military confrontation in which the U.S. should prevail. In late August 1963, she began a series in the New York Herald Tribune that ran under the logo: VIETNAM – FACT AND FICTION. In a thinly veiled attack on Halberstam, she relied on the top U.S. military officer as her chief informant. Not surprisingly, she concluded that all was well in Vietnam.  “Contrary to recent published reports that the situation in the rich Mekong River delta has ‘deteriorated,’ Gen. Paul Harkins insists that the opposite is true.” She lamented that Vietnam’s image was being tarnished “at a period when the war is going better than ever.” Still, she wasn’t finished with the young correspondents in Saigon and slipped one in below the belt: “Reporters here would like to see us lose the war to prove they are right.” Her series in the Trib was read closely by Times editors back in New York, especially by the night foreign editor, Nathaniel Gerstenzang, one of Halberstam’s bosses. Gertsenzang fired off a series of critical cables (known as “rockets”) that required Halberstam to justify his reporting. Eventually, Halberstam blew his stack:


One reason Halberstam may have felt so bold in pushing back against his editor is revealed in his personal papers from the period. Even while he was fielding rockets from the Foreign Desk, Halberstam was also drawing a lot of support from the highest echelons of the Times–including raises, bonuses, and private messages of support and praise. In August 1963, for example, the publisher himself, “Punch” Sulzberger, cabled Halberstam:


So, while Halberstam may have been under fire, he was never in any serious professional danger.

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Filed under David Halberstam, history, Journalism, journalism history, New York Times

Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers

By Chris Daly

In the turmoil around the recent disclosures on WikiLeaks, it seems like a good time to review the history of the biggest previous leak in U.S. history, the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, a disgruntled (contract) employee in the Defense Department decided to try to end an earlier war by disclosing secret documents.

The Pentagon Papers case of 1971 features prominently in the chapter of my forthcoming book that deals with the 1970s. I am posting it here in hopes that it may provide some perspective for the current discussion about leaks, transparency, and war-making in a democracy.

For anyone who wants to know more about the Pentagon Papers case, I recommend two books:

“The Day the Presses Stopped,” by prof. David Rudenstine.

”Secrets,” the memoir by Daniel Ellsberg.

(Despite the obnoxious copyright warning, feel free to quote –and cite–the following.)

[Copyright by Christopher B. Daly. Do not use without permission.]

Excerpt from my forthcoming book, COVERING AMERICA.

VIETNAM (Part 3): The Pentagon Papers

The war ground on. By the late 1960s more and more people were asking new and troubling questions. No longer was the issue, How are we doing in Vietnam? Now, the question was, What are we doing in Vietnam? Even the secretary of Defense had questions. Robert McNamara, the ultimate whiz-kid, the brightest of the best and brightest, was determined to get answers. He fell back on the tools he knew best: data, reason, and analysis. In 1967, he commissioned an internal study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, tapping vast archives of government documents and a large team of military veterans, historians, security experts, and analysts. Among those tasked to work on the secret project–known by its nickname, the Pentagon Papers–was a former Marine with a Harvard doctorate named Daniel Ellsberg.[i]

Ellsberg, an expert in decision-making theory, was a civilian working at the Rand Corporation, a private think-tank that did a lot of analytical work for the U.S. government, especially the Defense Department. Ellsberg was recruited to help write the big Pentagon study of what had gone wrong in Vietnam. While he was working on it, Ellsberg underwent a profound personal conversion about he war–from enthusiastic hawk to passionate dove. Part of the reason for this change lay in the Pentagon Papers themselves. In the mountains of documents (which he read in their entirety, even in areas where he was not tasked to contribute) Ellsberg came to believe that the problem was not the one he expected–that presidents lacked solid information about Vietnam. They had plenty of information. The problem was, those presidents had all chosen to lie about it. At the same time, Ellsberg was meeting leaders of the growing and increasingly vocal antiwar movement, who were posing questions that he found troubling: What right does the U.S. have to intervene in the lives of far-away peoples who pose us no threat? What is the moral justification for planning a war in which the deaths of Asian people are not even a factor?

In his new-found determination to help stop the war, Ellsberg began to think that perhaps the Pentagon Papers themselves could make the difference. If the American public only knew what was in that study, they would see what he had seen – that Vietnam was a disaster, one that president after president had led us deeper and deeper into, always while claiming that victory or “peace with honor” was just around the corner. With the idea of divulging the study’s contents, he began secretly photocopying in October 1969. It was a daunting task. With help from a friend, Ellsberg developed a system. He put as many pages as he could carry in his briefcase at Rand’s office in Santa Monica, California. At the end of the day, he would wave to the security guard and leave with the briefcase, then head to another friend’s advertising agency, where he had permission to use the Xerox machine all night. The technology of 1969-era photocopying required Ellsberg to lay each page face-down on the glass plate, push a button, wait, remove the original, replace it with another, push the button again, and so on. Each night he would wrap up, catch some sleep, and return that night’s batch to Rand.  “I took it for granted that what I was doing violated some law, perhaps several,” Ellsberg recalled years later. As a contributor to the study, Ellsberg had a top-security clearance, and he was authorized to have access to the set of the Pentagon Papers at Rand. Whether he had any right to make copies and distribute them remained to be seen.[1]

Aside from the legal issues, copying the Pentagon Papers was a physical challenge. The study was massive. Each set ran to forty-seven volumes, about 7,000 pages in all. Just fifteen official copies were made, and most of them were stored in a vault at the Pentagon. The whole thing was classified “TOP SECRET-SENSITIVE” and bore warning stamps on the front and back covers and on every page. Under the protocols of the federal classification system, a document must be classified at the highest level of its most sensitive contents. Thus, if a volume of the Pentagon Papers consisted of a mix of analysis written by a historian buttressed by secret diplomatic cables or orders to units in the field, then the whole volume was treated the same as its most sensitive part. As Ellsberg well knew, the Pentagon Papers were packed with secrets–everything from the fruits of U.S. spy agencies to private exchanges between world leaders, from plots to carry out coups to estimates of other countries’ intentions.

In terms of domestic U.S. politics, the Pentagon Papers also posed a threat. Only a handful of people had read the whole study in 1969, but Ellsberg was one of them.[2] He saw document after document proving that one American president after another lied to the American people by telling them that the U.S. role in Vietnam was minimal and successful, when in fact that role was growing andstalemated. The study also cast major doubts about the U.S. role in the Tonkin Gulf Incident of 1964, which had provided the justification for the congressional resolution authorizing a U.S. combat role in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers provided a detailed, damning indictment of a generation of policy and policy-makers about a war that was still very much in progress. It was never meant to be read by more than a couple of dozens of people at the very summit of power. What Ellsberg was contemplating was, according to a leading expert, “probably the single largest unauthorized disclosure of classified documents in the history of the United States.”[ii]

As Ellsberg considered his options in late 1969 and early 1970, his first thought was to try releasing the Papers through a member of Congress. He hit upon Sen. J. William Fulbright, the Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and who was the most prominent congressional critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg also approached Senators McGovern, Gravel, and Mathias, hoping that one of them could use his congressional immunity to introduce the Papers into the Congressional Record. In the end, after taking more than a year, they all found reasons to decline. So, Ellsberg went to his fall-back position and thought about giving a set of the Papers to the press. In his mind, there was one obvious choice, one newspaper with the resources, the sense of history, the track record: The New York Times. And at the Times, there was an obvious choice: Neil Sheehan. Sheehan, who had been the Saigon bureau chief for UPI in the early 1960s, knew as much about Vietnam as anyone. He had since joined the Times, where he was a Washington correspondent, still very much involved in covering the war. One thing that impressed Ellsberg about Sheehan was a piece Sheehan had recently written for the Times’ Book Review on the subject of war crimes and the application of war crimes doctrine to U.S. actions in Vietnam. Ellsberg was struck by the passion Sheehan showed in his writing, the urgent desire to end the fighting and bombing. “I hadn’t run into this kind of urgency among journalists before, except for David Halberstam,” Ellsberg recalled later.

So, late in the evening of March 2, 1971, during a visit to Washington, Ellsberg called Sheehan at his home. Sheehan invited him over, and they stayed up all night while Ellsberg described the mammoth McNamara study and drew Sheehan into the plan. The journalist could not promise that his newspaper would use it just as Ellsberg wished, but Sheehan himself was eager to see it and optimistic about publishing. What happened next remains a bit shrouded. Sheehan, in keeping with the reporter’s code of omerta in protecting confidential sources, never identified Ellsberg as his source and has never explained in detail how he acquired the Papers for the Times. In all his public statements, he has said simply that he “got” or “obtained” the study – which is true as far as it goes. According to Ellsberg, it was more like a dance.[iii]

Around this time, Ellsberg left California for Cambridge, where he had a fellowship at MIT, and he continued making more photocopies of the Pentagon Papers.[3] Ellsberg assumed that the FBI was watching his apartment, on a side street just off Harvard Square, so he kept his set of the Papers nearby, in a box at the apartment of his brother-in-law, Spencer Marx. While Ellsberg organized the contents of the box, his wife, Patricia, took batches to several copy shops in Harvard Square. These shops had fairly powerful, commercial copiers, but it still took a long time; all the while, Ellsberg had to wonder what might happen if someone at a copy shop read some of the contents and decided to drop a dime into a pay phone and call the authorities to see if they’d like their secrets back.

Ellsberg and Sheehan continued to discuss the ground rules for a handoff of the giant secret study. Oddly, perhaps, one issue they did not discuss was confidentiality. Ellsberg just assumed that Sheehan would protect his identity, but nothing was ever spelled out. Of greater concern to Ellsberg was the political goal of stopping the war. To that end, he wanted a commitment that the Timeswould definitely publish and that the newspaper would include in its reports some of the actual documents contained within the Pentagon Papers. As a mere reporter, Sheehan was in no position to make promises that would bind the newspaper, but he pledged to do his best. Ellsberg met him halfway, saying Sheehan could inspect the Papers[4] and take notes on them, to give Sheehan the evidence he would need to try to persuade his superiors at the Times. On that basis, Ellsberg let Sheehan into Spencer Marx’s apartment and gave him a key so he could come and go as he went about the tedious business of reading and taking notes. Sheehan asked for photocopies, but Ellsberg was not ready yet to take that step. After a few days, Sheehan headed back to Washington to begin the process of pitching the idea to his editors.

Not too long after that, it appears that, unbeknownst to Ellsberg, Sheehan returned to Cambridge, this time with his wife, the journalist Susan Sheehan. On a weekend when they knew that Ellsberg would be away, the Sheehans checked in under fake names to a hotel near Harvard Square. Using the key to Spencer’s apartment that Neil had held onto, the Sheehans (according to Ellsberg) let themselves in and removed an entire set of the Papers. At some point, Sheehan used a pay phone to call the Boston bureau of the Times and asked the local correspondent, Bill Kovach, for some of the paper’s money. Kovach, in turn, called New York and got $1,500 wired to him.[iv] The Sheehans took the study to a nearby copy shop and got a complete duplicate made. Then, they returned the first set to the apartment and slipped out of town.[5]

After several weeks of examining the Papers in Washington, Sheehan was making headway in getting the newspaper’s top executives to commit. The most important figure on the news side was the managing editor, A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, who was no dove when it came to the war in Vietnam. Rosenthal, however, determined that the project was potentially significant and took over close supervision himself. He had Sheehan’s photocopied set brought to the Times’ newsroom on West 43rd St.  in Manhattan, but soon thought better of it. He did not want the FBI storming that hallowed journalistic ground to seize files. Instead, Rosenthal ordered the establishment of a separate command post in several suites at the midtown Hilton Hotel. Everyone involved (which ultimately ran to about 75 reporters, editors, clerks, and design personnel) was ordered to keep mum about “Project X.”[v] They had reason to be careful.

The set held by the Times represented an unprecedented breach of the national classification system, and anyone in possession of it could face criminal charges – not only of stealing government property but perhaps espionage or, ultimately, treason. Indeed, that was the opinion reached by the Times’long-time law firm, Lord Day & Lord. Senior partner Louis M. Loeb objected to the idea of publishing, which he considered irresponsible and unpatriotic, and he warned that the government would be sure to prosecute the newspaper and its top executives. He urged the editors to return the Papers to the government.[6] Sulzberger decided to listen instead to the company’s in-house counsel, Jim Goodale, who was more sanguine about staying out of jail. With that question in mind, Sulzberger decided to let the project move forward but to proceed carefully. By now, he had eight years under his belt as publisher, and he felt a lot more confident than he had in his first year, when JFK had tried to bully him into transferring Halberstam out of Saigon. Still, confronting the president of the United States would be a challenge.

In one room at the hotel, he assembled the newspaper’s lawyers to help him decide whether to publish anything at all. They argued over issues of sedition, corporate liability, and professional responsibility. In another room, he assembled a select group of the paper’s senior editors and top reporters to wade into the documents and help him determine what to publish. It was tough going in both rooms. In the roomful of journalists, the Papers were providing dozens of leads and tantalizing revelations. But the report as a whole was so vast that it would take a long time to find a story line in there. What was the upshot? What was the headline? Who would get the byline? Week after week, debates raged in both rooms.[7] Was the Times about to break the law by giving away classified information during wartime? Would the government bring a charge of treason? If so, could the paper survive? Finally, the stories were ready.

It all came down to Punch Sulzberger. It was time to say yes or no, time to put all his chips – the paper he loved, his family’s legacy, the good of his country – on the table. His answer was yes. So, on Saturday, June 12, 1971, while President Nixon was dancing in the White House at the wedding of his daughter and enjoying what he called the happiest day of his presidency, the typesetters and pressmen at the Times began printing the stories that would bring about a first-order constitutional crisis.[8]


Early on June 13, the first edition of the Sunday New York Times began to circulate. In Harvard Square, after seeing a late movie, Daniel Ellsberg went to an all-night news kiosk and bought a couple of copies. As he walked home, he smiled. In 24-point type over the four columns on the upper right of Page 1, ran this headline:



The lead article, written by Neil Sheehan, said that a “massive” study commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara showed that four presidential administrations “progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South, and an ultimate frustration with this effort to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged at the time.” That was big revelation – not exactly a bombshell, more like the pebble that starts the landslide. The Times promised more stories in the following days.

The stories caught the White House off guard. In all the months of deliberations at the Times, no one had contacted the White House for comment, so the initial story came out of the blue. At first, President Richard Nixon decided to do nothing. In telephone calls he had on Sunday with Gen. Alexander Haig and Secretary of State William Rogers, Nixon said he had not even read the Timesstory, and he seemed more interested in the political impact than in the security breach, although he did call it “treasonable action on the part of the bastards that put it out.”[vi] To Nixon’s mind, the important thing seemed to be that the series criticized Democrats–Kennedy and Johnson–and not him. Then, his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, went to work on him. Kissinger, one of the most astute and prolific leakers in history, argued that the conduct of U.S. diplomacy depended on plugging the leaks. Then he played his trump card, warning Nixon that if he tolerated this massive security breach, “it shows you’re a weakling.”[vii] That did it. If there was one thing Nixon feared, it was vulnerability. So, he began to weigh other options.

Attorney General John Mitchell offered his opinion. From a legal standpoint, he said the administration needed to move swiftly to object to any further publication, in order to preserve the government’s legal options. If the government allowed more stories to appear without objection, he argued, it would be tantamount to approval. Nixon agreed and encouraged Mitchell to proceed. So, the attorney general called Sulzberger on Monday evening and requested a halt to publication, following up with a telegram to establish a documentary record. In short order, the Times issued a public reply, stating that the paper respectfully declined to cease publication but promised that, if necessary, it would “of course abide by the final decision of the court.”

On Tuesday, June 15, 1971, government lawyers went into federal court in Manhattan and asked the court to enjoin the Times from publishing anything further about the Pentagon Papers. That was a momentous step. It was the first time since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution that the federal government had tried to impose “prior restraint” on a newspaper, based on grounds of national security. Not since the British crown ruled over the land had a publisher of a newspaper been told by the government in advance what it might or might not print. That was the essence of the constitutional crisis. Did the president have such power? If so, the Constitution did not grant it explicitly. From the newspaper’s point of view, the issue was the plain meaning of the First Amendment’s sweeping ban on abridging the freedom of the press. From the president’s point of view, the issue was his duty as commander in chief to safeguard the nation by keeping its military, intelligence, and diplomatic secrets, particularly in time of war. Citing the Constitution, both sides prepared for a legal showdown.

At the outset, the case did not look promising for the newspaper. The matter was assigned to Judge Murray Gurfein, a veteran of Army intelligence in World War II and a Republican who had just been appointed by Nixon himself.[9] It was Gurfein’s very first case as a judge. After a brief hearing, Gurfein granted the government’s request for a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for Friday. Significantly, the Times obeyed the court order–as Sulzberger had promised–and suspended the series. For the time being at least, the government had in fact imposed prior restraint.[10]


At the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee and his team had been hearing rumors of a big project at the Times but could not crack the secret. When the Pentagon Papers story hit on Sunday, Bradlee was beside himself. His immediate goal was to match what the Times had. He threw everything he had at it. Meanwhile, with the Times now enjoined from publishing anything further, Ellsberg became concerned that the momentum of the initial disclosures would evaporate and that the remaining documents might be successfully suppressed in court. Using a series of intermediaries and pay phones, he placed a call on Wednesday to an editor he knew at the Washington Post, Ben Bagdikian.[viii] If the Post could commit to publishing, Ellsberg said Bagdikian should fly to Boston to get a set – and bring a large suitcase. So, Bagdikian flew to Boston on Wednesday and got his own set of most of the documents the Times had. Wednesday was also the day Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, went on the lam–at first moving in and out of a series of motels in the Boston area. Ellsberg also worked feverishly to salt away more copies of the Papers in various locations, to prevent FBI agents from gathering them, and he contacted more newspapers to offer them copies, on the theory that if more papers published the documents, the government would have a harder and harder time trying to persuade a court to attempt to put the milk back in the bottle.[ix]

With a version of the Papers in hand, the Post swung into action, setting up a command center at Bradlee’s house in the Georgetown section of Washington. In one room, the writers got to work. In another room, the editors and lawyers got busy trying to decide whether to publish. They had 12 hours to do what the Times had done in three months. In some ways, their challenge was more difficult than the one faced by the Times. For one thing, the lawyers pointed out, the Post (unlike theTimes) was contemplating publication in an environment in which a federal court had issued a restraining order on the materials. The order did not apply to the Post, but that was something of a technicality; the lawyers could hardly maintain that they did not know how the executive and judiciary felt about publication. Post executives also had another worry that had not concerned theTimes: the Post company owned several television stations, and the Nixon administration could be expected to seek revenge by using its majority in the FCC to block the renewal of those lucrative broadcasting licenses. What’s more, the Post company, strapped for cash, had just decided to join the trend toward selling its stock to the general public, even though publisher Katharine Graham was a bit sketchy on all the consequences of such a move. One such consequence could have been fatal. If Mrs. Graham were charged with a felony for publishing the Pentagon Papers, the brokerage house underwriting the sale of the stock could back out of the deal; if convicted of a felony, she could be stripped of her television licenses. Either one might mean the end of the Post as a business enterprise.[11]

To Bradlee, the journalistic stakes were clear. As he wrote later:

I knew exactly how important it was to publish, if we were to have any chance of pulling the Post up–once and for all–into the front ranks . . .  Failure to publish without a fight would constitute an abdication that would brand the Post forever, as an establishment tool of whatever administration was in power.[x]

Finally, after frantic debate, the editors reached Mrs. Graham, who was hosting a dinner party at her home. On a conference call, she was told that it was now or never. She quickly gave her answer: “Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.”[12] Like Arthur Sulzberger, Katharine Graham was betting the house–the company, the newspaper, the family’s reputation. Like Sulzberger, she did so not only because she had good journalistic instincts but for another key reason: she did it because she could. She owned enough of the paper to do whatever she wished. For better or worse, the publishers of the Times and the Post were answerable to no one. No less than Pulitzer, Hearst, or Luce, they were at the peak of their personal power. They were operating at a period in which their newspapers were profitable and the publishers were about as autonomous as they ever were. If they chose, they could stand up to the president himself.


So, the copies of the Washington Post that appeared on Friday morning carried a front-page story about the massive Vietnam study, revealing that the Post had obtained the same classified materials as the Times. As expected, the Post got a phone call later that day from an assistant attorney general, William Rehnquist, demanding that the paper cease publishing stories on the subject. Bradlee replied: “I’m sure you will understand that I must respectfully decline.” With that, government lawyers went immediately into U.S. District Court in Washington seeking to impose prior restraint on the Post. Judge Gerhard Gesell refused to issue a restraining order, prompting the government to appeal. The appellate court reversed, and the Post was now in the same position as the Times – possessing the classified documents but muzzled from sharing them with the American public.

Meanwhile, all eyes were on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, with Judge Gurfein presiding. TheTimes’ lead attorney was Alexander Bickel, a Yale Law professor.[xi] He opened by noting that theWashington Post had published details from the secret report that very day and shared the story with the clients of the Post’s syndicated news service. The cat was out of the bag. There was no reason to continue enjoining the Times. Besides, Bickel continued, even after the disclosures by the two newspapers from the secret report, the sky had not fallen. “The Republic still stands,” he declared. The crowd in the courtroom cheered, and Gurfein banged his gavel for order. Later, Gurfein cleared the courtroom for a closed session to hear the substance of the government’s claim that the Pentagon Papers contained secrets that, if disclosed, would threaten national security. The hearing went on for hours, followed by more arguments in open court until well past 11 p.m.

The next day, Gurfein issued a ruling that shocked just about everyone. He ruled against the government. He said the Justice Department had failed to offer any “cogent reasons” for continued secrecy, and he went on to offer a stirring defense of press freedom:

The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of the freedom of expression and the right of the people to know . . .

In one concession to the government, however, the judge extended the restraining order against theTimes until the government had a chance to appeal.


On Friday evening, ruling in the government’s case against the Post, Judge Gerhard Gesell in Washington, had reached a similar conclusion and refused to impose prior restraint on the Post. The government promptly appealed (and secured a temporary restraining order against the Post), sending the cases to different circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals. While lawyers argued, Ellsberg’s strategy of diversifying the outlets for publication bore fruit, and parts of the Papers began appearing in some 20 newspapers nationwide, including the Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Christian Science Monitor.[13] Meanwhile, the Times and the government both appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The stakes were as high as they get. There was essentially no case law on this legal question, so the judges lacked almost all precedent. On Friday, June 25, the high court, acting with rare speed, agreed to review both cases and ordered oral arguments the very next morning.

On Saturday morning, the nine justices of the Supreme Court assembled in an open session, and lawyers for both sides were invited to make their oral arguments. As each side did so, the justices peppered them with questions. The interchanges went on for hours. At the end, Chief Justice Warren Burger thanked the lawyers, then adjourned.

On Wednesday, June 30, just fifteen days after the government had initiated the case, the justices assembled again. The chief justice read the court’s ruling. Although the justices wrote nine separate opinions, it was a clear-cut victory for press freedom. By a 6-3 margin, a majority had decided that theTimes and the Post could resume publication of their series. When word reached the two newsrooms, reporters broke into cheers (which they don’t do very often), champagne flowed, and stories that had been frozen by the Nixon administration were quickly readied for publication in the next day’s papers.


Because of the stakes involved, the high court’s ruling deserves close attention.[xii] Among the nine justices, there were three distinct schools of thought. One group of three (Justices Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan Jr.) took a view sometimes known as “First Amendment absolutism.” That is, they believed that when the Constitution says “make no law . . . abridging freedom of the press,” it means just that–the government may not restrain the press, no matter what. According to Black, “every moment’s continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment.” In this view, press freedom exists to serve the American people as a whole, the ultimate sovereigns in a system of self-government. “The press [is] to serve the governed, not the governors,” Black wrote. If the press causes some harm, then the remedies have to come after publication and not before.

Another group of three (Chief Justice Warren Burger, John Marshall Harlan, Harry Blackmun) sided with the government. In their dissents, this minority bloc made frequent mention of how hastily the case had been handled. Burger objected on procedural grounds; he thought the court was being stampeded and wanted more time. Harlan objected to the rush as well, but he went to the merits anyway. His main point was that the president has the exclusive power to handle foreign relations for the United States and therefore must have the power to maintain secrets. In his opinion, Blackmun said the case required balancing two claims, both of which were grounded in the Constitution:

The First Amendment, after all, is only one part of an entire Constitution. Article II of the great document vests in the Executive Branch primary power over the conduct of foreign affairs, and places in that branch the responsibility for the Nation’s safety. Each provision of the Constitution is important, and I cannot subscribe to a doctrine of unlimited absolutism for the First Amendment at the cost of downgrading other provisions.

With such a split, the three remaining justices (Potter Stewart, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall) held the balance. In answer to the question of whether the government could ever impose prior restraint, they said, in effect, it depends. To begin with, the government faces a heavy burden of proof in such cases. More important, they went on to spell out the conditions under which prior restraint might be justified in the future: the government would have to show that publication would present an immediate, serious, and irreparable harm to the national security. The threat could not be far-off or hypothetical; it could not be a matter of politics, or mere inconvenience or embarrassment. In the case at hand, they ruled, the government had not met the standard they had just invented. Thus, they joined with the absolutists and held that publication could resume.

Naturally, the press hailed the ruling as a great victory, which it indeed was. But newspapers, which are averse to stories about complicated legal issues and allergic to stories about themselves, quickly changed the subject and moved on. In that, they may have been hasty, because the consequences of the Pentagon Papers case were many, sometimes subtle and sometimes roundabout.

First and foremost, of course, the 6-3 ruling was a tremendous legal win for the news media, on the scale of an earthquake that reshapes the landscape for a long time to come. The verdict remains the law of the land more than three decades later and may stand for a good deal longer. In the first showdown over prior restraint, the press won and the government lost, an outcome that pretty thoroughly repudiated the whole idea of prior restraint and created a de facto moratorium on its use.[14] That much is clear. What is more difficult to measure is the psychological impact. But judging by the record, it seems fair to say that the press as an institution was emboldened by the Pentagon Papers case. The experience of taking on the president (which, in this case, also meant Defense, Justice, and State) and coming out on top was a heady one. It would be only natural for a publisher, editor, or reporter to think that maybe the press really was some kind of Fourth Estate, that the media could tackle other powerful institutions, that journalism could do more than record the things that other people say and do. Maybe journalists could make a bit of history too. More and more members of the press were seeing themselves in an independent role–one that might even turn oppositional, if need be–rather than a supporting one.

The Pentagon Papers also vindicated the early reporting out of Vietnam, by Halberstam and others, which had tried to point out that the war effort was not working. Particularly when the Papers were printed in book form (as they quickly were), the government’s own documents could be used to settle some of the debates over the war. All the reporting that had caused so much controversy and bitterness for the Saigon press corps in the 1962-65 period was fully documented. In fact, if anything, the Papers indicated that the situation was even worse (and more duplicitous) than even the most critical reporting had indicated. If they were going to report on the government, reporters concluded, they were going to have to get a lot more cynical. And now, in the wake of the revelations, reporters would find that more of their editors shared the new outlook. The older generation–ex-Marines like Sulzberger and ex-Navy men like Bradlee–were coming to see that the government reflected in the Pentagon Papers was not the same outfit they had served in.

The Pentagon Papers case also had an impact on American culture and politics. In terms of the “credibility gap,” the Pentagon Papers blew it wide open. The gap now became a chasm that threatened to swallow up every powerful institution in the country. No one could read the documents, or even the stories about them, without taking away the deeper message: the officials who run the White House and the Pentagon do not level with the American people. They exaggerate, they prevaricate, they even lie – all in pursuit of their own agendas. In terms of domestic politics, the Pentagon Papers provided fresh fuel for the antiwar movement. The government’s own words proved how duplicitous and ultimately ineffective U.S. policy had been in Vietnam. The release of the Papers also provided evidence that the government routinely abused the power to classify information, hiding materials from the public based on convenience or politics rather than national survival, and it showed that officials rarely caught up with the need to de-classify information so that it could be made widely available to the public.

In a narrower political sense, the Pentagon Papers had the effect of ratcheting up the war between Nixon and the press. Nixon had always resented and loathed the press, and the outcome in this case left him apoplectic. One result was a desperate attempt to control information by plugging “leaks.” Nixon had found that the FBI did not share his sense of urgency, so he started to demand new ways of stopping leaks. In doing so, he was heading down a road to perdition, one that would ultimately doom his presidency at a place called Watergate.

It is also important to note what the Pentagon Papers case did not do. One thing it did not do was to affect combat operations. Not a single U.S. casualty in Vietnam was ever blamed on any of the revelations. The Papers did not contain current, operational details. If they had, it is almost certain–based on a track record stretching over decades–that the press would have voluntarily censored anything of the kind.

In terms of defining the relationship between government and the press, the court ruling in the Pentagon Papers case left many questions unanswered. It did not define what legal protections, if any, might be enjoyed by government employees who divulge secret or classified information. Were these “leakers” to be treated like villains or heroes? Were they reformist “whistle-blowers” … or disloyal sneak-thiefs? The case also did not address the status of the journalists who collaborate with leakers. Do the journalists have any legal claim of confidentiality? Do they enjoy any of the privileges that protect clergymen or doctors from having to testify about the things people tell them in confidence? Is there a public benefit that would justify such a special legal status for reporters? On these matters, the court was silent, leaving them to future courts and Congress to argue over.

Specifically, the high court also sidestepped the matter of the leaker Daniel Ellsberg, whose case was not before them. Instead, he was facing criminal charges, which had been brought just one day before the Supreme Court ruling.[15] Nixon was furious at Ellsberg and wanted him destroyed. “Let’s get the son-of-a-bitch in jail,” Nixon told aides on the afternoon of June 30 as he began to outline a smear campaign against Ellsberg. “Don’t worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press. Everything . . . get it out, leak it out. We want to destroy him in the press. Press. Is that clear?” Nixon, a lawyer, had little use for the law. To him, it was all politics. And in politics, what better weapon than a leak?[16]

As it turned out, though, Nixon’s determination to play rough with Ellsberg backfired. Eventually, Ellsberg was brought to trial in a federal court in California, represented by radical attorney Leonard Boudin.[17] Ellsberg was charged with stealing government property, conspiracy, and violating the Espionage Act. After months of proceedings, his trial was suddenly halted. Judge Matthew Byrne got word from the government’s lawyers about something he just could not stomach. Not only had the Nixon administration tapped Ellsberg’s phones. Not only had the government hired goons to break up a rally where Ellsberg was speaking. Not only did the White House dangle the offer of making Judge Byrne the head of the FBI, while he was still presiding over the trial. The real bombshell was that two men hired by the White House to plug leaks for Nixon–known by the nickname “Plumbers”–had taken the president at his word that they should find a way to disgrace Ellsberg. What these plumbers, ex-CIA man Howard Hunt and ex-FBI man G. Gordon Liddy, decided to do was to burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in hopes of finding something they could use against him (or in hopes of finding something on the psychiatrist that they could use to pressure the doctor to break confidentiality and spill something juicy about his client). When Judge Byrne heard about the burglary, he had had enough. “The totality of the circumstances of this case,” he declared, “offend ‘a sense of justice’.”

Case dismissed.[18]

[1] Under the circumstances, however, it is debatable whether Ellsberg “stole” anything.

[2] Others included the main authors, Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb.

[3] Since he first started photocopying in 1969, he had made several sets, for the senators he hoped would make them public. He also decided later to salt several extra sets away in the apartments of various friends, to thwart any attempt by the government to silence him. During the copying process, Ellsberg decided that it might be intimidating for a recipient of a leaked copy to see the stamp TOP SECRET on each page. So, he embarked on what he referred to sardonically as “instant declassification”–going through all 7,000 pages and using a scissor to cut out the classification stamp. From that adulterated copy he made further copies which bore (almost) no indication of their secret status. Despite his best efforts, though, even late “editions” still included a page here and there with the TOP SECRET legend.

[4] In fact, Ellsberg made available only 43 of the 47 volumes, withholding four volumes of diplomatic history that contained many still-important secrets.

[5] In this way, Sheehan may have broken trust with Ellsberg, but he may also have done him a big favor. If it ever all came out in a criminal trial, Ellsberg could assert that he had not actually “given” the study to Sheehan. The reporter was, in other words, taking the whole potential liability upon himself. According to Times editor Max Frankel, “Neil was never given the material, and Ellsberg never authorized its duplication. This was not the kind of deal anticipated in Journalism 101, but it was hardly shocking to me and other reporters who had often trafficked in top secret military and diplomatic information.” (See Rudenstine, pg. 53.)

[6] At one meeting, Loeb was accompanied by another of his firm’s senior partners, Herbert Brownell, who had been attorney general under Eisenhower and who had drafted the Executive Order that established the federal system for classifying information. Brownell warned Sulzberger that he would probably go to jail.

[7] At one point, the influential Washington bureau chief and columnist James “Scotty” Reston threatened that if the Times did not go forward and publish, then he would print the Papers in his little newspaper on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, the Gazette.

[8] When he retired in October 1997, after thirty-four years of publishing the Times, Sulzberger was asked what had been his toughest decision. Without hesitation, he said it had been the Pentagon Papers case.

[9] According to the tapes of Nixon’s phone call to Mitchell on June 15, the attorney general and the president were feeling confident.

Mitchell: “We got a good judge on it – uh, Murray Gurfein . . . ”

Nixon: “I know him well – smart as hell.”

Mitchell: “Yeah, and – uh, he’s new, and – he’s appreciative, so . . . ”

Nixon: [laughing] “Good!”

Mitchell: “We ought to work it out.”

[10] Some members of the Times staff wanted to print the following day’s paper with a big chunk of white space where the Pentagon Papers story would have appeared as a mute protest against censorship, but the paper appeared as usual.

[11] In the end, the stock offer went ahead, along lines similar to those used by the Times in 1969. The Post offered about 1 million Class A shares, which were all owned by members of the Graham family, and about 10 million Class B shares, which could be bought by the public. Two years later, a big chunk of the Class B shares were bought by investor Warren Buffett, who became an important friend and adviser to Kay Graham. The date of the initial public offering was June 15, 1971, the day before Bagdikian got his copy of the Pentagon Papers.

[12] In this trial by fire, many see the forging of an important bond of trust and mutual respect between Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee that would help them through the Watergate crisis a year later. (See Katharine Graham, Personal History, pg. 450.)

[13] Ellsberg explained later that he picked most of the newspapers based on their degree of opposition to the war.

[14] The most notable exception since 1971 came in 1979, when the government attempted to stop a magazine called The Progressive from printing what the magazine called “the H-Bomb Secret.” Citing the standard for prior restraint articulated in the Pentagon Papers case, the federal judge in theProgressive case ruled that the government had met its burden of showing “grave, direct, immediate and irreparable harm to the United States” and granted a TRO. While the case was pending, however, others published details about H-bomb construction, forcing the government to drop its case against the Progressive on the grounds that it was now moot because the secrets were tumbling out in a variety of public forums.

[15] Ellsberg was almost immediately “outed” by a journalist who was not involved in the Pentagon Papers case: Sidney Zion, a former Times reporter who had left the paper in 1970 to found Scanlan’s Monthly magazine. Although Zion had no first-hand information, he publicly identified Ellsberg on a radio show in New York. (See Arthur Gelb, City Room, pgs. 563-4) Ellsberg fully expected that the FBI would know it was he who had leaked, so he was not particularly upset with Zion. (See Ellsberg, pgs. 393-4.)

[16] Nixon always seemed to make a major distinction between authorized leaks and unauthorizedleaks. The former was a tool of governance; the latter was a personal affront and an abomination.

[17] Boudin was assisted in the case by a young lawyer and Harvard law professor named Charles Nesson, who would become one of the most famous law professors of the following decades. Nesson became a leading avatar of the Internet and was a founder of the influential Berkman Center on the Internet & Society at Harvard.

[18] Erwin Griswold, who, as the solicitor general of the United States in 1971, had argued the government’s side in the Pentagon Papers case before the Supreme Court, may deserve the last word. Writing an op-ed essay in 1989 (in, of all places, The Washington Post), Griswold observed:

I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat . . . It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another. There may be some basis for short-term classification while plans are being made, or negotiations are going on, but apart from details of weapons systems, there is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past. This is the lesson of the Pentagon Papers experience, and it may be relevant now.

[i] This section is based on the masterful account of the Pentagon Papers by law professor David Rudenstine, The Day the Presses Stopped. Also essential are some other secondary sources, including Halberstam, Powers that Be, 564-86; Stone, Perilous Times, 500-25; Tifft and Jones, The Trust, chap. 32; Ritchie, Reporting from Washington, 254-7. In addition, several of the principals have written memoirs of the case. The most detailed is Ellberg’s Secrets. Also valuable are the relevant portions of Graham’s Personal History, Bradlee’s A Good Life, and Max Frankel’s The Times of My Life. In addition to the court rulings in the case, the briefs (including the “secret brief” made available by the National Security Archives) also proved indispensable. For an excellent collection of documents and analysis, see the National Security Archive website devoted to the case, edited by Tom Blanton.

[ii] Rudenstine, 2.

[iii] Ellsberg, chap 26.

[iv] Max Frankel, who was the Washington bureau chief at the time and, thus, Sheehan’s immediate boss, says it was $2,000. See Frankel The Times of My Life, 325.

[v] Halberstam, Powers that Be, 565-86.

[vi] See transcript at NSA site:

[vii] Quoted in Frankel, 335.

[viii] Later a journalism professor and author of the influential book The New Media Monopoly.

[ix] For Ellsberg’s version, see Secrets, chap. 32.

[x] Bradlee, Good Life, 315.

[xi] When the Times’ long-time laws firm balked, Goodale recruited Bickel and a young First Amendment expert, Floyd Abrams, to help with the case.

[xii] New York Times v. United States. 403 U.S. 713 (1971).


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