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Jan 4, 2020

The Pentagon Papers: Secrets, lies and leaks

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode was originally broadcast in May 2016. Back in 1971, a 22-year-old journalist named Robert Rosenthal got a call from his boss at The New York Times. He told him to go to Room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel, bring enough clothes for at least a month and not tell anyone. 

NOTE: Rosenthal is the former executive director at The Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces Reveal along with PRX. 


The following instances of strong language appear in this episode. Four instances of the word “goddamn” are NOT bleeped. “Pricks” @ 44:43 *HAS BEEN BLEEPED* ———- 40:13 In promo tape for the upcoming segment, a Nixon aide refers to “this goddamn New York Times exposé” 42:41: an aide to President Nixon refers to “this goddamn New York Times exposé” 44:43: In reference to the Pentagon Papers, President Nixon says that “My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks {bleeped} that gave it to them” 52:00: President Nixon says “I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files.”

Credits

This week’s show was reported and produced by Michael Corey and edited by Kat Snow.  

Special thanks to Ken Hughes and Jeffrey Kimball for historical research, Luke Nichter for help with archival audio, and Robert Thompson at the National Archives.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Claire Mullen, who had help from Amy Mostafa and Kevin Sullivan. Reveal is hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, it is your favorite host in all of podcastom. Now, for the rest of the year I'm going to be asking you to join us by becoming a member of Reveal. Reveal is all about going deep, pulling on threads, telling stories that matter. For more than three years now, Reveal has been fighting a lawsuit that's been jeopardizing our very existence. It's over a story we did about an organization called Planet Aid. Our story raised serious questions about whether international aid was actually reaching the people it was intended to help. And what's more, our story was truthful and we stand by it. We believe it's our duty to fight attacks like this. But fighting a lawsuit comes at a huge cost. Our legal fees alone total more than $7 million. Luckily, we have pro bono legal support to help our in-house counsel. But it still takes significant resources, resources that should be used to do more public service journalism. This kind of investigative journalism, well it takes time and it costs money.

 

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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Robert R.: I was at a friend's place and...

 

Michael Corey: Okay.

 

Al Letson: I heard a laugh there. What's the laugh?

 

Michael Corey: What was going on at the friend's?

 

Robert R.: I was also high, smoking a joint.

 

Al Letson: That's Robert Rosey Rosenthal. He used to run our newsroom and is now one of our board members. He's talking to our former colleague Michael Corey. Rosey's a born storyteller and the story we're about to bring you has become one of our favorites. We run it each year around this time. I guess I love it so much because it intersects with history, free speech, and the power of the press. And of course, Rosey. The story begins in 1971. And Rosey is about six months into an entry-level job at The New York Times.

 

Robert R.: And the phone rings and we didn't pay attention. But then I hear his mother's voice saying, "Robert," she called me Robert, "Robert, it's for you." Some I'm going, "Who knows I'm here?"

 

Al Letson: It was one of the top editors at The Times. He told Rosey, "Don't come in to the newsroom in the morning. Go to room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel."

 

Robert R.: "Don't tell anyone where you're going and bring enough clothes for at least a month." And I was like, "What?"

 

Al Letson: So Rosey showed up the next day and The Times had set up a whole mini newsroom in the middle of this giant hotel where they figured no one would notice them if they were careful.

 

Robert R.: "You're going to be working on a really incredible story that is top secret. It involves the US government and it's going to be risky." And I remember saying, "Risky? What's risky?" Well, within a few hours I was xeroxing the Pentagon Papers and looking at things that said, "Top secret. For your eyes only."

 

Al Letson: The Pentagon Papers, a trove of classified documents on the Vietnam War. When The New York Times published them, it set off a chain reaction that helped bring down a president. This story is especially relevant today as Americans have spent the past few months watching impeachment proceedings against President Trump. And it was this moment back in 1971 when Rosey was just 22 years old that would contribute to President Nixon's downfall. And Rosey, he had a front-row seat.

 

Robert R.: That whole experience for me really shaped my career in terms of taking risk and working with great people and understanding the power of the press. And it was fun. It was really fun.

 

Al Letson: Rosey shares a particular bond with the government insider who leaked the papers, Daniel Ellsberg. The two guys spent more time than probably anyone else on Earth secretly copying the Pentagon Papers, all 7,000 pages. Ellsberg and Rosey have known each other for a while but they've never sat down and talked in detail about their experience. So we went to Ellsberg's house.

 

Robert R.: Thank you for doing this.

 

Speaker 4: [inaudible 00:04:42].

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I'm used to getting filmed here a lot. But they don't have such fancy sound equipment.

 

Speaker 4: Yeah.

 

Al Letson: They ended up talking for hours. Now, one of the things they remembered was how much work it was to just copy the documents. It took Ellsberg a year.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I got very jealous later of these machines that could [inaudible] and they collate.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, not that kind of copy machine. This is old-school. Open the big, heavy cover, put one page in, close the cover, press start, wait, open cover, repeat 7,000 times.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Page by page. And finally it was just too slow so I would put it in without putting the heavy cover on and wondering what this was going to do to my eyes and I was possibly going to go blind eventually.

 

Robert R.: I remember the green light, the green ray, thinking, "Is this going to sterilize me?"

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Oh, so you had the same concern?

 

Robert R.: Yeah.

 

Al Letson: Before the whistleblower who raised concerns about President Trump's phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky, before Edward Snowden showed us the NSA could spy on all of us, there was Daniel Ellsberg. He is the grandfather, the OG, the original gangster whistleblower. History generally remembers Ellsberg as a hero, a champion of free speech. On the other hand, Snowden's an exile in Russia. So what's the difference? Not as much as you might think. At the time of the leak, all the same things people say about Snowden, he's a traitor threatening national security, people said about Ellsberg too. He was charged with espionage. He expected to go to prison but somehow he got away with leaking classified government documents. But this isn't a history lesson. You see, you can draw a straight line from what happened in the '70s to today and the debate over government secrets and what happens to people who expose them.

 

Al Letson: Here's Michael Corey with a story we first brought to you in May of 2016.

 

Michael Corey: Most of us have at least heard of the Pentagon Papers. What I remember from high school is that they're about Vietnam, they got leaked to the press by some guy named Daniel Ellsberg, and it was a big deal. The Pentagon Papers were a thing, then Watergate happened. But if that's what you learned in school, you missed the important part. I never learned it this way, but without the Pentagon Papers there would probably be no Watergate and maybe no Nixon resignation. And that's the story I'm going to tell today. First off, who is this guy Ellsberg?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Well my early life was spent entirely playing the piano because my mother's ambition for me was that I should become a concert pianist.

 

Michael Corey: That didn't happen. When Ellsberg was 15, his mother and sister were killed in a car crash. He and his father survived but he wasn't destined to be a pianist. And Ellsberg didn't start out a radical. Like many young Americans in the 1950s, he was deeply patriotic. He graduated from Harvard, did a fellowship in England, then, in 1954, he ditched the pacificism of his Christian Science parents and joined the military. And he didn't mess around. Ellsberg signed up with the Marines.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I wanted to see if I was up to it. Now there was a Marine poster that said, "Are you man enough to be a Marine?" And well, like a lot of people, I wanted to find that out.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg was up to it. And he even re-upped and served on a ship during the Suez Crisis. For a while, his life was basically the Marines, Harvard, the Marines, Harvard. Who does that? Finally, he got a PhD in what's called decision theory. It's a dry sounding corner of academia that asks how should people make rational choices when confronted with uncertainty? But in 1958, this wasn't a theoretical question. It was a question about nuclear weapons, specifically the big scare of the time, intercontinental ballistic missiles.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So that was a period of the so-called Missile Gap where it was understood that the Soviets would have a large force of ICBMs before we did.

 

Michael Corey: By 1961, Ellsberg had started consulting for the Kennedy administration and was now directly involved in planning America's nuclear war strategy. In this era, that strategy was called First Strike, meaning we launch our nuclear weapons before the other guy does. Suddenly, instead of abstract research, Ellsberg was deeply engrossed in some of the nations greatest secrets. And he found that in nuclear war there was plenty of uncertainty like how could the president decide quickly if an incoming attack was a false alarm?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: If he waits too long, he won't have anything to respond with. So the incentive to get planes off the ground in particular, and even perhaps to commit missiles, is very strong. And yet, there's a possibility of a false alarm. And that could've meant a war being triggered by these warnings on either side.

 

Michael Corey: If that sounds like a movie you've seen, you're right.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I went with my boss, Harry Rowen, to see Dr. Strangelove in the afternoon in DC because it was a working problem for us.

 

Michael Corey: If you haven't seen Dr. Strangelove, after you finish listening to this episode drop whatever you were going to do next and watch it. It's a comedy about nuclear war. Hilarious, right?

 

General Buck T.: If we were to immediately launch an all-out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases, we'd stand a damn good chance of catching them with their pants down.

 

Michael Corey: In this scene, a rogue commander has launched American planes carrying nuclear bombs and a general, played by George C. Scott, is arguing that maybe the president should let the planes drop them.

 

General Buck T.: But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable but nevertheless distinguishable post-war environments. One, where you got 20 million people killed and the other where you got 150 million people killed.

 

Merkin Muffley: You're talking about mass murder general, not war.

 

General Buck T.: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: And I remember we came out of that movie and we both said, "That's a documentary." It was a documentary. Everything in that scene, aside from the laughs, everything could've happened just the way as in the movie. For example, the fact that they had no way to call the planes back once they had given a go order.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg wondered if the joint chiefs of staff had ever even totaled up how many people would be killed if the US carried out its First Strike plan against the Soviet Union and China. He asked. He figured he'd embarrass them because there was no way they had done that. But as he told me and Rosey, it turned out they had.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So that was a total of 600 million, which was 100 holocausts. And this was from our First Strike. So any fighting with Soviet troops, we carry out this attack first, right away, and kill 600 million people.

 

Robert R.: So you're 30 years old, you're getting access to documents that say top secret, eyes of the president only.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.

 

Robert R.: And you have this number in your head. At that moment, if you go back to that, what was your reaction?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I remember my reaction very well. I thought, "This is the most evil plan that has existed in the history of the human species. This is an evil piece of paper. It shouldn't exist."

 

Michael Corey: But Ellsberg knew better than most people that this wasn't just a piece of paper. He knew because he wasn't the kind of analyst who stayed in his office. He had visited the airfields and actually touched one of the bombs.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I had seen the planes on alert, 10 minute alert. I'd felt one of the bombs actually. I remember it happened to be lying there on a trolley and it was warm from radioactivity.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg says he tried to push the Kennedy administration to make the war plan less rigid but he didn't really get anywhere.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I don't think I had any effect.

 

Michael Corey: So if he couldn't get Washington's hand off the nuclear hair trigger, the only hope he saw was to keep any small conflict from escalating. And it just so happened there was a small conflict that was about to explode in Vietnam.

 

Al Letson: When we come back, we pick up the story of the Pentagon Papers. Next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. On August 4th, 1964, panicked telegrams started pouring into the Pentagon. One of the people reading them was Daniel Ellsberg, the focus of our show today. He's the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers, those classified documents that revealed how the government lied to the American people and Congress about the Vietnam War. And back in 1964, Ellsberg hadn't done that yet. He was a war analyst at the Pentagon. It was actually his first day on the job and those telegram messages were coming from a Navy captain off the coast of Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf. The captain said North Vietnamese PT boats, super fast, armed with torpedoes, were firing at him. That's what Ellsberg told Reveal's Michael Corey and our former executive director Robert Rosenthal.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: One torpedo, four torpedoes, we're taking evasive action. 10 torpedoes, eventually 22 torpedoes had been fired. And then, after an hour and a half, a message comes through saying, in effect, "Hold everything. An overeager sonar man has been mistaking the beat of our ship's propeller against our wake," as we take evasive action, "as torpedo reports."

 

Al Letson: So all of this might have been nothing. There might not have been any torpedoes. But you wouldn't know it from what happened next. Reveals Michael Corey picks up the story.

 

Michael Corey: That night, President Lyndon Johnson went on TV to tell the nation that he had ordered airstrikes. And Defense Secretary Robert McNamara briefed reporters in a midnight press conference.

 

Robert McNamara: Earlier tonight, the president told the nation the United States would take appropriate action to respond to the unprovoked attacks on US Naval vessels by torpedo boats of North Vietnam. I can tell you that some of that action has already taken place. US Naval aircraft have already conducted airstrikes against the North Vietnamese bases from which these PT boats have operated.

 

Michael Corey: By the time McNamara made that statement, he already had good reasons to question what had happened. It took him decades, but he would he eventually acknowledge the whole attack had never happened in the first place. But on this night, if he had any doubts he wasn't showing them.

 

Robert McNamara: Furthermore, the United States has taken the precaution of moving substantial military reinforcements to Southeast Asia from our Pacific bases. We are also sending reinforcements to the Western Pacific from bases in the United States.

 

Speaker 9: Does that mean ground forces are being put into Vietnam?

 

Robert McNamara: No, it does not.

 

Speaker 10: Mr. Secretary,-

 

Robert McNamara: It means that we are reinforcing our forces there with such additional forces as we think may be required. And we have placed on alert for movement such forces as might be necessary.

 

Speaker 11: Could you repeat that first part about no troops in Vietnam?

 

Michael Corey: But this, right here, this was the tipping point that mired American in Vietnam.

 

Robert McNamara: ... have combat units been moved into North Vietnam.

 

Speaker 11: [inaudible 00:16:43].

 

Michael Corey: In response to the Tonkin Gulf incident, Congress authorized the president to do whatever was necessary, order bombing raids, send ground troops. Within a year, there were more than 200,000 American troops on the ground. Here's Rosey again.

 

Robert R.: So as you see this sort of political escalation and you're inside the Pentagon and you're aware that this is equivocal at best,...

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, and that they're lying about it.

 

Robert R.: And did you ever think then, "I'm trapped here. How do I get the truth out?" Did that begin the process?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: No. No, because... Really not at all at that point.

 

Michael Corey: What happened next changed Daniel Ellsberg in ways that would make him the person who would leak the Pentagon Papers. In 1965, Ellsberg was invited to go to Vietnam as part of a State Department study. Just going to Vietnam sets him apart from a lot of Pentagon colleagues. But this wasn't some junket. This was Ellsberg, the former Marine. He stayed in Vietnam for two years and he did some pretty crazy stuff. He drove around on back roads no one thought were safe. He went out on patrol with combat units. He got shelled, got caught in an ambush. And he learned that much of what war commanders were telling Washington was a lie.

 

Michael Corey: The Pentagon was getting inflated body counts of how many soldiers we killed and there were glowing reports, complete with tables and charts, reporting statistics on patrols that never happened. Ellsberg also talked with the Vietnamese people, saw their fear and rage. Thousands of civilians were dying, hundreds of thousands. American and South Vietnamese soldiers were burning villages, bombing towns, spraying Agent Orange and stripping the jungle to dust and sticks. Ellsberg tasted the war and he came home convinced we were never going to win.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: The people we were fighting were not going to give up. We weren't going to beat them. They were very good soldiers and they were fighting in their backyard.

 

Michael Corey: When Ellsberg got back to the United States, it was 1967.

 

Speaker 13: The stated purpose of the demonstration was to again stop the draft.

 

Speaker 14: [inaudible] down, down.

 

Michael Corey: And the news media was full of protestors marching in the streets. Ellsberg didn't know it at the time but even Secretary of Defense McNamara had concluded Vietnam was a lost cause. McNamara had ordered a secret study about decision making in Vietnam. It was so secret even President Johnson didn't know it was happening. This study, which covered the entire history of the conflict going back to World War II, would later be called the Pentagon Papers. They were looking for researchers who had expertise in Vietnam. So they asked Ellsberg to help write it. He didn't have to plan the war anymore, now he could write about why it all went wrong.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I was still thinking of this as something that we'd had a right to do and might be doing again somewhere. And obviously we had not been successful. So the question was what could we learn from our past experience?

 

Michael Corey: While he worked on the study, Ellsberg was still seeing top secret communications about the war. And one day in 1968, he saw a memo from commanding General William Westmoreland that raised his deepest fears.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I knew there was a possibility they're using nuclear weapons. It was being discussed in the White House. And I also knew that Westmoreland was asking for a couple hundred thousand more men basically to invade North Vietnam, which would bring the Chinese in which would mean nuclear war.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg showed the top secret memo to Senator Bobby Kennedy, who was running for president. He didn't think he was out of bounds here. After all, Kennedy had been Attorney General for his brother JFK so clearly he had security clearances. A few days later, a story about the troop request showed up in The New York Times. Someone had leaked it. Ellsberg says it wasn't him and he doesn't who it was. But the story blew up. And democrats in Congress started openly turning against Johnson's war escalation. This got Ellsberg thinking about the power of leaks. Could leaks slow down the war?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: My idea was one a day so that the president would know that somebody with very high access, which I had at that time, was leaking.

 

Michael Corey: He thought that if Johnson did decide to escalate the war again, he probably wouldn't tell the American people how many troops he really wanted.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: That's what he had done for three years at this point, lied every time about what he was actually sending. This time he would know that somebody who knew what he was doing was going to leak it and he couldn't do it secretly. That was my idea.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg had spent years in the inner circle of government secrets. But now the patriotic cold warrior went rogue.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So for the first time now, I break my promise, not my oath of office but my contractual promise is not to reveal secrets.

 

Michael Corey: That's important to understand. Secrecy was an article of faith to Ellsberg and everyone he worked with. But he decided now that secrecy wasn't his highest duty.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Every member of Congress, every member of the armed services, every officer in the armed services, and every official in the executive branch takes the same oath. And it's not an oath to the president. And it's not even an oath to secrecy. It's an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

 

Michael Corey: So in 1968, a full three years before the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg staged his first real leak. He gave New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan a report claiming that the US had Vietcong and other communist troops on the run across the country. General Westmoreland had written this report for the White House at the end of the year. Problem is it was totally wrong. Just a couple of weeks later, the communists suddenly attacked military command posts all over South Vietnam in the Tet Offensive. Not bad for a force that was supposedly all but defeated.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So I leaked Westmoreland's year-end report, top secret, eyes only for the president, saying that we have emptied South Vietnam of the Vietcong.

 

Michael Corey: Westmoreland was removed from command the next day. Leaking, it turned out, could work. Though Ellsberg was still running in elite national security circles, he started meeting antiwar activists and even hanging out at peace rallies. He was leading a double life, peace activist and top secret military researcher.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: You've asked when did my understanding change. In the summer of 1969, I read the earliest parts of the Pentagon Papers which I had put off till last on the assumption that they were least relevant. In a way, that part had more effect on me than anything else because it made the effort seem illegitimate from the start.

 

Michael Corey: Now, here's more history I didn't learn in high school. I learned, and maybe you did too, that American got into Vietnam to stop communists in the north from taking over the democratic and independent South Vietnam. We were stopping aggression, right? Well, not exactly. Vietnam had been a French colony before World War II. Then, in 1945, the Vietnamese declare independence. No north, no south, one country. That lasted for about two seconds. The French want their former colony back and ask the US for help. But Americans aren't ready to do that. Colonialism's dying, let it go. But then, in 1949, China falls to the communists. Could Vietnam, just south of the border, be next? Suddenly, the US is ready to help the French and starts pouring in money and supplies.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So when I looked at that and I read that history and I said, "This isn't in the American ideals or the spirit. We're against empire. We're against colonialism."

 

Michael Corey: To Ellsberg, that meant the war was illegitimate from the beginning. He believed American's should never have been there. And that meant all the people killed on both sides were not casualties of war.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: The unjustified homicide seemed to me murder, and a process of murder that was still going on. I wasn't interested just to setting the record straight or putting out history or something, I was interested in educating people to the need to stop this war.

 

Michael Corey: Around the same time, Ellsberg learned something else that pushed him into action. The new president, Richard Nixon, wasn't actually going to deescalate the war. Nixon wanted leverage for peace talks and he decided a secret expansion of US bombing would be the way to get it. Ellsberg didn't know it at the time but Nixon was even considering a nuclear attack in Vietnam. Nixon talked about it with his advisor, Henry Kissinger, in a real Dr. Strangelove moment that actually happened. This recording is from 1972, after the Pentagon Papers were leaked, but it gives you a sense of where Nixon's head was at. The tape is super scratchy but Ellsberg knows it by heart.

 

Henry Kissinger: [inaudible]

 

Richard Nixon: Oh no, no, no, no, no. I'd rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that [inaudible 00:26:23]?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: He said, "Oh Henry, I'd use a nuclear bomb. Got that, Henry?" Kissinger would say, "Well, Mr. President, I think that would be just too much." "Too much, Henry, that's too big. I just want you to think big, for Christ's sake."

 

Richard Nixon: I just want you to think big, I mean for Christ's sakes.

 

Michael Corey: It occurred to Ellsberg that the files in his top secret safe at work, the Pentagon Papers, might be a weapon to use against the war if he could get them to the public.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: I felt I have here thousands of pages of documentation of murder. Maybe I can convince people that it's still going on. So I asked my friend Tony Russo if he knew where there was a Xerox machine.

 

Michael Corey: Keep in mind, in 1970 a Xerox machine was high-end technology. It wasn't like everyone just had one. But it turned out Tony's girlfriend did have one at her advertising agency.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So we started that night to... I took the papers out from my safe and began copying them. And I did that really for most of the next year.

 

Michael Corey: He didn't just copy the papers once, he made a bunch of copies and handed them out to friends to hang onto in case he was ever arrested. He was also showing bits of the papers to historians, think tanks, and pretty soon reporters. He called his old contact at The New York Times, Neil Sheehan, and told him what he had.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: And I didn't think The Times would do it at that point. Neil Sheehan had actually told me in the fall of '70 that he'd been taken off Vietnam affairs.

 

Michael Corey: But if Ellsberg could get him a full copy, Sheehan would try to keep looking into on the side. Eventually Sheehan persuaded him to hand over all 7,000 pages.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: He kept telling me that. He says, "No, they're not interested. This is back burner as far as they're concerned. But I want to keep at it, working at it, so that eventually I'll be able to do something with it."

 

Michael Corey: It turns out the story was definitely not on the back burner. The New York Times was actually putting together a small secret team on the Pentagon Papers. And that's where Rosey Rosenthal gets pulled back into the story. Remember, he was a 22 year old editorial assistant at the paper when he got that call from a Times editor.

 

Robert R.: And he said, "I want you to come to room 1111 at the Hilton Hotel tomorrow. Don't tell anybody where you're going and bring enough clothes for a month or more." And I basically said, "Who is this?" And he said, "I'm serious." Because I had no idea. That was a strange phone call.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So you stayed at the Hilton?

 

Robert R.: Yeah, I slept in a room with two huge filing cabinets that had thousand... I slept with the Pentagon Papers.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: How many other people were doing what you were doing?

 

Robert R.: The whole team was probably, when the time it got finished, over 20 did. There was a tremendous amount of pressure and a sense that any moment the FBI could come in and grab everything and arrest everybody.

 

Michael Corey: The Times decided to do more than just report about what was in the documents. They wanted people to be able to read the Pentagon Papers for themselves. Back then, the only way to get the documents to the public was to print them verbatim, and that's what The Times was planning to do. It would look like a wall of black text, almost no ads, for page after page after page. The New York Times was about to air out the dirty laundry of four presidents, and no one knew what would happen.

 

Robert R.: It was an amazingly elaborate process. They had to set up another room and built a room within The Times to set the type secretly. Actually, they didn't want any of the union people. They took foreman and managers to set the type secretly.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg didn't know any of this was happening, until he got a call on a Saturday afternoon from a Times editor who wasn't on the project. Ellsberg had shown him part of the study and the editor was planning on using some of it in a book.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: He said, "Well that study you told me about, they have the whole study now." I said, "Oh really?" And he said, "They're coming out with it and the building is locked up. They have private police around here to check everybody who comes in and out because they're afraid of an injunction." I said, "Oh really?"

 

Michael Corey: This was especially interesting news to Ellsberg because he happened to have a full copy of the papers in his apartment. He usually kept copies spread out in empty apartments with friends he could trust. If the FBI happened to stop by on this day, he'd be caught red-handed.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So I hang up the phone and I call Neil Sheehan. Neil is not available. So-

 

Robert R.: Do you know who you talked to?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Huh?

 

Robert R.: Do you know who you talked to at The Times?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: No, no. I forget. You?

 

Michael Corey: Spoiler alert, it was Rosey.

 

Robert R.: I answered the phone at the foreign dest and it was about 4:00 maybe on a Saturday afternoon.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, right.

 

Robert R.: The tension in the newsroom was incredible because...

 

Daniel Ellsberg: It's coming out that night.

 

Robert R.: ... the paper was coming out in the bulldog, the early edition. And we were worried still that the feds would come in and stop it. The presses were literally about to start rolling and I answered the phone and I hear the voice said, "Is Neil Sheehan? I have to speak to him. It's urgent, urgent. I need him. Where is he?" And you were intense on the phone. I didn't know who it was. And I said, "Who is this?" And you said, "It's Daniel Ellsberg." And I said, "Well, hold on." And I put my hand over the phone and I turned to two of the editors right there and I said, "It's some guy-

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Was Neil there?

 

Robert R.: No.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.

 

Robert R.: He was back at the Hilton. I said, "It's some guy who's really, it sounds like he has to talk to Sheehan and he said his name is Daniel Ellsberg." And the two editors went white in the face and they looked at each other. And one of them said, "It's the source."

 

Michael Corey: The editors wave their arms back at Rosey, "Get rid of the guy."

 

Robert R.: And I said, "I don't know. I'll tell him you called." I think I probably said. "I don't know where he is," and hung up.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Okay. So Neil is not available. So I then pick up the phone and call Howard Zinn, who I was going to see that night, to go see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the fourth time or something for me. I'd given Howard about 1,000 pages of it and Noam Chomsky about 1,000, as historians, for their interest. They were keeping it under their bed.

 

Michael Corey: And this next part makes you wonder what was he thinking?

 

Daniel Ellsberg: So I said, "Howard, I've got to store some more stuff with you. The FBI may come any minute." I said, "Let me come by your place. I want to drop something off." So somebody else also had given me a lid of grass.

 

Michael Corey: A lid of grass, that's about an ounce of marijuana.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: And I thought, "Okay, they're going to come any minute here." So he took the lid of grass there and I gave Howard the stuff, and then we smoked as much as we could and flushed the rest down the toilet.

 

Michael Corey: Yeah, so while Ellsberg was dodging he FBI in a movie theater, baked and watching Butch Cassidy, the presses were rolling for the Sunday paper.

 

Al Letson: It's June 13th, 1971 and just past midnight the first edition hits the street. The team at The New York Times is huddled, wondering what comes next. At the White House, President Nixon will wake up to get a briefing he didn't expect.

 

Richard Nixon: Okay, nothing else of interest in the world today?

 

Alexander Haig: Yes sir, very significant, this goddamn New York Times expose of...

 

Al Letson: Next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It's June 13th, 1971. A team of journalists has been working in secret out of hotel rooms for weeks. It's a Sunday morning and the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, hits newsstands. Americans are about to learn much of what they'd been told about the war is a lie. Our former colleague, Michael Corey, picks up the story which first aired in May of 2016.

 

Michael Corey: At The New York Times, everyone was waiting for the hammer to drop. Robert Rosey Rosenthal remembers wondering, "Would the FBI swoop in and confiscate the documents? Would they all get arrested?"

 

Robert R.: Nothing happened that Sunday. I remember being in the Hilton with Neil Sheehan and all the reporters, Sunday New York Times, and nothing was happening. And they were bummed. We were all bummed.

 

Michael Corey: You might expect that at the White House Nixon was blowing his stack over this. You'd be wrong. Thanks to all those secret recordings Nixon made, we know exactly what he was thinking. Here he is talking on the phone that Sunday to General Alexander Haig. And just a note, there's some salty language in some of these tapes.

 

Richard Nixon: Okay. Nothing else of interest in the world today?

 

Alexander Haig: Yes sir, very significant, this goddamn New York Times expose of the most highly classified documents of the war.

 

Richard Nixon: Oh that? I see. I didn't read the story but you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?

 

Alexander Haig: This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I've ever seen.

 

Richard Nixon: Well, well what's being done about it then? I mean I didn't...

 

Alexander Haig: Well, I called...

 

Richard Nixon: Did we know this was coming out?

 

Alexander Haig: No, we did not, sir.

 

Richard Nixon: Yeah.

 

Alexander Haig: [crosstalk 00:35:55].

 

Richard Nixon: Now, I'd just start right at the top and fire some people. I mean whoever, whatever department it came out of, I'd fire the top guy.

 

Alexander Haig: Yes sir.

 

Michael Corey: So, no, he's not happy. But for Nixon, this is more than a little tame. And what he hears next is interesting.

 

Richard Nixon: But it's something, and it's a mixed bag. It's a tough attack on Kennedy. It shows that the genesis of the war really occurred during the '61 [inaudible 00:36:20].

 

Alexander Haig: Yeah. Yeah, that's Clifford. I see.

 

Richard Nixon: And it's brutal on President Johnson. They're going to end up in a massive gut fight in the Democratic Party on this thing.

 

Alexander Haig: Are they?

 

Michael Corey: See, Nixon kind of likes the idea that The New York Times is giving the Democrats trouble. This next call is from Monday morning, after The Times ran another section of the Pentagon Papers. It's Nixon with one of his White House aides.

 

Richard Nixon: Hello.

 

Speaker 18: It's Mr. Ehrlichman calling you, sir.

 

Richard Nixon: Yeah, okay.

 

Speaker 18: Here you are.

 

Mr. Ehrlichman: Thanks. Hello.

 

Richard Nixon: Yeah.

 

Mr. Ehrlichman: Mr. President, the Attorney General's called a couple times about these New York Times stories. And he's advised by his people that unless he puts The Times on notice, he's probably going to wave any right of prosecution against the newspaper. And he is calling now to see if you would approve his putting them on notice before their first edition for tomorrow comes out? I realize there are negatives to this in terms of a vote on the Hill.

 

Richard Nixon: You mean to prosecute The Times?

 

Mr. Ehrlichman: Right.

 

Richard Nixon: Hell, I wouldn't prosecute The Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to them.

 

Mr. Ehrlichman: Yeah, if you can find who that is.

 

Richard Nixon: Yeah, I know. I mean could The Times be prosecuted?

 

Mr. Ehrlichman: Apparently so.

 

Richard Nixon: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Well, could he wait one more day. They have one more day after that. I don't know, I don't know.

 

Michael Corey: Next, Nixon calls Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell wants to put The Times on legal notice that they're violating the law by possessing or publishing the papers. Nixon finally agrees.

 

Richard Nixon: Well look, as far as The Times is concerned, hell they're our enemies. I think we just ought to do it. And anyway,...

 

Michael Corey: As Rosey told me and Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, The Times was about to learn that they had the White House's full attention.

 

Robert R.: Monday's stories came out and it got some more attention. But it exploded when the Attorney General John Mitchell asked The Times not to publish.

 

Michael Corey: How did he ask The Times?

 

Robert R.: It was in a brief telegram in those days. And I happened to be in the room where all the stuff came in. And it's a teletype machine, clack, clack, clack, and it was a telex to Punch Sulzberger, a telegram basically requesting ceasing publication because of national security. And that was on Monday. And if you go back and look at the third day.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: You saw it? You're the one who saw it come in?

 

Robert R.: Yeah, I actually saw it. I ripped it off and ran. I happened to be there. And I ran down to the foreign desk.

 

Michael Corey: This set off one of the fiercest debates that has probably ever happened inside a newsroom. Should The Times stop or should they defy the Attorney General of the United States? They needed to consult with publisher Punch Sulzberger. But at that moment, he was on a plane to London.

 

Robert R.: And all the editors went up to his office and kept the line open. And I was literally in the room because I had to hold the phone.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Which room? Where were you?

 

Robert R.: The publisher's office on the 11th floor of The Times.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: In [crosstalk 00:39:18].

 

Robert R.: Because they were waiting to see what he would do.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: And you were actually there?

 

Robert R.: Yeah, in the room. And hearing this incredible discussion around what to do.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Do you remember anything of the discussion?

 

Robert R.: What I recall was a very intense argument. And I kept sitting there going, "I can't believe I'm sitting here." I was 22 years old and I'm listening...

 

Daniel Ellsberg: 22?

 

Robert R.: ... listening to everything.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah, wow.

 

Robert R.: And it was hot again and intense.

 

Michael Corey: The editors and the paper's lawyers went back and forth. The Attorney General's note said they were violating the Espionage Act. That's serious stuff. Do we have the right to publish classified documents? What good is freedom of the press if we can't do this? Well, what good is freedom of the press if the FBI shuts us down? Are we going to take a financial hit? How much will it cost to fight this? What about our reputation? Is this worth it?

 

Robert R.: It's the only time I've ever seen a scene that was out of the movies because they had to stop the... It wasn't clear what would happen so they literally stopped the presses.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: The did stop the presses?

 

Robert R.: Well they hadn't started but they delayed them.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Yeah.

 

Michael Corey: The paper's London bureau chief, Tony Lewis, was on the other end from a phone booth at the airport waiting to snag the publisher as soon as he got in. And that's where one of the most important decisions in the history of journalism got made, inside a phone booth at Heathrow.

 

Robert R.: And they were waiting to ask the publisher what he wanted to do. And he said, "Let's publish."

 

Michael Corey: The editors crowded into an elevator, with Rosey, to go tell the newsroom. The Times top editor was Abe Rosenthal, who's no relation to Rosey Rosenthal. But Rosey's father who was a prominent journalism professor had actually gotten Abe his first newspaper job.

 

Robert R.: And he's in the elevator and he turns around and he looks at me and he pokes me in the chest and he goes, "Don't ever repeat a word you heard tonight to a living person, not even your father."

 

Daniel Ellsberg: Wow.

 

Robert R.: And then he came down into the newsroom, and it was quite dramatic. And he put his hand up and said, "We're going to publish," and there was literally a cheer.

 

Michael Corey: On Tuesday, Attorney General John Mitchell was done asking. He went to court and got a temporary restraining order. The Times was now officially banned from publishing the papers until a judge could decide on the case. The Times announced they would abide by the temporary order and stopped publication. But Ellsberg, now very much a wanted man, wasn't done. Nothing in the temporary order said another newspaper couldn't publish the papers, so he leaked them again. This time to the Washington Post. The story led the evening news.

 

Speaker 20: Good evening. The dispute between the government and the press over publication of secret Pentagon documents on the Vietnam War has spread to a second newspaper. The Justice Department late today asked for a federal court order to stop the Washington Post from printing any more information from the documents.

 

Michael Corey: Now the Post was sidelined, so Ellsberg gave a section to the Boston Globe. Another injunction. Next, they popped up in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Injunction. Then the LA Times, the Knight papers, The Christian Science Monitor.

 

Speaker 21: The substance of the Pentagon Papers is virtually lost today in the legal process drama that is rapidly turning into a farce.

 

Michael Corey: The news media was now in full revolt. After enjoining four papers, the Justice Department couldn't keep up. A new one was popping up as soon as they stopped the last one. More than 20 newspapers eventually published portions of the Pentagon Papers. And once the Supreme Court ruled, the formerly top secret papers, which few had even known existed, were now very public.

 

Speaker 22: Good evening. The Supreme Court said no to the government and yes to the newspaper, voting six to three to let The New York Times and the Washington Post print the last of the Pentagon Papers.

 

Speaker 23: The latest batch of Pentagon Papers shows how deeply the US was involved in Vietnam, even during the Eisenhower administration. For example, by 1958, Vietnam...

 

Speaker 22: One possible way of dealing with all-out Chinese intervention, which was secretly discussed at the time, was with nuclear weapons.

 

Michael Corey: But after the smoke cleared, Ellsberg figured he had failed.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: No impact on the war. The war went on.

 

Robert R.: Right.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: It was bigger the next year. The public knew more and they were even more against the war. But they were already against the war and that had no effect on Nixon. With the Pentagon Papers alone, nothing.

 

Michael Corey: And that might have been it, except remember Nixon's initial reaction to the Pentagon Papers on that first day, how he liked that the leak might make trouble for the Democrats? That was not a fleeting thought. In that first week, while The Times was under the temporary injunction, Nixon takes this idea over the edge. He's trying to deflect as much of the heat as possible to former President Lyndon Johnson. He wasn't Johnson to hold a press conference about the Pentagon Papers. Johnson isn't interested, and Nixon is getting pretty steamed about it. His chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, has an idea.

 

H.R. Haldeman: We could maybe blackmail Johnson on this stuff.

 

Richard Nixon: What?

 

Michael Corey: Maybe they could blackmail Johnson.

 

H.R. Haldeman: You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.

 

Richard Nixon: How?

 

Michael Corey: Haldman explains that White House aide Tom Huston thinks there might be copies of classified files that would embarrass Johnson at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

 

Richard Nixon: Now, do you remember Huston's plan? Implement it.

 

H.R. Haldeman: But couldn't we go over... No, Brookings has no right to have classified documents.

 

Richard Nixon: [crosstalk] I mean I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.

 

Michael Corey: Did you catch that? Nixon says he wants Huston's plan implemented on a thievery basis. He's ordering his aides to commit a crime on tape by orchestrating a break-in at Brookings. As it turns out, the break-in Nixon asked for doesn't appear to have ever happened. But this sounds familiar right? This started in motion a chain reaction.

 

Robert R.: So that gave birth to the...

 

Daniel Ellsberg: To the Plumbers.

 

Robert R.: ... Plumbers.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: To find out what else I had and stop me from putting it out.

 

Michael Corey: If you don't remember from that history class, the Plumbers were a group of former CIA guys and Nixon loyalists who did illegal work for the president. They famously got arrested while trying to bug Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. But did you ever wonder why they were called the Plumbers? Originally, one of their jobs was to stop and start leaks. And leak number one was the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg didn't know this at the time of course. He was more worried about preparing for his trial. He figured he'd be spending the rest of his life in prison. And the government was certainly going to try.

 

Speaker 26: A federal grand jury handed down new indictments today in the case of the Pentagon Papers. The charges were against Dr. Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo. The former Defense Department aide could receive a maximum of 115 years in prison and fines up to $120,000.

 

Michael Corey: Ellsberg is a free man today, so he got acquitted, right? Nope. Because the trial never got that far.

 

Speaker 27: In Los Angeles today, federal judge Matt Byrne interrupted testimony at the Pentagon Papers trial with a dramatic announcement. Byrne said he had received a memorandum from the Justice Department stating that two Watergate conspirators, Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, had burglarized the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. ABC's Dick Shoemaker has details.

 

Dick Shoemaker: The judge, Matt Byrne, read the memo to a shocked courtroom. He said the government didn't know if any information from the files was communicated to the prosecution. He wants to know if Liddy and Hunt worked for the White House at the time of the alleged crime. The defense held a hurried conference and they said the burden of proof is now on the government to show Ellsberg hasn't been compromised. It's certain there'll be a motion for a mistrial.

 

Michael Corey: I bet you thought Nixon resigned because of Watergate. But that's only sort of true. If the Plumbers had only been caught in the Watergate, yeah, some heads would probably have had to roll. But the burglars didn't actually have any evidence that implicated the president. But Nixon knew that if investigators got the Plumbers talking, they'd find out about the other illegal operations that the White House had authorized like the planned burglary at Brookings and the Ellsberg break-in.

 

Daniel Ellsberg: And so they had to be paid off to keep them quiet and keep them perjuring themselves I front of a grand jury about what other crimes they knew.

 

Michael Corey: When it comes to Nixon, we all know it was the cover-up, not the crimes, that forced him to resign. And the news media followed every twist and turn as the scandals piled up.

 

Speaker 29: Finally tonight, a word about the Watergate and other matters. When it was learned today that some of the Watergate conspirators had been involved in illegal actions relating to the Pentagon Papers case, the whole affair took on a new and more sinister air. It began with a comic opera burglary of the Democrats. And then, in the past few day, the focus has shifted form the burglary to the much more important question of a possible cover-up in the White House itself, a possible obstruction of justice. And now with word that these men with connections to the White House were engaged in other illegal practices, one frightening question must be asked, what else did they do and what else are we to learn?

 

Al Letson: The public would learn enough about Nixon to end his presidency. As for Daniel Ellsberg, the espionage case against him ended in a mistrial. Reveals Michael Corey joins me in the studio along with Robert Rosey Rosenthal. Hey guys.

 

Michael Corey: Hey.

 

Robert R.: Hi.

 

Al Letson: So Rosey, this was a personal journey for you. I mean this started off when you were in your 20s. I'm not going to say how old you are now but it's been a little bit of time.

 

Robert R.: You could figure it out. Well, I was 22. And for me personally, as a journalist, it really showed me, from the inside, the role of the press in the democracy in terms of challenging power and standing up to it, and also the role of a source who comes forward with information that may be very uncomfortable and even dangerous to publish, and it really informed my entire career.

 

Al Letson: So Ellsberg never intended to take down Nixon. I mean his idea was that the Pentagon Papers would end the war. Was he successful in that?

 

Michael Corey: Most historians would say that by the time Nixon resigned, the war was pretty much over for America. We had already withdrawn most of our troops and we had stopped airstrikes. The big worry was what might happen next.

 

Robert R.: Right. And at the time that Ellsberg was really releasing the papers, though, his biggest concern was that the US would escalate, potentially invade North Vietnam and bring in the Chinese, which he feared could lead to a nuclear war.

 

Al Letson: So what's the legacy of all this?

 

Robert R.: Cynicism about the role of government and the secrecy of government. And, again, go back to that period of time, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate capped a period which had seen the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers. There was a tremendous turmoil and this just proved in a way, the Pentagon Papers, that you couldn't trust the government. And I think that's a lasting legacy that's continued.

 

Al Letson: That's Reveals Robert Rosey Rosenthal and Michael Corey. Thank you guys for coming in.

 

Michael Corey: Thanks Al.

 

Robert R.: Thank you, Al.

 

Al Letson: Michael was our lead producer and reporter this week. The show was edited by Kat Snow. Special thanks to Jeffrey Kimball and Ken Hughes for making sure we got our history right, to Luke Nichter for helping us track down Nixon audio, and to Robert Thompson at the National Archives. To get our latest stories delivered to you inbox, subscribe to the Reveal newsletter. Just go to revealnews.org/newsletter. That's revealnews.org/newsletter. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Sound design for today's show was provided by the wonder twins, my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire [see note 00:51:26] Mullen. They had help from Amy Mostafa. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our senior supervising editor is Taki Telonidis. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado, Lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Johnathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for the Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Al Letson: These are our last few shows of the year. And let me tell you, in 2020 we are bringing the fire, launching some of our most ambitious projects we've ever done. I cannot wait for you to hear them. Reveal is all about going deep, pulling on threads, telling stories that matter. And this kind of investigative journalism, well, it takes time and it costs money. These are the final weeks of our end-of-year membership campaign. We depend on listers like you to help make this work possible. To support us, just text the word reveal to 474747. Standard data rates apply and you can text stop or cancel at any time. Again, just text the word reveal to 474747. All right, let's go do some good work together.

 

Speaker 30: From PRX.