Gripping oral history of the Pentagon Papers from the New York Times

In 1971, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, quite possibly the biggest journalistic scoop of the century. The classified government documents, leaked by RAND Corporation consultant Daniel Ellsberg to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan (who died in January), revealed how the Johnson Administration had lied to Congress and the American people about its involvement the Vietnam War. The New York Times has just published a gripping oral history that reveals the story behind that incredible story and how it led to a tipping point in the relationship between the press and the government. From the New York Times:

I always thought what you need are hearings. Get these people under oath. They have to answer in some way or other. A newspaper can't subpoena people. Neil said, "No, no, the best way is a big spread in The New York Times." And I thought, well, he could be right.

So Ellsberg and I made this agreement: If I could get The Times to agree to publish the whole thing, they'd do their best to protect him. He'd give us the whole thing. He wouldn't be publicly announced as a source.

I was the [NYT] Washington bureau chief, and Neil was the Pentagon correspondent. He briefs me on it and I say, "Can you get a sample of the papers?" So he goes off and he brings back an envelope with a sample of the narrative, but attached to it were some obviously top-secret documents of exchanges between the Pentagon and Saigon headquarters — government decision-making types of documents. I had no doubt that they were legitimate; I'd seen enough government documents in my life. So I said, "Go to it, and see what you can get."

So I went up to Cambridge, Mass., to get a copy of the papers Xeroxed. And ho-ly Jee-sus Christ, I realized there's no way you could protect Dan Ellsberg. He was having multiple copies made, and he was paying for them with personal checks, and he had them in his apartment. He had a guy making microfilms.

He said I could read it, but he'd changed his mind: He wasn't going to let me copy a set for The Times.

I don't think Neil realized — and I took it for granted — there was no question the F.B.I. already knew who the source of this would be. There was no question of keeping that secret. I already expected to go to prison either way.

'We're Going to Publish' An Oral History of the Pentagon Papers (New York Times)