Robert J. Rosenthal worked with The New York Times team on the Pentagon Papers series in 1971. Credit: Ariane Wu/CIR

UPDATE, May 21, 2016:  A few weeks ago, just before his 85th birthday, I went to the home of Daniel Ellsberg with Michael Corey, Reveal’s senior news applications developer. What followed was a five-hour history lesson with Ellsberg plumbing the back story of the Pentagon Papers, the classified documents that Ellsberg leaked in 1971.

My small role on the historic project as an editorial assistant at The New York Times led me to cross paths with Ellsberg 45 years ago. Some people saw Ellsberg as a traitor, and others a hero. But there is no question that his decision to leak the Pentagon Papers ushered him into the pantheon of controversial whistleblowers.

Ellsberg’s life story – where he has been and what he has done – is spectacularly unique. His memory is cinematic. He is still hellbent on making a difference. His passion is nuclear proliferation and the very real nuclear threats that still exist today.

Our recent conversation provided the foundation for our latest episode of Reveal, a fresh perspective on the history of the leak, how it echoes the ongoing debate over government secrets and what happens to the people who expose them.

What follows is a piece I originally published on June 13, 2011, recounting my experience working on the Pentagon Papers. Listen to our episode for the full story.

When the phone rang at the The New York Times on a Saturday afternoon 40 years ago, I picked it up after a couple of rings.

“Foreign desk,” I said.

There was an excited, agitated man on the other end: “I need to speak to Neil Sheehan, I need him right away, and it’s urgent. I have to talk to him.”

I was on the periphery to one of journalism’s most important moments. The Times was a few hours away from printing the first installment of the Pentagon Papers in the edition of June 13, 1971.

And for weeks, I had been part of the team secretly cloistered at the Hilton Hotel. I knew where Sheehan, the lead reporter on the project, was, but I wasn’t about to say where.

“Who is this, please?” I asked.

“This is Daniel Ellsberg, and I need Sheehan. It’s urgent.”

At that moment, I had no idea who Ellsberg was, but I knew he was very agitated, and I thought it might be important. Times editors were huddled around a desk a few feet away from me. There was an intense air of excitement and anticipation around all of us. No newspaper had ever done what The Times was about to do: publish a multi-part series based on still-classified “top secret” documents.

I interrupted the editors.

“There’s a guy on the phone who’s incredibly excited and he says he has to talk to Sheehan, and he said his name is Daniel Ellsberg,” I said.

Two of the editors took a step back and began waving their arms in a circular motion, saying, “No. No. No.” I saw one of them mouth, “It’s the source.”

I remember thinking, “Holy shit.”

“Tell him you don’t know where he is and hang up,” one of them said.

A few hours later, I watched as a team of foremen in the pressroom wheeled in the pages of type that had been set secretly for the Sunday edition’s first installment.

When the papers came off the press, I grabbed a few, took a cab from the West 43rd Street Times building and went to the Hilton on 6th Avenue. I was so excited I could barely breathe as I knocked on the door of a room where Sheehan and other reporters and editors on the project were waiting for the bulldog edition.

They all grabbed at the A section as I tossed them on a bed. They all read quietly, shaking their heads. Months of work were in their hands. They were looking for typos, checking out the headlines, reading work they all almost knew by heart.

By Sunday night, there was almost zero reaction to the first day’s installment. The mood was fairly grim at the Hilton. Monday’s installment with the headline, “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before ’64 Election, Study Says,” also did not generate much reaction.

But from the Nixon White House, a reaction was coming.

Late on the afternoon of June 14, a telegram was sent to The Times. I was in the third-floor wire room of The Times newsroom. This was where all the stories came in from the wire services and from Times correspondents around the nation and world. The room chattered with clacking keys, and sheets of paper spewed from dozens of machines.

The Times may have been told a telegram was coming from Attorney General John Mitchell. For some reason, I was right there and watched as the type came pounding across the page addressed to “Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, president and publisher of The Times.”

The telegram said The Times on June 13 and 14 had published “information relating to the national defense of the United States and bears a top secret classification. As such, publication of this information is directly prohibited by the provisions of the Espionage Law. …”

The telegram concluded:

“Accordingly, I respectfully request that you publish no further information of this character and advise me that you have made arrangements for the return of these documents to the Department of Defense.”

This was another holy shit moment. I tore the telegram off the machine and ran to the foreign desk and handed it to Jim Greenfield, foreign editor of The Times.

Sulzberger was on his way to London. Within a few minutes, Greenfield said, “Come with me,” and I was riding an elevator to the publisher’s office on the 11th floor of The Times. Sulzberger was due to land at Heathrow Airport, and Tony Lewis, the London bureau chief, was sent to the airport, where he was waiting for Sulzberger with an open phone line.

I sat in the room holding a phone with Tony Lewis on the other end. In the room were Greenfield; Harding Bancroft, executive vice president of The Times; Managing Editor A.M. Rosenthal, who is not related to me; Times Vice Presidents James Goodale and Sydney Gruson; and others.

The argument about whether to publish or not, and what advice to give Sulzberger, was explosive. I remember some of it, but mostly I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m sitting here. The Kingdom and the Power. The Kingdom and the Power.”

I was 22 years old, and this was a graduate school education you could not find anywhere.

Sulzberger’s plane finally landed. I don’t recall who took the phone from me; it may have been Bancroft or Goodale. Downstairs in the newsroom, word had spread that the Nixon administration was trying to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers. This was truly a historic moment. The foreign desk was surrounded by pressmen, wearing ink-stained coveralls and little hats they’d made out of newsprint. Deadlines were going by. The press run had actually been stopped.

The decision was made to publish. Everyone crowded into the elevator. It was silent and you could smell the tension and the lingering cigarette smoke.

Abe Rosenthal knew my father very well. He had been his journalism professor at City College in New York. He was in front of me in the elevator. He could barely turn, but he did. He looked me in the eye and said, as he punctuated every word with a poke to my chest, “Don’t ever … repeat … a word … you heard tonight … to a living person… not even your father.”

I think I nodded. Remembering that moment makes me wide-eyed today.

We reached the third floor.

Rosenthal strode into the newsroom. He pumped his fist in the air and yelled, “We are going to publish!” The pressmen cheered. I felt a rush of adrenaline going up and down my spine. I got chills.

The next morning, the headline in The Times read: “Mitchell Seeks to Halt Series on Vietnam but Times Refuses.” The third installment of the Pentagon Papers headline was, “Vietnam Archive: Study Tells How Johnson Secretly Opened Way to Ground Combat.”

That Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Gurfein ordered The Times to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers. On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of The Times, and after 15 days, the series resumed. During those days, Ellsberg had eluded the FBI, and papers across the country published versions of the study.

As a very young man, I learned values during those months that have framed my entire career. Investigative reporting, and the role of journalism, is crucial to democracy and, if done well, has value to every American.

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Robert J. Rosenthal is the chief executive officer at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Rosenthal was the executive director of CIR from January 2008 to spring 2017. When he joined CIR, it had a staff of seven and when he left, it had a staff of nearly 70 and was recognized as one of the leading nonprofit newsrooms in the country. He is an award-winning journalist and worked for some of the most respected newspapers in the country, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle. Rosenthal worked for 22 years at The Inquirer, starting as a reporter and eventually becoming its executive editor in 1998. He became managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2002 and left in 2007. During this time, he led the investigation into the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. That work became known as the award-winning Chauncey Bailey Project. Before joining The Inquirer in 1979, Rosenthal worked for six years as a reporter at The Boston Globe and three and a half years at The New York Times, where he was a news assistant on the foreign desk and an editorial assistant on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pentagon Papers project. As a reporter, Rosenthal won numerous awards, including the Overseas Press Club Award for magazine writing, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for distinguished foreign correspondence and the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Third World reporting. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting and was a Pulitzer judge four times. He has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rosenthal is also currently advising or on the board of multiple journalism nonprofits. In 2018, Rosenthal was named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists for his “extraordinary contribution to the profession of journalism.”