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In 1971, a 22-year-old named Robert Rosenthal got a call from his boss at The New York Times. He was told to go to Room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel, bring enough clothes for at least a month and not tell anyone.

Rosenthal was part of a team called in to publish the Pentagon Papers, an explosive history of the United States’ political and military actions in Vietnam that shattered the government’s narratives about the war. Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the secret papers to the press. In this episode, we hear the experiences of both Ellsberg and Rosenthal. 

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he was turning his back on a long career close to power, immersed in government secrets. His work as a nuclear war strategist made him fear that a small conflict could erupt into a nuclear holocaust.

When the Vietnam War flared, Ellsberg worried his worst fears would be realized. He wonders if leaking the top-secret report he’s read could help stop the war. Soon, he was secretly copying the 7,000-page history that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers and showing them to anyone he thought could help.

President Richard Nixon wakes up to the biggest leak in American history. But his first reaction is a little surprising: The Pentagon Papers might make trouble for the Democrats – this instinct starts a chain reaction that helps bring down his presidency.

This episode was originally aired in May 2016.

Dig Deeper

Read: A young journalist witnesses history with Pentagon Papers

Listen: Caught on tape – the presidential edition

Credits

Producer and reporter: Michael Corey | Editor: Kat Snow | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Claire Mullen with help from Katherine Rae Mondo | Episode art: Anna Vignet | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson | 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.

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 Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch 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.

Speaker 1:This episode is sponsored by Today Explained, a daily news podcast from Vox. You might know Vox for its award-winning explanatory journalism and that’s what this show brings to audio. In fact, Today Explained recently won the award for best news podcast from the Podcast Academy. It’s a show that will help you wrap your head around the headlines, but they also have a little fun creating original songs, fielding listener questions, and covering unexpected stories in science and pop culture. Find Today Explained in your favorite podcast app.

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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Robert Rosentha…:I was at a friend’s place and …
Michael Corey:Okay, I heard a laugh there. What was going on at the friend’s?
Robert Rosentha…:I was also high, smoking a joint.
Al Letson:That’s Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal. He used to run our newsroom and is now one of our board members. He’s talking to our former colleague, Michael Corey. Rosie’s a born storyteller and the story we’re about to bring you has become one of our favorites. I love it so much because it intersects with history, free speech, and the power of the press. And of course, Rosie. The story begins in 1971 and Rosie is about six months into an entry level job at the New York Times.
Robert Rosentha…:And the phone rings, we didn’t pay any attention, but then I hear his mother’s voice saying, “Robert.” She called me Robert. “Robert, it’s for you.” I’m like, “Who knows I’m here?”
Al Letson:It was one of the top editors at the Times. He told Rosie, “Don’t come into the newsroom in the morning. Go to room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel.”
Robert Rosentha…:Don’t tell anyone where you’re going and bring enough clothes for at least a month. I was like, “What?”
Al Letson:Rosie 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 Rosentha…: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. I remember saying, “Risky? Why it’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 published by the New York Times. One of the Times reporters who broke that story, Neil Sheehan died earlier this year at 84. We thought we’d revisit the story of the Pentagon Papers now. You see, back in 1971 when Rosie was just 22 years old, it was that story that would contribute to President Nixon’s downfall. And Rosie, he had a front row seat.
Robert Rosentha…:That whole experience for me really shaped my career in terms of taking risks and working with great people and understanding the power of the press. And it was fun, it was really fun.
Al Letson:Rosie shares a particular bond with a 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 7000 pages. Ellsberg and Rosie had known each other for a while, but they never sat down and talked in detail about their experience so we went to Ellsberg’s house.
Robert Rosentha…:Thank you for doing this.
Daniel Ellsberg:I’m used to getting filmed here a lot. They don’t have such fancy sound equipment.
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, 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 7000 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, possibly going to go blind.
Robert Rosentha…:I remember the green light, the green ray thinking is this going to sterilize me.
Daniel Ellsberg:So you had the same concern?
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 in 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.

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 are 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:My early life is 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 pacifism 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. There was a Marine poster that said, “Are you man enough to be a Marine?” And like a lot of people, I wanted to find that out.
Michael Corey:Ellsberg was up to it and he even re-uped 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:That was the 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 nation’s 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 have 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 Roan, 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: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:But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but never the less distinguishable post-war environments. One where you got 20 million people killed and the other where you’ve got 150 million people killed.
Mr. President:You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.
General: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 thing aside from the laughs, everything could have 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 Rosie, 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 Rosentha…:So you’re getting access to documents that say, “Top Secret: Eyes of the President Only” 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, very well. 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 affect.
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.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.

On August 4, 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 reveal how the government lied to the American people and Congress about the Vietnam War. 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 over-eager 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:All of this might have been nothing, there might not have been any torpedoes, but you wouldn’t know it from what happened next. Reveal’s Michael Corey picks up the story.
Michael Corey:That night President Lyndon Johnson went on TV to tell the nation that he had ordered air strikes. 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 has 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 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.
Reporter1:Does that mean ground forces are being put into Vietnam?
Robert McNamara:No it does not.
Reporter2: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 a movement such forces as might be necessary.
Reporter2:Could you repeat that first part about no troops in Vietnam?
Michael Corey:But this right here, this was the tipping point that mired America in Vietnam.
Reporter1:Have combat units been moved into North Vietnam?
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 Rosie again.
Robert Rosentha…: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 are lying about it.
Robert Rosentha…: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 on 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. He got caught in an ambush and he learned that much of what war commanders were telling Washington was a lie.

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.
Reporter3:The stated purpose of the demonstration was to again, stop the draft.
Michael Corey:And the news media was full of protesters 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 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 vast 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 are 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 know 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 promises 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. The 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, 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 anti-war 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, what had my understanding changed. In the summer of 1969, I read the earliest parts of the Pentagon Papers, which I had put off until 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 America 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 asked the US for help. But Americans aren’t ready to do that. Colonialism is 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 Americans 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 the process of murder that was still going on, I wasn’t interested in just 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 this 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.
Speaker 13:[inaudible]
Daniel Ellsberg:Oh, Henry, I’d use a nuclear bomb. Got that, Henry? Kissinger would say, Mr. President, I think that would be too much. Too much, Henry? That’s too big. I just want you to think big, for Christ’s sake.
Speaker 13:I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake.
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. I took the papers out from my safe and began copying them and I did that for really 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 on to 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 it on the side. Eventually Sheehan persuaded him to hand over all 7000 pages.
Daniel Ellsberg:He kept telling me that. He says, “No, they’re not interested.” This was back burner as far as they were 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 Rosie 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 Rosentha…: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. I basically said, “Who is this?” And he said, “I’m serious.” I had no idea, it was a strange phone call.
Daniel Ellsberg:So you stayed at the Hilton?
Robert Rosentha…:Yeah. I slept in a room with two huge filing cabinets that had thousands … I slept with the Pentagon Papers.
Daniel Ellsberg:How many other people were doing what you were doing?
Robert Rosentha…:The whole team was probably, by the time it got finished, over 20. There was a tremendous amount of pressure and a sense that at 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 Rosentha…: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 four men 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 are 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 are 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 or with friends he could trust. If the FBI happened to stop by on this day, he’d be caught red handed.
Daniel Ellsberg:I hang up the phone and I called Neil Sheehan. Neil is not available.
Michael Corey:Do you know who you talked to?
Daniel Ellsberg:Huh?
Michael Corey:Do you know who you talked to at the Times?
Daniel Ellsberg:No, no. I forget.
Michael Corey:You? Spoiler alert, it was Rosie.
Robert Rosentha…:I answered the phone at the foreign desk and it was about 4:00 maybe on a Saturday afternoon.
Daniel Ellsberg:Yeah, right.
Robert Rosentha…:The tension in the newsroom was incredible because the paper was coming out in the bull dog, 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, “Is Neil Sheehan there? 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.” 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 Rosentha…:No. He was back at the Hilton. I said, “It’s some guy who sounds like he has to talk to Sheehan and he said his name is Daniel Ellsberg.” 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 Rosie, “Get rid of the guy.”
Robert Rosentha…: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:So, Neil is not available so I then pick up the phone and call Howard Zen 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 had given Howard about 1000 pages of it and Noam Chomsky about a 1000 pages as he was storing those 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:I said, “Howard, I’ve got to store some more stuff with you. The FBI might come any minute.” I said let me come by your place. I want to drop something off. So somebody else has also 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 are 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 the FBI in a movie theater, baked and watching Butch Cassidy, the presses were rolling for the Sunday paper.
Al Letson:It’s June 13, 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.
President Nixon:Okay. Nothing else of interest in the world today?
General Haig:Yes, sir. Very significant, this god damned New York Times expose.
Al Letson:Next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Do you want to know more about how we do what we do? Well, our weekly newsletter takes you behind the scenes. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure we like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. Just text NEWSLETTER to 474747. You can text STOP at any time, standard data rates apply. Again, text NEWSLETTER to 474747.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s June 13, 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 news stands. Americans are about to learn much of what they’ve 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 “Rosie” Rosenthal remembers wondering, would the FBI swoop in and confiscate the documents, would they all get arrested?
Robert Rosentha…:Nothing happened that Sunday. I remember being in the Hilton with Neil Sheehan, 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. Just a note, there’s some salty language in some of these tapes.
President Nixon:Okay. Nothing else of interest in the world?
Ike Sriskandara…:Yes, sir. Very significant this god damned New York Times expose of the most highly classified documents of the war.
President Nixon:Oh that. I see. I didn’t read the story, but you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon?
Ike Sriskandara…:This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I’ve ever seen.
President Nixon:Well, what’s being done about it then? I mean, did we know this was coming out?
Ike Sriskandara…:No, we did not, sir.
President Nixon:I’d just start right at the top and fire some people. Whatever department it came out of, I’d fire the top guy.
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.
General Haig:But it’s something that is a mixed bag. It’s a tough attack on Kennedy. It shows that the genesis of the war really occurred in 61. That’s [inaudible]. And it’s brutal on President Johnson. They are going to end up in a massive gun fight in the democratic party on this thing.
President Nixon: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.
President Nixon:Hello.
Speaker 16:It’s Mr. Erlichman calling you, sir.
President Nixon:Yeah, okay.
Speaker 16:Sir.
Mr. Erlichman:Hello. Mr. President, the Attorney General’s called a couple of 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 waive 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 before tomorrow comes out.
President Nixon:I realize there are negatives to this in terms of a vote on the Hill. You mean to prosecute the Times?
Mr. Erlichman:Right.
President Nixon:Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the god damned pricks that gave it to them.
Mr. Erlichman:Yeah. If you can find out who that is.
President Nixon:Yeah, I know. I mean, could the Times be prosecuted?
Mr. Erlichman:Apparently so.
President Nixon:Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Could they 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 are violating the law by possessing or publishing the papers. Nixon finally agrees.
President Nixon:Look, as far as the Times is concerned, hell, they are our enemies. I think we just ought to do it anyway.
Michael Corey:As Rosie told me and Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, the Times was about to learn that they had the White House’s full attention.
Robert Rosentha…:Monday’s stories came out and it got some more attention, but then it exploded when the Attorney General John Mitchell asked the Times not to publish.
Michael Corey:How did he ask the Times?
Robert Rosentha…:It was in a brief telegram in those days and I happened to be in the room where all the stuff came in and the teletype machine, clack, clack, clack, clack. And it was a telex to Punch Sulzberger, a telegram basically requesting ceasing publication because of national security. That was on Monday. If you go back to look at the-
Daniel Ellsberg:You saw it? You’re the one that saw it coming?
Robert Rosentha…:I saw it. I ripped it off and ran, I happened to be there. 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 Rosentha…:All the editors went up to his office and kept a line open and I was literally in the room because I had to hold the phone.
Daniel Ellsberg:Which room?
Robert Rosentha…:The publisher’s office on the 11th floor of the Times because they were waiting to see what he would do.
Daniel Ellsberg:And you were actually there?
Robert Rosentha…:Yeah.
Daniel Ellsberg:Jeesh.
Robert Rosentha…:In the room. And hearing this incredible discussion around what to do.
Daniel Ellsberg:Do you remember anything of the discussion?
Robert Rosentha…: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 Rosentha…:Listening to everything 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 Rosentha…:It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a scene that was out of the movies because they had to stop … it wasn’t clear what would happen so they literally stopped the presses.
Daniel Ellsberg:They did stop the presses?
Robert Rosentha…: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 Rosentha…: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 Rosie to go tell the newsroom. The Times top editor was Abe Rosenthal, who is no relation to Rosie Rosenthal, but Rosie’s father who was a prominent journalism professor had actually gotten Abe his first newspaper job.
Robert Rosentha…: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 Rosentha…: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.
Reporter4: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 anymore 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 night papers, the Christian Science Monitor.
Reporter4: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.
Reporter4: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-
Reporter5:The latest batch of Pentagon Papers shows how deeply the US was involved in Vietnam even during the Eisenhower administration. For example, by 1958-
Reporter4: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, bigger the next year. The public knew more and they 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 on 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 wants 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.
HR Haldeman:[inaudible]
Michael Corey:Maybe they could blackmail Johnson.
HR Haldeman:You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff and it might be worth doing.
Michael Corey:Haldeman explains that White House aide, Tom Houston, thinks there might be copies of classified files that would embarrass Johnson at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
HR Haldeman:[inaudible]
Michael Corey:Did you catch that? Nixon says he wants Houston’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 asks for doesn’t appear to have ever happened, but this sounds familiar. This started in motion a chain reaction.
Robert Rosentha…:That gave birth to the 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.
Reporter5: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.
Reporter5:In Los Angeles today, federal judge, Matt Burn, interrupted testimony at the Pentagon Papers trial with a dramatic announcement. Burn 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:Judge Matt Burn 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 will 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 from perjuring themselves in front of the 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.
Reporter6: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 days the focus has shifted from the burglary to the much more important question of a possible cover-up in the White House itself, of 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. Reveal’s Michael Corey joins me in the studio along with Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal. Hey guys.
Robert Rosentha…:Hey.
Michael Corey:Hi.
Al Letson:Rosie, this was a personal journey for you. This started off when you were like in your 20s. I’m not going to say how old you are now, but it’s been a little bit of time.
Robert Rosentha…:You could figure it out. I was 22 and for me personally as a journalist, it really showed me from the inside the role of the press in a 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:Ellsberg never intended to take down Nixon. 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 that 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 Rosentha…: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 Rosentha…: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 civil rights movement, 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 Reveal’s Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal and Michael Corey. Thank you guys for coming in.
Robert Rosentha…:Thank you, Al.
Al Letson:Michael Corey 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. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Sound design for today’s show was by J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire “C Note” Mullin with help from Brett Simpson. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Katherine T. McArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 23:From PRX.

Michael Corey is Reveal's senior data editor. He leads a team of data journalists who seek to distill large datasets into compelling and easily understandable stories using the tools of journalism, statistics and programming. His specialties include mapping, the U.S.-Mexico border, scientific data and working with remote sensing. Corey's work has been honored with an Online Journalism Award, an Emmy Award, a Polk Award, an IRE Medal and other national awards. He previously worked for the Des Moines Register and graduated from Drake University. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa is the production manager for Reveal. She is pursuing a master's degree in journalism with a focus on audio and data at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a Dean’s Merit Fellow and an Islamic Scholarship Fund scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on KALW and KALX.  Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office. 

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is the sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the scoring, recording, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He co-founded a film scoring boutique called Manhattan Composers Collective and worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio geared toward media and ad spots. Arruda worked with clients such as Marvel and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck + Company, Buck and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles such as Krychek, Dark Inc., the New York Arabic Orchestra and Art&Sax. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker.” Arruda has scored extensively for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which have premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. Arruda is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.