The story of how Neil Sheehan got the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times reads like a Hollywood movie script

The story of how Neil Sheehan got the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times reads like a Hollywood movie script

The truth behind how the New York Times got ahold of the Pentagon Papers has finally come to light.

Neil Sheehan, the reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who obtained the 7,000 pages of classified government documents on the Vietnam War in 1971, long kept secret the full story of how the papers were leaked to him. Turns out, he sat down with a reporter for four hours in 2015 to unspool the entire account — on the condition that it wouldn’t be published until after his death.

Sheehan died Thursday at 84 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, and now the Times has published the story of how Sheehan got his hands on the largest disclosure of classified documents in American history at the time. The Pentagon Papers won the Times a Pulitzer for public service, and led to a landmark Supreme Court decision protecting the First Amendment right for the paper to print the materials, defying the Nixon administration’s attempt to cease publication.

And what a story Sheehan had to tell.

The Times piece describes it as “a tale as suspenseful and cinematic as anyone in Hollywood might concoct,” featuring long nights feverishly making clandestine photocopies of classified documents in suburban copy shops, and even burning evidence on a Brazilian diplomat’s barbecue grill. Here are some highlights, or read the entire account at the New York Times.

Sheehan’s confidential source Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst, had illicitly copied the 7,000 pages of secret history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. But Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to Sheehan; he told him that he could read them in a Cambridge, Mass. apartment, and present the information to the Times, but Sheehan could not make copies. So Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment once Ellsberg left to make secret copies of his own.

Neil Sheehan, reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times, shown in 1988.

AP Photo/Ed Bailey

Sheehan and his wife, New Yorker writer Susan Sheehan, checked into Massachusetts motels under aliases, toting suitcases and large envelopes to carry the thousands of pages back and forth from the apartment to places where they could copy them. The machines at one suburban copy shop crashed under the strain. Pages were kept at times in lockers at the Boston bus terminal and at Logan airport.

Once they were finished copying the documents, the Sheehans bought an extra seat on their flight home to Washington, D.C. They strapped the stack of suitcases filled with the copied classified pages into it, as they couldn’t risk losing this baggage.

Sheehan and his editor then worked from the Jefferson Hotel in Washington for several weeks before moving to the Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan with more Times writers and editors. And he “strung Mr. Ellsberg along” for two months while he pored over the papers with an expanding team of Times editors and reporters, who hustled to read the 7,000 pages and summarize them before the government got wind of what they were doing.

Sheehan also feared Ellsberg would tip the government off at any time. His secret source had made multiple copies of the papers and paid with personal checks, approached members of Congress about holding hearings, and even offered the scoop to another Times reporter, Anthony Austin, who had opted to keep the story to himself for a book he was writing about the war.

Sheehan also described Ellsberg as becoming increasingly nervous about getting caught and going to jail, which led him to behave more “recklessly.” Sheehan said his source had “left tracks on the ceiling, on the walls, everywhere,” during his 2015 interview. “It was just luck that he didn’t get the whistle blown on the whole damn thing.”

The first installment of the Pentagon papers was published on June 13, 1971.

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