What are the Pentagon Papers? Why did Neil Sheehan say story of how he got them could be told only after he died?

For those unaware, the Pentagon Papers was what was probably known as the scoop of the century that led to a massive showdown in 1971 between the press and President Richard Nixon


                            What are the Pentagon Papers? Why did Neil Sheehan say story of how he got them could be told only after he died?
Neil Sheehan (Getty Images)

With the passing of Pulitzer-winning journalist, Neil Sheehan on Thursday, January 6, the story of how he obtained the Pentagon Papers finally came to light. For those unaware, the Pentagon Papers was what was known as the scoop of the century that led to a massive showdown in 1971 between the press and President Richard Nixon. The Supreme Court ruling on the case, as the New York Times describes it, is still considered to be a "milepost in government-press relations". 

Sheehan had refused every invitation to publish the 7,000-page document on the Vietnam war that he had obtained for the Times. For the longest time, there was no information on how he actually pulled it off. There was an announcement in 2015 that he would tell his story on the condition that it would be published only after he passed. The papers were in fact, a secret history of US decisions that were made during the war and were commissioned by the secretary of defense in 1967. 

So, how did Neil Sheehan acquire the papers?

The late journalist recounted that journey where he defied the instructions of his source, identified as Daniel Ellsberg. The former Defense Department analyst was a key factor to these papers and their mysterious history. In 1969, he had copied the entire report and hoped to go public with it as he felt it would end a war. The New York Times' Janny Scott details the story of how Sheehan got the Pentagon Papers and also outlines the conflict he faced throughout that period.

The NYT article reveals that Ellsberg was blindsided when the initial installment of the papers was published in 1971. He learned that another Times staffer, Anthony Austin was behind the move. Ellsberg had previously shared the documents with the Times man who had plans of incorporating it for a book he was writing on the war. When he figured the exclusive would be broken by his very own newspaper, he frantically called Ellsberg who reached Sheehan, only to have his messages ignored.

While this does come across as deception, Sheehan explained that he did what he had to. “It was just luck that he didn’t get the whistle blown on the whole damn thing,” he said. Ellsberg reportedly feared going to prison as a result of which Sheehan was handed the papers on the condition that it would not have extra copies made. There was also a condition that the newspaper would not reveal the source.

“Because when The Times got it,” he said, “The Times would go ahead with it. And when it came out, he might get caught. And he didn’t have a politician yet to protect him," Sheehan had said earlier. Eventually, they decided to go ahead with the publication much to Ellsberg's reluctance. The only concern Sheehan had was of a scared Ellsberg leaking the info to anyone who would blow the whistle before the story was published.

Eventually, Sheehan acquired consent from Ellsberg to acquire the papers saying the Times could do what it pleases, a move he said was more of a "matter of conscience". The 2015 interview saw the journalist say he never revealed the identity of his source and it was another journalist outside the paper who gave the details. Sheehan also never spoke of how he obtained the papers in that interview.

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