In order to break the bombshell Pentagon Papers story, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan went against the wishes of his source and took the top secret documents anyway so he could make his own copies.
That detail was revealed as part of Sheehan’s full account to The New York Times about how he managed to get one of the biggest scoops in American political history, which he only agreed to share on the condition it would be published after his death.
Sheehan died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on Thursday. But he sat down for a four-hour interview in 2015 while still suffering from the disease and from scoliosis. In it, he went into riveting detail about how he got the Pentagon Papers leaked from military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
The full story reveals that Sheehan was never actually “given” the papers by Ellsberg but that he had took them out of an apartment where Ellsberg’s own copy was kept and secretly copied them to hand over to Times editors and colleagues, just as Ellsberg had copied the Pentagon Papers to tip off the press.
Sheehan further strung Ellsberg along as to what the Times’ plans were for publication as he diligently worked to finish his initial report, and he dodged some of Ellsberg’s calls when the first installment of the papers were published on June 13, 1971.
The article goes into further detail about how Sheehan used aliases while checking into motels and stashed papers in the lockers of a bus station as he moved about. And it further explains Sheehan’s relationship with Ellsberg, who feared going to prison and was reluctant to hand over full copies of the papers to the Times, leading to Sheehan’s plan to disobey his wishes and make copies for himself.
“There’s no way the Times can protect this guy,” the Times quoted Sheehan as saying, saying that his source “left tracks on the ceiling, on the walls, everywhere.”
Though Sheehan won his Pulitzer for his work covering the Vietnam War, which was documented in his book “A Bright Shining Lie,” he helped make history for his reporting on the Pentagon Papers. The documents were a detailed account of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, and they exposed numerous falsehoods promoted by the U.S. government about the war.
The Nixon administration attempted to suppress the report by bringing numerous charges against Ellsberg, and the administration filed injunctions against the Times and The Washington Post, which also reported on them. But in June 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the government failed to meet the burden of proof necessary to suppress the reporting on national security grounds.
Read the riveting full account of Neil Sheehan’s story with the Pentagon Papers here.