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The Whistle-Blower: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

“We were young, we were foolish, we were arrogant, but we were right.”

—Daniel Ellsberg

The recent issue of NSA surveillance and the revelations made by Edward Snowden have drawn comparisons with another prominent whistle-blower – Daniel Ellsberg.  Starting June 13th, 1971, the New York Times printed a series of leaked government documents, detailing the extent of American involvement in the 1963 South Vietnamese coup, in the Vietnam War and in secret military operations in Cambodia and Laos. Claiming he could no longer countenance the governmental deception, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Vietnam ‘hawk’ and military analyst, copied and leaked the officially titled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. The scandal resulted in public indignation as newspaper after newspaper covered the ‘Pentagon Papers’ story and prompted a new wave of suspicion and frustration with the U.S. government. Originally charged with espionage, conspiracy and theft, Ellsberg escaped trial when investigations into the Watergate Scandal uncovered Nixon’s illegal attempts to undermine Ellsberg’s credibility.

In the following interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning September 1989, July 1998 and March 1991 respectively and with Dennis Kux beginning January 1995, Walter L. Cutler, Ward Barman, James M. Wilson and George F. Sherman discuss their experiences with the unfolding scandal. Wilson and Barman, who both worked on the Pentagon Papers Task Force, relive the frantic weeks before the Supreme Court Case— New York Times Co. v. United States—while Sherman remembers the Washington Star’s conflicted response to the government’s deception. Cutler, who was working as an Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian Affairs, complements these memoires with his recollections of the investigation into Ellsberg’s actions.

The other side of the story

George F. Sherman, Jr.
Journalist at the Washington Star

SHERMAN:  Everything was subsidiary to Vietnam. It all came to a head, I suppose, with the Pentagon Papers.  [T]he Pentagon Papers came in the middle of the Nixon Administration, in 1971. Of course, we, as other newspapers, were taken back by this scoop that the Washington Post and the New York Times had. Every paper was scrambling around to get a hold of these things. In the [right-of-center Washington] Star, it brought out all the fissures that had developed regarding the reporting on the Vietnam and the Nixon Administration….Editorially we were supporting the Nixon approach. I, in the State Department, covering Nixon’s policy, was reporting his policy as were so many of the papers Kissinger [Secretary of State Henry Kissinger] cultivated. He was my chief contact.

Q: Did you deal with him directly?

SHERMAN: Yes. [His wife] Nancy would laugh. I would be home having dinner and the telephone would ring and it would be, “Yes, Henry,” and “No, Henry.” The kids would all know that Henry Kissinger was on the phone. He had a terrific knack of making every journalist he dealt with feel like they were something special. I eventually saw it from both sides. Once I went to work for him I saw the other side of Henry Kissinger. But he dealt more with the press than with the people who worked under him and he was entirely different.

He was Mr. Charm when dealing with the press, but when he was dealing with his “colleagues” the Mr. Hyde personality came out….but at this time I was dealing with Dr. Jekyll. To be fair, Kissinger streaks above anyone else intellectually. He talked in terms that made sense, if you took the construct of his way of thinking, of his approach….I think he was probably the best Secretary of State that I dealt with on either side because he knew how to use people for his own purpose, to get things done.

Anyway, that was to come. At this time he was in the White House and the Pentagon Paper episode hit. Of course, we were charged with getting a copy of the Papers, which we did, and also reporting on the whole thing. It was a news story in itself with the Papers going to the Supreme Court and reporting on various things that were in the Papers. The Pentagon Papers was a huge essay on the whole emergence of the Vietnam issue and our involvement in it and insights from various points of view, many of them negative in terms of what actually happened. So journalism’s proper conduct we figured was to tell the other side of this story as well, which wasn’t being told totally by the Washington Post and the New York Times.

For instance, Crosby Noyes [the Noyes family owned the now-defunct Washington Star], the diplomatic editor, and I, did an interview…with George Ball [Under Secretary at the State Department], for instance, who was the house dove initially on Vietnam. We got his side of some of the episodes that were reported in the Pentagon Papers. It was a good interview. What I am saying is that the Star coming from where it was, basically a supporter of Nixon’s Vietnam policy, came across as taking pot shots at what was being revealed in the Pentagon Papers and I, of course, as diplomatic correspondent was writing a number of these stories. So, as the fissures deepened inside the Star about Vietnam, my position became more and more difficult.

Well, the editors on the desk, my immediate superiors….They recognized my talents as a journalist, but they became more and more suspicious of my objectivity. In September 1973, they decided that I should become the defense correspondent and there was a general shakeup in the handling of national security reporting. The object of the exercise was partly to get me out of the State Department. I was moved to the Defense Department against my will. I felt if I was a journalist, I should be able to cover anything.

“We failed in our effort”

Ward Barmon
Pentagon Papers Task Force

BARMON: The only other personal contact that I had with [Bill Macomber, Congressional Relations] later was when the Vietnam Task Force was put together to review the Pentagon Papers. I volunteered (silly me), to work on this task force. He was the head of it. He assembled a group of senior officers in the Vietnam Working Group Office. Steve Johnson and I were the gofers, and then we had some secretaries. Late that Friday night, the senior officers finished reviewing the text to be included in a memorandum (which was to be delivered to the Solicitor General) in order to present the U.S. governments case on Sunday morning to the Supreme Court.

So, there was a bit of a frantic atmosphere trying to prepare this memorandum. He came out after they had finished and was standing over one of the poor secretary’s backs watching her work. He was making her very nervous. I do not know what got into me. I went up to him and I said, “Sir, you are making the secretaries very nervous. Would you mind leaving them alone? We’ll make sure this gets done.” His face got red. I thought, “Uh oh, there goes my career, if not my life.” He calmed down a little bit and said, “Ward, all right! You just make sure this gets done and let me know if there are any problems!” So he stormed off to the Operations Center. We got it done. I got in a taxi Sunday morning about 8:00, went over and delivered it to the Solicitor General who presented it to the Supreme Court, and lost the case.

Q: Could you explain what the basic situation was, why you were doing this?

BARMON: Well, because the Executive Branch felt that there was classified information, including sources and methods in these papers that were pilfered from the Pentagon by Ellsberg. So our task was to review the papers and decide, which, in fact, we felt, had revealed classified information, sources, methods, etc. Therefore, we needed to make the case that these papers should be embargoed and should not be publicized. Of course, they had been already published by The New York Times and The Washington Post. I think we wanted to indict Ellsberg. We failed in our effort. It was an interesting couple of days working for this task force.

Q: What type of work were you doing?

BARMON: Junior staff assistant, gofer, fill-ins for people, for example, doing the daily Congressional Record Summary….faking Bill MacComber’s signature on all the letters to Congress, (with permission, of course), or filling in where I was needed….I also was able to attend a number of meetings, briefing sessions, with staffers and a few congressmen. Several fairly junior officers and I formed a small group to meet monthly with some staffers. We had some interesting exchanges during lunch at the Foreign Service Club.

“Three days of no sleep”

James M. Wilson, Jr.
Pentagon Papers Task Force

Q: Coming back to the State Department, did you feel divisions or rifts within the State Department on Vietnam?

WILSON: Not terribly much so….The furor had pretty much quieted down, and it didn’t raise its head again to any great extent until we got around to the Pentagon Papers. I, unfortunately, happened to get caught in the Pentagon Papers mess….Bill Macomber put the finger on me to honcho the Department’s task force vetting the papers. That was an experience I don’t want to go through again. I had three days of no sleep. We were running a deadline trying to put together a list of examples from the Pentagon Papers of the areas where our national security would be compromised by the Papers’ publication. There was one task force at the Pentagon and one task force at the Department, which included the CIA and USIA. We tried to go through all of these thousand pages or so and come up with material which we could give to the Solicitor General, Erwin Griswold, in his argument before the Supreme Court.

I had the unhappy duty of sitting down with Griswold and trying to find something that would really show that we were going to be hurt in a national security sense by the release of the Pentagon material. We couldn’t find anything….

Q: The Pentagon Papers were a rather straightforward history weren’t they?

WILSON: Well, they included a whole series of internal documents. There was a lot of discussion about executive privilege and that sort of thing, but Griswold wasn’t looking for that. He was prepared to make that argument separately. What he wanted from the task force was something he could stick his teeth into, to say that its publication actually would actually be damaging to the security of the United States….We had everybody all over us on that one. That was why we didn’t get any sleep for three days.

“I could not determine that publication was in fact a serious threat to our national security”

Walter L. Cutler
Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian Affairs

One of my special assignments…was when the Pentagon Papers were released. As you recall, these were the secret records of our involvement in Vietnam that Daniel Ellsberg obtained and made public…the whistle blower….And included in the Pentagon Papers that were released to the New York Times and Washington Post there were one or two particular volumes—sometimes referred to as the “negotiating volumes”—containing the texts of highly classified documents related to U.S. efforts to enlist intermediaries –- other governments, mostly -– to deal with the North Vietnamese and particularly to get our prisoners released.

I was asked to be the analyst for the State Department, to look at this material and to determine to what extent its public release jeopardized United States national security. At that time the Department of Justice was preparing to put Daniel Ellsberg on trial, and there was a lot of interest in the State Department’s view of how sensitive this material was with respect to our national security. While I can’t remember just how long I spent poring over these hundreds and hundreds of documents, it totally consumed my days for what seemed to be a very long time.

Considering the rather restricted definition of U.S. national security, in all honesty I could not determine to my own satisfaction that the publication of these documents was in fact a serious threat to our national security. An embarrassment? Yes. An impediment to close relations with some other governments or individual sources? Yes. But a real threat to our nation’s safety? No.

Q: Was anybody breathing down your shoulder saying, by God, we’ve got to get the bastard? 

CUTLER: Yes, there were a couple of people in charge of this at the Department of Justice. Because the compromise of these diplomatic exchanges was going to be a key element in the prosecution of Ellsberg we—or at least I—at the State Department felt under some pressure to produce.

But, as you may remember, in the end the Ellsberg trial was aborted.