Time is Right for New Pentagon Papers
Of the Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Mike Gravel is probably the least well recognized. His dark-horse candidacy may be the butt of jokes on the late-night comedy shows, but that doesn’t faze former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg: “Here is a senator who was not afraid to look foolish. That is the fear that keeps people in line all their lives.”
The famed whistle-blower joined Gravel this past weekend on a panel commemorating the 35th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Beacon Press, a small, nonprofit publisher affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was this publisher that Gravel turned to in 1971, after dozens of others had turned him down, to publish the 7,000 pages that Ellsberg had delivered to Gravel to put into the public record.
The story of the leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times is famous, but how they got published as a book, with Gravel’s face on the jacket, reads like a John Grisham novel.
Ellsberg was a military analyst working for the RAND Corp. in the 1960s when he was asked to join an internal Pentagon group tasked with creating a comprehensive, secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ellsberg photocopied thousands of documents and leaked them to The New York Times, which published excerpts in June 1971.
President Richard Nixon immediately got a restraining order, stopping the newspaper from printing more. It was the first time in U.S. history that presses were stopped by federal court order. The Times fought the injunction, and won in the Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States. Following that decision, The Washington Post also began running excerpts. Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the Post on the condition that one of its editors, Ben Bagdikian, deliver a copy to Gravel.
Gravel recalled the exchange, which he set up at midnight outside the storied Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.: “I used to work in intelligence; I know how to do these things.” Gravel pulled his car up to Bagdikian’s, the two opened their trunks and Gravel heaved the boxes personally, worried that only he could claim senatorial immunity should they get caught with the leaked documents. His staff aides were posted as lookouts around the block.
Thwarted in his attempt to read the Pentagon Papers into the public record as a filibuster to block the renewal of the draft, Gravel called a late-night meeting of the obscure Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds, which he chaired, and began reading the papers aloud there. He broke down crying while reading the details of Vietnamese civilian deaths. Because he had begun the reading, he was legally able to enter all 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, once top-secret, into the public record.
Though ridiculed by the press for his emotional display, Gravel was undaunted. He wanted the Pentagon Papers published as a book so Americans could read what had been done in their name. Only Beacon Press accepted the challenge.
Robert West, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the time, approved the publication. With that decision, he said, “We started down a path that led through two and a half years of government intimidation, harassment and threat of criminal punishment.” As Beacon weathered subpoenas, FBI investigations of its bank accounts and other chilling probes, Gravel attempted to extend his senatorial immunity to the publisher. The bid failed in the U.S Supreme Court (the first time that the U.S. Senate appeared before the court), but not without a strongly worded dissent from Justice William O. Douglas: “In light of the command of the First Amendment we have no choice but to rule that here government, not the press, is lawless.”
Which brings us to today. Sitting next to West and Gravel, Ellsberg repeated the plea that he is making in speeches all over the United States: “The equivalent of the Pentagon Papers exist in safes all over Washington, not only in the Pentagon, but in the CIA, the State Department and elsewhere. My message is to them: Take the risk, reveal the truth under the lies of your own bosses and your superiors, obey your oath to the Constitution, which every one of those officials took, not to the commander in chief, but to the Constitution of the United States.”