Leaked documents receive attention in county paper
“We are a small-town newspaper in pastoral northwestern Pennsylvania, far removed from and relatively untouched by the major machinations of big-city journalism and high government decision-making.
“Yet, we support, encourage and defend the New York Times and Washington Post in their efforts to publish the now-famous documents detailing how top government officials in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations took the decisions that so tragically embroiled this country in the Vietnam War.”
Daniel Ellsberg passed away a couple weeks ago at the age of 92.
He’s most widely known for leaking 47 volume Defense Department-commissioned “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force.”
We know that text as simply the Pentagon Papers.
Now I don’t want to get into the ethics of that decision here.
But, to me, the Pentagon Papers is a historical event. I have context, hindsight and decades of writing to understand, in some small way, the significance of the Pentagon Papers and the larger cultural — and legal — impacts that the fight over publication caused.
“Chronicling decades of failed U.S. policy and the scope of the ever-expanding military involvement,” according to background on the papers from the Nixon Library, “the study revealed that the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations had misled the public about the extent of the Nation’s involvement in Vietnam.”
Ellsberg told NPR that “We always knew we could never win.”
But the war continued. Tens of thousands of Americans would die. And, in some corners of the debate, the conclusion was this — many of those men died because our nation’s leaders were afraid to admit a mistake.
Not only did the leak clue the public into the reality on the ground, it also kicked off a series of legal proceedings that culminated in a landmark free press case.
So, as I’ve done in this space before, I wanted to go through how the story developed in as real-time as I can — the pages of the Warren Times-Mirror and Observer in June and early July 1971.
The opening sentences of this story were the Times-Mirror and Observer’s editorial position on June 21, 1971.
More on that in a bit.
The New York Times published its first story based on the document in the June 13 edition.
The first reference to the stories — and the ensuing fight over publication — in the local paper was four days later on June 17 with a below-the-fold story with the headline “Suit Against Times Raises Unprecedented Legal Questions.”
At this stage, it’s sufficient to say that the Nixon administration had taken the Times to court in an attempt to stop publication, citing national security concerns.
Four days after the first story, it was clear that the case was on a quick track to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court, which may finally have to resolve the fight over the Pentagon papers, has been steadfast in defending free speech when times are serene,” a story in the local paper detailed. “But when a ‘clear and present danger’ appears on the justices’ horizons, the court has landed on the side of authority.”
A district judge paused the publication while the broader legal process played out, which the paper said may have “made history” in blocking publication, quoting the Times attorney who said that this would be “the first time in the history of the republic that a judge has restrained a newspaper from publishing.”
While the legal process played out regarding publication, the paper sparred with the government over the potential return.
The Times-Mirror (I’m shortening the title for convenience sake) reported also on June 17 that the Nixon Administration made a move to get the papers back and the Times response, reported the following day, was to turn over a list of the documents on which the NYT had based its reporting.
The Times, it was reported, had raised concerns that turning over the papers might contribute to the government’s effort to uncover the source.
That second day of reporting in the Times-Mirror included the first accusation on the leaker — “A former New York Times reporter, Sidney Zion, said Wednesday night the newspaper’s source was Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department employee and now a senior research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Zion did not say where he got his information.”
The Times-Mirror article said that the government had asked a district judge to require the NYT to ruen over the papers “claiming the Times unlawfully obtained the data and through its publication ‘prejudiced the defense interests of the United States'” and that further publication would “result in irreparable injury to the United States.”
The developing story jumped above the fold as the lead story for the first time in Warren on June 19 – “CONTROVERSY OVER PENTAGON SURVEY STILL RAGING.”
By then, the Washington Post had secured a partial copy of the Papers. The government moved — unsuccessfully — to stop the Post from publishing just as the Times had been paused.
That effort was unsuccessful.
District Judge Gerhard Gessell explained his rationale: “What is presented is a raw question of preserving the freedom of the press as it confronts the efforts of the government to impose a prior restraint of essentially historical data…. The information unquestionably will be embarrassing to the United States but there is no possible way after the most full and careful hearing that a court would be able to determine the implications of publication on the conduct of government affairs or to weigh these implications against the effects of withholding information from the public.
“The Post stands in serious jeopardy of criminal prosecution. This is the only remedy our Constitution, or the Congress, has provided.”
The report explained that the Department of Justice had asked both the Times and Post to stop publishing. Both publications — without really much choice from a journalistic perspective — declined that request.
“The Post countered that the information was largely historical in nature and had nothing to do with the current defense of the United State,” the Times-Mirror article explained.
The logical conclusion of that position was the possibility that these legal efforts to stop publication shared a similarity with national policy in Vietnam that the papers detailed — a desire to conceal an embarrassing mistake.
The same NYT attorney quoted earlier put it this way: “Another installment has been published. The republic still stands, as it did the first three days.”
Reporters had started asking around about Ellsberg: “Friends and relatives could provide no clues to the whereabouts of former Pentagon aide Daniel Ellsberg, who was named by a former Times staffer as the man who gave the study to the times.” The report said he had called MIT and said “he and his wife were well and that there was no cause for concern over them….”