Daniel Ellsberg speaks to the press outside his trial in Boston. Co-defendant Anthony Russo and his wife Katherine, left, and Ellsberg's wife Patricia look on.
Some of today’s most talked about news items—leaks, secrets, national security, a war on the media, and an embattled, deeply paranoid President—are the same ingredients in a variant recipe as for the events that unfolded 48 years ago in the during the reign of Richard M. Nixon. On June 13, 1971 The New York Times began publishing The Pentagon Papers, a top secret history of the military and political involvement of the highest echelons of the U. S. Government in the Vietnam War.
The study had been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and was completed in 1968. The document was obtained by Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst for the RAND Corporation think tank who had been involved in the original study. He hoped to expose how the leaders of the government in successive administrations had systematically lied to the American people about both their intentions in Vietnam and about the actual conduct of the war.
Among the many disclosures that shocked the nation was that Lyndon Johnson had made the decision to widen U.S. involvement with the introduction of combat units on the ground well before a heralded “consultation” with his senior advisors. Johnson was also shown to be committed to bombing North Vietnam even as he was running for election in 1964 on a promise of seeking “no wider war.” The documents also revealed the long secret war in Cambodia.
The Nixon Administration reacted with a combination of horror and fury. Attorney General John Mitchell immediately sought a restraining order against the Times to prevent them from continuing publication citing the 1917 Espionage Act which made it a crime to be in possession of classified documents illegally obtained “…which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated.”
This New York Times headline grabbed the immediate attention of the President and administration officials who launched an all-out offensive against Ellsberg, the Times and anyone and everyone remotely involved.
The Times was forced to suspend publication while the case was expedited through the Federal Courts. A few days later another restraining order was issued against the Washington Post, which had also been provided the text by Ellsberg and had begun running its own series.
As the case was being reviewed, Senator Mike Gravel, Democrat of Alaska entered 1400 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, which could not be restrained by the courts and put the material in a public form which could be quoted without fear of prosecution.
The next day, on June 30 a deeply divided court ruled 6–3 that the injunctions were unconstitutional prior restraint and the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required. Each of the nine justices wrote decisions agreeing or dissenting opinions on various parts of the ruling.
It was less than the clear-cut victory for freedom of the press than the Times and Post hoped for, but it did affirm a broad interpretation of the First Amendment and allowed them to resume publication of the papers.
Meanwhile the Justice Department had warned/threatened publishing houses against issuing the papers as a book. Fearful, not one major commercial publisher would touch it.
UUA President Robert West and Alaska Senator Mike Gravel at a press conference announcing the Beacon Press edition of the Pentagon Papers. Gravel, as a U.S. Senator, was legally untouchable but paid a heavy political price. West and the UUA endured years of investigations, constant harassment, and threat of criminal charges and the revocation of the UAA's tax exempt status and the status of all member congregations. Even individual donors to the UU were fearful of being targeted when the Fed sought financial records.
Gravel, a Unitarian Universalist, suggested that Beacon Press, publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) take it up. UUA President Robert West agreed setting off two and a half years of harassment, intimidation, and court action against the publisher and the UUA by the government. Despite threats and even a personal phone call from Nixon, the company rushed to put out the full Mike Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers in October.
After publication the Justice department subpoenaed all of the UUA bank records for four and a half months, including checks from individual members. That action was stopped on appeal, then started again, and finally ended, but the government tied the UUA up in court for two and a half years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Both West and Beacon Press Director Gobin Stair were publicly named as likely to be indicted on espionage or even treason charges and both were called to testify in the criminal trial of Ellsberg and his co-defendant Anthony Russo, an associate who had helped with the copying.
At various times government agents hinted that the UUA and each member congregation might lose non-profit tax exempt status and that UUA might even be placed on the notorious Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.
Ellsberg and Russo had been charged under the Espionage Act and with a raft of other charges including theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years. The trial finally got underway in January of 1973 in the Boston courtroom of U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr.
During the trial a number of “gross improprieties” by the government were revealed. Not the least of which was the August 1971 break-in of the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, a psychiatrist who had treated Ellsberg. This operation was conducted by G. G. Gordon Liddy, H. Howard Hunt and three Cubans at the direction of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman—the first operation of the infamous Plumber’s Unit that would soon be swept up in Watergate.
Top Nixon aide and henchman John Ehrlichman created the Plumbers Unit whose first caper under spook G.Gordon Libby was a break in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist office. That was the rap that sent Ehrlichman up the river.
It was also revealed that Judge Byrne personally met twice with Ehrlichman, who offered him directorship of the FBI. Although Byrne said he refused to consider the offer while the Ellsberg case was pending, even agreeing to meet with Ehrlichman during the case raised red flags.
The government was accused of illegally obtaining evidence and of monitoring the defense team. When the government tried to claim that it lost wiretap records on Ellsberg the exasperated Judge Byrne declared a mistrial and said “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.”
Nixon’s paranoia, which ultimately resulted in his resignation in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, can be traced to this case. Aides Ehrlichman, H. R. Halderman, Richard Kleindienst, and John Dean were forced to resign when the Fielding burglary was disclosed in the course of the trial. Egil Krogh and Charles Colson were convicted and sent to prison for their roles in supervising the break in.
So what about today? Well unfortunately intimidation of the press has become routine—and successful often successful. Aides to President Donald Trump have repeatedly been caught improperly trying to interfere with the Mueller probe and Congressional investigations in a range of cases including improper communications with Russian officials and possible tampering with the 2016 Presidential Election. The Cheeto in Charge himself was been caught more or less red handed trying to influence FBI Chief James Comey before firing him. He has also threatened the press and individual journalists in his morning toilet seat Tweets, and been shown to be a bald faced liar on more occasions than can be counted.
The two more contemporary whistle blowers have already been imprisoned, the fate Ellsberg and his press collaborators avoided all those years ago.
Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning addresses reporters outside the Albert Bryan U.S federal courthouse with attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen May 16, 2019 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Chelsea Manning, formally known as Bradly Manning, was an active duty soldier with a security clearance who passed thousands of pages of classified documents to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. She pled guilty to ten charges and was later convicted of 17 others. Sentenced to 35 years at the maximum-security U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to basically time served since her arrest.
Widely viewed as a classic whistle blower, Manning’s reputation has suffered as Assange sat for year in the London Ecuadorian Embassy and was revealed to be either a willing or unwitting tool of the Russians in meddling in the 2016 election. This year she was returned to prison for refusing to respect a subpoena to testify before a Virginia Federal Grand Jury investigating Assange and WikiLeaks. She was held for two months until the expiration of the Grand Jury term. Almost immediately after her release a new Grand Jury was impaneled in the same case. Attorney General William Barr, who is ironically himself defying a subpoena, ordered her re-arrested. She was returned to jail for the 18 month term of the grand jury. In addition a fine was imposed of $500 for each day she spends in jail over 30 days and $1,000 for each day she spends in jail over 60 days. Even upon the expiration of this Grand Jury, another could be impaneled.
Reality Winner pled guilty in to leaking classified information about Russian interference in the 2016 election and was sentenced to 63 months in prison.
Reality Winner a young woman contractor with a name out of a Dickens novel was charged and unlike Ellsberg was convicted, and imprisoned for leaking documents to the press about Russian hacking of the election. Despite a spate or articles at the time, she has already been virtually forgotten.
Meanwhile readers of this blog, which has undoubtedly triggered whatever algorithms are used by NSA supper sophisticated snooping programs to flag possible dangerous threats, and those who click on links here from Facebook have to look over their shoulders and assume that Big Brother really is watching.