A veteran of revelation journalism has died: Neil Sheehan. Nearly fifty years ago, he played an important role in the political dispute over the Vietnam War, about which he had reported as a correspondent. On June 13, 1971, he published the secret Pentagon Papers in the New York Times. With the sensational coverage, he was able to prove how the US administration had lied to the public about what was happening in Southeast Asia. Contrary to official claims, the war against the communist government in North Vietnam had long been planned. Moreover, the US had secretly extended operations to Laos and Cambodia.
Sheehan did not talk about the history of his revelations. Five years ago, however, seriously ill, he broke his silence; A New York Times staffer had asked him to do so. He spoke to him for four hours, on the condition that the memories would not be published until after his death. The newspaper has now released the article for reading.
The state fights back
Anyone who pulls state secrets to light must expect strong reactions. This experience was not only made by political activist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is imprisoned in a security prison in the UK and has been fighting extradition to the US for years. These days he was successful in court – for now.
Even then, the American government under President Nixon took legal action against the revelations of the New York Times. A court banned further reporting on national security. At the end of June 1971, however, the Supreme Court ruled that such censorship was unconstitutional. The case became an icon of investigative journalism.
Sheehan received the hot documents - 7000 pages in full - from Daniel Ellsberg. As an employee of the Rand Corporation think tank, he had access to the highly secret papers, which he copied illegally in 1969.
A delicate relationship
The posthumous descriptions of the revealer show how delicate the relationship between the journalist and the apparently unpredictable and doubtful whistleblower was. Sheehan feared that other journalists might pre-empt him or that the state officials might suspect him. Ellsberg wasn’t just talking to him about the papers. Moreover, the whistleblower did not want to pull out the documents for fear that he might lose control. As Ellsberg explained in his memoirs, he wanted all the documents to be published. He doubted whether the New York Times would do that. At the same time, he was afraid of being betrayed and ending up in prison. According to Sheehan, Ellsberg sometimes acted carelessly. He left traces everywhere.
In any case, Sheehan was only allowed to read the explosive papers that revealed the government’s decisions. Another new employee of the New York Times had also been aware of the writings for some time. He wanted to expose the scandal in a book. When he learned of the upcoming publication in his own employer’s newspaper, he panicked and called Ellsberg, who tried to contact Sheehan. He denied this until he was sure that the publication could no longer be prevented – from the time when 10,000 copies had already been printed.
Preparations for the publication were complex. Sheehan skipped Ellsberg. He used his absence as an opportunity to copy the papers. He said to himself, “This man is impossible. I can’t leave that in his hands. All this is too important and too dangerous.” The goal, however, was a little more complicated to realize at a time when it was not yet possible to download huge amounts of information to digital data carriers in no time. “Xerox it,” said Sheehan’s wife Susan, who worked for The New Yorker. Last but not least, he needed his employer’s commitment to spend hundreds of dollars on copymachines in the short term.
When Ellsberg had left, Susan flew to Boston with her husband, brought suitcases, envelopes, and money, and they checked into a hotel under a false name. The large amount of paper overwhelmed the machines of a copy shop in Boston, so that the two journalists had to change location. The owner of the next store, a Navy veteran, drew suspicion but was reassured. For the flight to Washington, they booked their own seat for the suitcase with the hot goods, which they did not leave out sight.
Among other things, they hid the explosive material in a colleague’s freezer; They burned sensitive papers with traces of Ellsberg with the grill ingestion of a diplomat from Brazil who was friends with Sheehan’s father-in-law.
With the Blood of the Sons
Back in the capital, Sheehan checked into the Jefferson Hotel, where he analyzed the papers for several weeks. After the seat of his newspaper’s executive floor – which he had never revealed the name of his source – the work continued at a Hilton hotel in New York, where a conspiratorial force and security personnel were gathering.
After the publication, Ellsberg told Sheehan, “You stole the papers as I did.” No, Sheehan replied, they both did not: “These papers belong to the American people. It paid for it with the national treasure and with the blood of its sons. It has a right to do so.”