The Nation: Ellsberg: The Battle Over the Right to Know

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FURTIVE nocturnal phone calls from strangers offering secret documents. Eager editors excitedly following terse instructions to pick up bags containing thousands of photocopied pages. Nimble newsmen frantically rushing exclusive disclosures into print. Harassed Government attorneys chasing into court to enjoin one series of revelations, only to see another break out elsewhere. A bemused federal judge wondering if the Justice Department might not be swatting futilely at "a swarm of bees."

As the affair of the Pentagon papers went into its second incredible week, antiwar partisans seemed to be manipulating basic U.S. institutions—the press, Government, and even, in a sense, the courts—to stage-manage a dramatic presentation of their views far beyond the wildest dreams of the most zealous campus radicals. It was surely the slickest counter-Establishment insurgency of recent times. The climax was the sudden appearance on national television of the man who started it all. There was Daniel Ellsberg, once the gifted and aggressive war planner, speaking softly but leveling the harsh charge that Americans bear the major responsibility for as many as 2,000,000 deaths in 25 years of warfare in Indochina.

Within a few days, Ellsberg technically became a fugitive when a U.S. magistrate in Los Angeles issued a warrant for his arrest on a charge of illegal possession of secret documents and failure to return them to proper custody. A grand jury in Los Angeles had been quizzing Ellsberg's associates at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., where he had worked and where a full set of the secret volumes had been kept. At a press conference, Ellsberg's attorneys said he would voluntarily surrender this week. The Government also sought a warrant against a former Rand employee, Anthony J. Russo, for refusing to testify before the grand jury.

Guidance from the Senate

Ellsberg's passing of most of a 47-volume secret Pentagon study of U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam War to the New York Times had swiftly built into a classic battle over the public right to know. The issue was seen as security v. freedom; the antagonists were major newspapers and the Nixon Administration; the argument went on over the rights of Government to keep some of its activities secret in the national interest, and of the press to keep a democratic society informed of what its officials have done. Reacting with unusual speed because of the gravity of the issues—and apparently also because the Justices did not find them overly complex—the Supreme Court held a rare Saturday hearing and a decision was imminent (see following story).

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