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

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 9)

The court's decision may prove historic, but it is unlikely to diminish the continuing controversy. For the first time, countless citizens were confronting questions that had never bothered them before. Precisely what should be kept secret? Who should decide? When should secrecy end? Forced onto the defensive, President Nixon ordered all of the documents delivered to the Congress but with secrecy labels still in effect. Congressional leaders promised multiple investigations into what the documents reveal about past U.S. war plans and how the many futile decisions were reached. Reflecting what seems to be nearly the end of public tolerance of the war, a majority of U.S. Senators urged the President to withdraw all U.S. troops from Indochina within nine months, subject only to release of U.S. prisoners of war. The Senate had rejected all previous attempts to influence Nixon's pace of disengagement.

At a more immediate and less lofty level, the affair raised other intriguing questions. Among them:

HOW WAS THE RELEASE OF THE PAPERS ORCHESTRATED? They were not handed from one editor to another in collusion to keep a step ahead of the Government bans. Nor could a single man, even the brilliant and dedicated Ellsberg, be handling the entire distribution. It seemed likely that Ellsberg was getting help from the activist antiwar left, possibly the same skillful underground operators that fed FBI records stolen from Media, Pa., to selected newspapers. The orchestration of the latest delivery was highly sophisticated. The Pentagon papers first appeared in the Times and the Washington Post, the two newspapers most regularly read in the capital. They emerged in the Boston Globe in the heart of the Cambridge intellectual community. Also favored were the Los Angeles Times, which is powerful in the West and runs a news service with more than 200 U.S. newspaper clients, and the eleven-newspaper Knight chain. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Chicago Sun-Times also met the same obvious criteria: a strong antiwar editorial record.

HOW DID THE DELIVERY SYSTEM WORK? A top editor at the Knight newspapers received a call from a man who admitted he was using a pseudonym. Was the Knight chain interested in the papers? Then it would have to agree that it would protect them against Government seizure. The editor consented and told his Washington bureau chief, Robert Boyd, to expect a long-distance call. The stranger telephoned Boyd several times, each time offering a hint as to where the secret documents might be found. "It was like a treasure hunt," explained one editor.

Boyd finally was led to a point outside Washington (he will not say where). There he found some 1,000 pages of the Pentagon report. The Knight package consisted of an orderly presentation with occasional marginal notes like "Wow!" inked beside some Pentagon statements. On most pages, a slip of paper had been placed over the secrecy classification when the photocopy was made, blanking it out. But on a dozen pages Knight newsmen found the words TOP SECRET—SENSITIVE. At the Boston Globe, the pickup arrangements sounded so melodramatic that editors suspected a hoax. But they went along and received a bag containing 2,000 pages.


  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9