The Pentagon Papers

In September of 1969, Ellsberg started the long process of copying the 47 volume, 7,000 page Department of Defense study that would eventually be known as the Pentagon Papers. Alongside his friend and RAND coworker Anthony Russo, Ellsberg copied these pages over the course of the next 18 months. Ellsberg attempted to encourage members of Congress, then newspaper reporters, to share the contents of the study with the public. Eventually, Neil Sheehan of the New York Times published the first story citing the study on June 13, 1971. Titled Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing US Involvement, it ran on the front page. Ellsberg went underground for two weeks with his wife Patricia, before he finally surrendered to authorities at the Boston Federal Court Building on June 28, 1971. 

Mixed Feelings

While Ellsberg’s actions have a seemingly positive legacy in history now, the public was not universally supportive of his actions at the time. Along with dozens of supportive letters praising him as a hero, he received a number of hate filled letters during and after the trial, with some people labeling him a “communist” or doling out antisemitic taunts and threats. 

Ellsberg On Trial 

Ellsberg was indicted on 15 counts, including espionage and theft. On December 29, 1971, Anthony Russo was indicted alongside Ellsberg as his co-defendant after he was held in contempt of court for refusing to testify. The trial continued for the next few months but was halted in July of 1972 when it was found that the Government had been secretly wiretapping the defendants and their lawyers. The trial was put on hold so the issue of wiretapping could be put before the Supreme Court; however, the court refused to hear Russo and Ellsberg’s argument. Judge Anthony Byrne declared a mistrial, and the defendants were granted a new jury as the trial continued. Since Ellsberg and Russo were charged with espionage and theft, the heart of the case relied on the government’s series of classifications to determine if the information Ellsberg distributed in the Pentagon Papers was something that threatened national security.