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After Neil Sheehan's death, secret interview reveals how he got Pentagon Papers

The journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author died Thursday — but his final words about his biggest story are only now being revealed.
Neil Sheehan Typing on Typewriter
Neil Sheehan, the man who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times in 1971, revealed how he pulled it off in a secret interview several years before his death.Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
/ Source: TODAY

In 1971, Neil Sheehan got his hands on what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, which allowed him to shine a light on massive government deceptions that took place during the Vietnam War.

The find prompted the U.S. government to take The New York Times to court to prevent publication of the material, led the Supreme Court to make an important First Amendment ruling in favor of the paper and resulted in The Times earning the Pulitzer Prize for public service the following year.

But despite the enormity of what Sheehan obtained, he never publicly revealed exactly how he obtained it. The journalist and author did, however, speak about it in a secret interview he gave in 2015 on the condition that it only be revealed after his death.

So, following Sheehan’s death Thursday, at the age of 84, The New York Times published his first full account of how it came to pass — a tale in which Sheehan revealed he had to do some deceiving of his own.

Congressman trying to sift out the significance of the Pentagon Papers turned for help to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked to the press portions of the top-secret Vietnam War history. Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Sheehan’s source for the top-secret Pentagon study was former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who’d made copies of the papers for himself but didn’t give Sheehan his own copies — at least not willingly.

“I was quite upset when Ellsberg said, ‘You can read, take notes, but no copies,’” Sheehan said in the newly published interview.

It was the writer’s wife, Susan Sheehan, whom he credited with the idea of taking “control of that situation” and finding a way to “Xerox” the find. And that’s exactly what he did when Ellsberg went on vacation and allowed him continued access to the documents.

“I’d known Ellsberg for a long time, and he thought I was operating under the same rules that one normally used: Source controls the material,” Sheehan explained. “He didn’t realize that I had decided: ‘This guy is just impossible. You can’t leave it in his hands. It’s too important and it’s too dangerous.’”

So Sheehan enlisted his wife’s help to complete a daunting task — helping him photocopy thousands of pages of classified documents at a time when making copies required access to a shop and a lot of time and expense. The enterprise required them to take on false names and fly with suitcases filled with papers in order to get the documents to The Times.

The papers published in The New York Times revealed government deceit over the conduct of the war in Vietnam.MPI / Getty Images

The stakes were high for everyone involved, and before going to press, The Times notes that Sheehan told Ellsberg he would need actual copies rather than just notes — though he didn’t tell him that he had already had those copies.

“Maybe it’s hypocritical, but we were going to go to press, and I wanted to try to give him some kind of warning,” Sheehan said.

And their dealings were soon done — until they ran into each other in Manhattan months later, at which point, according to Sheehan, Ellsberg said the reporter had stolen the Pentagon study, "like I did."

“No, Dan, I didn’t steal it,” Sheehan recalled telling him. “And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it.’”