Janny Scott was researching the lifetime of Neil Sheehan, the New York Occasions reporter who broke the information of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, when she seen a gaping, unanswered query.
How did Mr. Sheehan really get the paperwork? In the entire articles, motion pictures and particular experiences concerning the story through the years, he by no means revealed what had actually occurred.
“We had the account of the Washington bureau chief of The New York Occasions on the time, we had varied journalists’ accounts, however we didn’t have the account of one of many key gamers, who was Neil Sheehan,” mentioned Ms. Scott, who labored as a reporter at The Occasions for greater than a decade.
She was writing Mr. Sheehan’s advance obituary, one thing The Occasions prepares for distinguished historic figures whereas they’re nonetheless alive. In 2013, she wrote Mr. Sheehan a letter — the type with a stamp and a postmark — and waited. Two years later, he agreed to an interview, however solely on the situation that it will not be revealed till after his demise.
The traditional knowledge had at all times been that the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages of categorised authorities paperwork on the Vietnam Warfare, had been “given” to The Occasions. The supply was Daniel Ellsberg, a former Protection Division analyst who had contributed to the key report whereas working for the RAND Company. However Ms. Scott found simply how shut readers had come to by no means studying the entire story.
Mr. Sheehan had been a reporter in Vietnam when he first met Mr. Ellsberg and was again in america after they started discussing the Pentagon Papers. Mr. Ellsberg promised him entry to the paperwork, however when Mr. Sheehan arrived to select them up, Mr. Ellsberg mentioned he might solely take notes from them, not copy them. Mr. Sheehan, nonetheless, ignored him and smuggled the papers out of Mr. Ellsberg’s residence in Cambridge, Mass., secretly copied them and took his copies to Occasions editors in New York. Later, as The Occasions was making ready to publish the papers, Mr. Sheehan requested Mr. Ellsberg if he might have the precise paperwork, and Mr. Ellsberg consented. However Mr. Ellsberg was nonetheless stunned after they appeared in print.
“It’s a way more advanced story concerning the relationship between the one who leaked the Pentagon papers and the individual to whom they had been leaked,” Ms. Scott mentioned.
Occasions coverage requires honest coping with sources. However Mr. Sheehan mentioned he felt that the paperwork had been the property of the American folks and that they’d a proper to see them.
“He ended up doing one thing — as Ellsberg identified to him, in accordance with Sheehan — not not like what Ellsberg had achieved for a perceived greater aim,” Ms. Scott mentioned.
For Mr. Ellsberg, that meant violating the regulation; for Mr. Sheehan, that meant ignoring the standard relationship between a supply and a reporter.
“The ethics are murky,” Ms. Scott mentioned.
She began engaged on the obituary in 2012 as a contract project. Three years later, she interviewed Mr. Sheehan at his house within the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington.
He was in fairly good well being and was sharp, Ms. Scott mentioned. They sat down in his research, and with a tape recorder working, talked for 4 hours — with solely a short break for tea. Mr. Sheehan shared a cinematic story of finicky Seventies-era Xerox machines and herculean efforts to hide and transport 1000’s of pages of presidency paperwork.
“It was simply an awfully gripping story,” she mentioned. “At that time, I just about had written the obituary, and I used to be making an attempt to fill this gap, however what he had given me to fill the opening was three or 4 instances the size of the obituary.”
She spoke together with her editor and ready a separate article. However she needed to wait 5 extra years to publish it, whilst Hollywood coated the topic. In 2017, Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Publish” chronicled how The Washington Publish raced to cowl the Pentagon Papers, and together with The Occasions, fought court docket orders blocking publication. The newspapers, arguing for his or her first modification proper to publish, took the case to the Supreme Courtroom, and received.
However Ms. Scott remained quiet.
“All I might suppose at the moment was: ‘If you happen to solely knew,’” she mentioned.
Mr. Sheehan mentioned he had by no means instructed the story as a result of he had by no means needed to harm or embarrass Mr. Ellsberg by describing a few of the dangers Mr. Ellsberg, who’s nonetheless alive, had taken. Ms. Scott questioned what would have occurred if she hadn’t requested.
“Would the story have died with him? I don’t know,” she mentioned.
Mr. Sheehan prompt to her that he had at all times supposed, in some unspecified time in the future, to share his account. He would assist break his final nice story at his demise.
“I’d think about you wouldn’t wish to die with that sort of misunderstanding, or a misperception, or that oversimplified model nonetheless on the market,” Ms. Scott mentioned, “if you’re the one individual left who can actually set the file straight.”