The Pentagon Papers: Secrets, lies and leaks

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As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling of US elections intensifies, we’re revisiting a story that still echoes in Washington’s halls of power: the leaking and publication of the Pentagon Papers. At the center of the episode are two guys in the room where history happened: Robert J. Rosenthal and Daniel Ellsberg.

Rosenthal encountered the Pentagon Papers at the beginning of his journalism career – an entry-level job at the New York Times in 1971.

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press that same year, he chose to turn his back on a long career of proximity to power and immersion in government secrets. His early career as a nuclear war strategist prompted his fear that a small conflict could erupt into an atomic holocaust.

Ellsberg worried his worst fears would be realized as the American conflict in Vietnam flared. Our second segment follows his pondering whether leaking the top-secret material he was seeing at work could help stop the war. Soon, he secretly copied the documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and showed them to anyone he thought could help.

In our last segment, President Richard Nixon wakes up to the biggest leak in American history. His initial reaction is strictly partisan: The Pentagon Papers might make trouble for the Democrats. That calculation sets off a chain reaction that helps bring down his presidency.

NOTE: Rosenthal is the former executive director at The Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces Reveal along with PRX.

Illustration by Anna Vignet for Reveal