The Pentagon Papers: Precursor to NSA Spying Scandal

Daniel Ellsburg's leaking of classified information shocked the country 42 years ago today.

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Daniel Ellsberg, charged in federal warrants with unauthorized possession of top secret documents and failure to return them, arrives at the Boston federal building on June 28, 1971 to surrender himself to the U.S. Attorney.

"A showdown over the ages-old issue of national security vs. 'the people's right to know' grew to historic proportions in this country in late June."

Replace "late" with "early" and the opening sentence of a story published in the July 5, 1971, issue of U.S. News & World Report would be just as accurate today as it was 42 years ago.

[READ: Obama Puts Security Above Privacy]

On this date in 1971, Americans opened up The New York Times and read parts of a top-secret Pentagon study, leaked by a former government official, on decisions made by the government during the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsburg defended leaking what's now known as the Pentagon Papers to the press, stating: "I think we cannot let the officials of the executive branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know."

Earlier this week, Ellsburg was in the news again, this time defending current whistleblower Edward Snowden.


[RELATED: Ron Paul Calls Edward Snowden a Hero]

Snowden stated among his reasons for leaking classified information on the NSA's spying on American citizens: "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight... I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

This article originally ran in the July 5, 1971, issue of U.S. News & World Report.

A Crucial Legal Battle Erupts

Conflict between the press and Government started when "The New York Times" and others published classified material from a Pentagon study on key decisions that shaped the course of the war in Vietnam

A showdown over the ages-old issue of national security vs. "the people's right to know" grew to historic proportions in this country in late June.

What started as a case of "leaked" war documents to a single newspaper had become the center of a national debate—confronting the U.S. Supreme Court with the need to go into extraordinary session to deliberate the issue.

Basic elements in the conflict created by widespread publication of parts of a top-secret Pentagon study were these:

• Does the Government have a right to withhold from public knowledge information it considers vital to defense and foreign policy?

• To what extent does the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press apply when those who print or broadcast news make use of secret material obtained from unauthorized sources?

Disclosures made. The crisis took shape when "The New York Times" began publishing on June 13 material based on a massive Pentagon study of U.S. involvement in Indo-China. Litigation that led to the High Court began after the paper published three issues and had more articles ready to print.

The Department of Justice, contending that further disclosure of high-policy secrets would "cause irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States," obtained in U.S. district court in New York an order temporarily blocking publication.

When "The Washington Post" and "The Boston Globe" obtained and printed portions of the 47-volume Pentagon report, the Government moved against them, too, and halted the flow.

But, as court battles were fought, "The Chicago Sun-Times," "The Los Angeles Times" and others, including units of Knight Newspapers, Inc., in Miami, Philadelphia and Detroit, related more details of the study.

The material made public dealt with closely guarded recommendations and decisions on the U.S. military role during the Johnson and Kennedy Administrations and with diplomacy in the Eisenhower Administration.


The story that unfolded with national impact described—sometimes using texts 'of secret documents—how and why the American commitment grew.

Meanwhile, U.S. district judges in New York and Washington rejected the Government's claim of "irreparable damage" and the Justice Department appealed those rulings. In Boston, a federal judge held that the Government's claim "appears reasonable" and restrained further publication by "The Globe," pending more hearings.

In New York, the U.S. court of appeals held on June 23 that "The Times" could resume its series but could not use material dangerous to national security. The district court was instructed to determine by July 3 which portions of the study were to be banned.

The federal appellate court in Washington ruled on June 23 that "The Post" had a constitutional right to publish articles drawn from the secret papers but extended the restraining order to allow the Government time for appeal.

On June 25, the Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction in both cases and agreed to decide the issues set forth by "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and the Government.

Other developments:

• In Los Angeles, a federal grand jury pressed an investigation into how the Pentagon papers reached the newspapers. An Administration spokesman said criminal indictments were expected.

• Daniel Ellsberg, a former Government official mentioned in connection with acquisition of the papers by "The New York Times," broke his silence. In an interview on CBS television on June 23, at an undisclosed place, Mr. Ellsberg was not asked whether he had any role in making the study available for publication. But he asserted, "I think we cannot let the officials of the executive branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know."

• President Nixon—without declassifying it—sent the study to Congress. The stage seemed set on Capitol Hill for moves to force changes in Government secrecy procedures.

• The House Subcommittee on Foreign Operations and Government Information opened an inquiry into security classification. A Senate Judiciary sub-committee announced hearings soon on "the power of the President to withhold information."

As many legislators saw it, a historic conflict was under way—in Congress as well as in the courts.

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