The Pentagon Papers: Secrets, Lies and Leaks

The Pentagon Papers: Secrets, Lies and Leaks

By The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX

Before Jeffrey Wigand blew the whistle on the tobacco industry and Edward Snowden showed the National Security Agency could spy on all of us, there was Daniel Ellsberg, one of the original champions of free speech. He died last month at 92, and this week’s episode revisits a historic event along with our CEO and editor in chief, Robert “Rosey” Rosenthal. 

In 1971, then-22-year-old Rosenthal got a call from his boss at The New York Times. He was told to go to Room 1111 of the Hilton Hotel, bring enough clothes for at least a month and not tell anyone.

Rosenthal was part of a team called in to publish the Pentagon Papers, an explosive history of the United States’ political and military actions in Vietnam that shattered the government’s narratives about the war. Ellsberg, a former military analyst, leaked the secret papers to the press. We hear the experiences of both Ellsberg and Rosenthal. 

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, he was turning his back on a long career close to power, immersed in government secrets. His work as a nuclear war strategist made him fear that a small conflict could erupt into a nuclear holocaust. 

When the Vietnam War flared, Ellsberg worried his worst fears would be realized. He wonders if leaking the top-secret report he’s read could help stop the war. Soon, he was secretly copying the 7,000-page history that would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers and showing them to anyone he thought could help.

President Richard Nixon wakes up to the biggest leak in American history. But his first reaction is a little surprising: The Pentagon Papers might make trouble for the Democrats – this instinct starts a chain reaction that helps bring down his presidency.

This episode originally aired in May 2016.

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