The Untold Story of the Pentagon Papers Co-Conspirators (The New Yorker)

The Untold Story of the Pentagon Papers Co-Conspirators

In June of 1971, Gar Alperovitz, a thirty-five-year-old historian, sped
through suburban Boston, looking for an out-of-the-way pay phone to use to call
a reporter. Alperovitz had never considered himself much of a
risk-taker. The father of two ran a small economic think tank focussed on
community-building. He had participated in demonstrations against the
Vietnam War and rung doorbells with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boston,
as part of an antiwar campaign. But what he was doing on this day,
propelled by his desire to end the conflict, could lead to federal

He pulled his old Saab up to a phone booth on the outskirts of Harvard
Square, and rang a hotel room nearby. When the reporter picked up,
Alperovitz identified himself with the alias he had adopted: “It’s Mr.
Boston.” Alperovitz told the journalist to open the door. Waiting in the
hallway was a cardboard box, left minutes before by a runner working
with Alperovitz. Inside were several hundred pages of the most
sought-after documents in the United States—the top-secret Vietnam
history known as the Pentagon Papers.

The handoff was one of about a dozen clandestine encounters with
journalists that Alperovitz orchestrated over the course of a three-week
period, when he and a small group of fellow antiwar activists helped
Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst at the RAND Corporation,
elude an F.B.I. manhunt and distribute the Pentagon Papers to nineteen
newspapers. Ellsberg, who had smuggled the documents out of
RAND’s Santa Monica office two years earlier and copied them with the
help of a colleague, has long been the public face of the leak. But
Ellsberg was aided by about a half-dozen volunteers whose identities
have stayed secret for forty-six years, despite the intense interest of
the Nixon Administration, thousands of articles, books, documentaries,
plays, and now a major film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom
Hanks, about the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg told me that the hidden role
of this group was so critical to the operation that he gave them a code
name—The Lavender Hill Mob, the name of a 1951 film about a ragtag
group of amateur bank robbers. He has referred obliquely to his
co-conspirators over the years. But he held back from identifying them
because some in the group still feared repercussions.

Now, Alperovitz, who is eighty-one, has agreed to be revealed for the
first time. “I’m getting old,” Alperovitz told me, with a laugh. Several
other members of the group told me that they still wished to remain
anonymous, or declined interview requests. One former Harvard graduate
student who also played a major role—she hid the papers in her apartment
and organized hideouts for Ellsberg—considered coming forward in this
piece, but she ultimately decided not to, after conferring with lawyers.
As a green-card holder, she worried that her involvement could lead to her
deportation by the Trump Administration. Still, she remains proud of her
role. “Those were extraordinary days,” she told me. “It was about
questioning the government and being against the government. I was very,
very angry about what was happening in Vietnam.”

Alperovitz said that the renewed interest in the Pentagon Papers,
brought on by “The Post,” pushed him to finally acknowledge his role,
but he also alluded to the “very dangerous” climate under President
Trump. A historian and political economist, whose writings have
focussed on the dangers of nuclear war and economic inequality,
Alperovitz said that Trump’s “outrageous and destabilizing” rhetoric on
North Korea compelled him to tell his story and “to suggest to people
that it’s time to take action.”

“We were trying to stop the war,” Alperovitz told me in, in an interview
in his home near Washington. “I’m not heroic in this, but I just felt it
important to act,” he said. “There were lots of people dying
unnecessarily. There were lots of people who were taking risks to try to
end the war, and I was one of them.”

Ellsberg told me that Alperovitz, in particular, was “critical to the
way this thing worked out,” organizing the broader distribution of the
papers. Ellsberg had initially turned over the documents only to Neil
Sheehan, a reporter at the Times, which published the first front-page
article on the Pentagon Papers, on June 13, 1971. (The Nixon
Administration quickly secured an injunction to halt the Times from
continuing to publish the documents.) But it was Alperovitz who devised
the strategy of distributing the papers to as many news organizations as
possible, including the Washington Post, an approach that later proved
to be crucial from both a legal and public-relations standpoint. And it
was Alperovitz who came up with the elaborate techniques for slipping
the documents to reporters while evading the authorities. “Gar took care
of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Ellsberg said.

The danger to the Lavender Hill Mob could hardly be underestimated.
Alperovitz “would’ve been indicted in a heartbeat” if he had been
identified, Ellsberg said. Senior officials in the Nixon White House had
become obsessed with arresting and discrediting Ellsberg and any of his
accomplices. They created a group of Nixon campaign operatives, who
became known as “the plumbers,” to break into the office of Ellsberg’s
psychiatrist, in what would be a precursor to the Watergate scandal. In
a 2010 documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg
and the Pentagon Papers
Egil Krogh, one of the operatives, says that the Administration was
obsessed with identifying who else was involved in the leak. “Did Daniel
Ellsberg work alone? Was he working with some other people? Was he part
of a conspiracy?” Krogh, who was imprisoned for his role in the
Watergate break-in, says in the film. F.B.I. agents—and Nixon’s
plumbers—tracked leads from Los Angeles to Paris. The perpetrators, it
turned out, met less than a mile from Harvard Square, the epicenter of
the liberal, Ivy League élitism that Nixon so detested.

Shortly after surrendering to federal authorities, in June, 1971, for his role in leaking the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg spoke to reporters.

Photograph by Bettmann / Getty


In early June of 1971, Ellsberg, who had left RAND and was working as a
senior research fellow at M.I.T., hosted a small dinner party at his
home in Cambridge. Ellsberg, who was then forty, had never met
Alperovitz but invited him after a colleague said that they shared an
intense opposition to the war. The Harvard graduate student was there as

Alperovitz had worked in the U.S. government on foreign affairs from
1961 to 1966—first in Congress, then at the State Department—and it was
there, as an insider, that his opposition to the war hardened. As a
Senate aide, in 1964, Alperovitz worked unsuccessfully to stop what he
still calls the “phony” Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which allowed
President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate America’s military involvement
in Vietnam. More than anything, the congressional vote confirmed his
view that the war was a fraud perpetrated on the American public.

At the dinner, Alperovitz and Ellsberg, a former
and Pentagon analyst, talked about Nixon, liberal activism, nuclear
weapons, and, of course, Vietnam. The top-secret papers never came up.
But, as the party wrapped up and Alperovitz walked to his car, the
Harvard graduate student pulled him aside and made a cryptic comment
about some sensitive material on Vietnam and “boxes and boxes of
papers,” Alperovitz recalled.

A day or two later, the graduate student arranged to meet Alperovitz at
a park, she told me in an interview. She explained to Alperovitz that
Ellsberg had entrusted her with thousands of pages of the documents, and
that she had stashed them in cupboards in the pantry of her small
apartment. Ellsberg had given copies of the papers to a Times reporter
several months earlier, but had not heard from him since. She and
Ellsberg didn’t know when the newspaper might run the story, or if it
even intended to do so, and were eager to distribute more of the
papers to other news outlets. “I needed help to do this work,” the woman
told me, and Alperovitz seemed like “exactly the right person.”

When she asked Alperovitz if he would help, he immediately agreed.
Decades later, Alperovitz said that his eagerness, despite the obvious
risks, still puzzles him. “I’m a very cautious person, but I didn’t
blink—which I don’t understand,” he told me. “I’m surprised I didn’t
just say, ‘Whoops, I’m busy tomorrow.’ It was out of character.”

In a subsequent meeting with Ellsberg, Alperovitz mapped out a strategy.
Ellsberg, who had tried to leak the secret papers to members of Congress
but had been rebuffed, wanted to get all seven thousand pages of the
papers out at once, if not in the Times then in the Washington Postor somewhere else. “My nightmare was that the F.B.I. would catch me and
capture all the papers first,” Ellsberg recalled. He even considered
using the Harvard Crimson’s presses to print the documents himself.
Alperovitz talked him out of it. “I said to Dan, ‘Look, this is
seven thousand pages of material, you’ll get one story, maybe two,’ ”
Alperovitz said. “If you really want to get this out to the public,
you’ve got to break it up and keep the story going.”

To Ellsberg’s surprise, the Times ran its first story on the papers
several days later. The Nixon Administration quickly secured an
injunction to halt publication. By then, Alperovitz was already working
the pay phones around Cambridge and Somerville to contact a reporter
from the Post and get more coverage. Days later, with Alperovitz
acting as an intermediary, Ellsberg met with a Post reporter in a
local motel room and gave him the entire secret report. After the
reporter left, Ellsberg and his wife, who were hiding out in the motel,
saw on television that F.B.I. agents had descended on their home to
question him. For the next two weeks, the Ellsbergs remained holed up,
with the Harvard graduate student taking the lead in finding new places
to stash them. “I moved them every few days,” she recalled. “I’d call
friends and say, ‘I need your apartment for two days, and I just want
you to go somewhere else. Just don’t ask me any questions.’ ” Each time
the couple moved, she crammed boxes of the secret history into her small
Volkswagen and moved them along with the Ellsbergs.

The one time that Ellsberg knew whose apartment he was using, he said,
was during weekend that he spent in Cambridge with a friend, Jeffrey Race, a
fellow Vietnam veteran. Race recalled watching a television news report
with his fiancée about the F.B.I. searching for Ellsberg. “They can’t
find him,” Race told me, “and we joked that, ‘Hey, he’s lying right here
in his underwear on the floor taking a nap in front of the TV.’ ”

It was at Race’s apartment that Ellsberg had his closest brush with
arrest. At Ellsberg’s request, from a pay phone outside of Race’s
apartment, Alperovitz called a friend of Ellsberg’s in Los Angeles to
arrange a way for him to speak with his children and let them know that
he was all right. As Ellsberg watched from the window, Alperovitz hung
up and walked away. Minutes later, police cars converged around the
phone booth. Ellsberg guessed that the F.B.I. must have been tapping his
Los Angeles friend’s phone, or perhaps the pay phone, in their effort to
find him. “We ducked behind the window,” Ellsberg recalled. “I’m
thinking, Oh my God!” He and his wife left that same night for a
different hiding place.

Alperovitz asked the administrator of the Cambridge Institute, the think
tank he ran, to vacate her apartment for the Ellsbergs for several days.
“It was a very matter-of-fact thing,” the administrator, Nancy Lyons,
who is now retired and living in Concord, Massachusetts, said in an
interview. She immediately agreed—she saw it as an opportunity to be
involved in something larger than herself. “I might have just been
naïve, but I didn’t have any hesitation.” The one concern she had, she
told me, was that she had waited a long time to get the rent-controlled
apartment, and she didn’t want to lose it if someone found out. (No one

Alperovitz’s primary task was devising how to distribute the papers to
as many news organizations as possible. Ellsberg usually told Alperovitz
which newspapers to contact—the Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post
, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and
the Detroit Free Press, among them—but he left it to Alperovitz to
figure out the logistics.

Alperovitz told me that he improvised the elaborate handoffs. “I
invented this stuff as I went along,” he said. “I don’t know how.”
Getting journalists interested in the papers, then the most sought after
documents in the United States, was easy. He would call a newspaper’s
city desk from a pay phone, identify himself as Mr. Boston­—a code
name that got a few references in “The Post”—and then offer to
share some of the papers. “They were very happy to take them. Everyone
wanted to be in on it,” he said.

The trickier part was handing off hundreds of pages of documents without
being detected. Alperovitz and the Harvard graduate student recruited a
handful of college students—all ardently opposed to the war—to help not
only with mundane tasks, like getting the Ellsbergs’ groceries, but also
to act as runners who delivered the papers.

During the frantic three weeks it took to distribute the documents,
Alperovitz typically didn’t have time to even read all the papers before
parcelling them out to reporters. He simply grabbed a few hundred pages,
boxed them up, and sent the runners on their way. Alperovitz usually
found out what was in each stack only when he read the news stories. The
pace was so hectic that he and other participants have trouble
remembering the exact sequence today. Alperovitz can’t remember, for
instance, which reporter he called at the Cambridge hotel with
instructions for finding the papers in the hallway. The former Harvard
graduate student recalls a nighttime handoff of papers at an
acquaintance’s home, but the details are hazy.

There were also furtive meetings at Boston’s Logan Airport, chosen by
Alperovitz because it was a convenient place for out-of-town reporters
to blend in. One student helping with the operation was dispatched to
Logan to meet a Newsday reporter whom Alperovitz had summoned from
Washington. Posing this time as Sam Adams, Alperovitz had the airport
page the reporter over the public-address system; the student then
handed the reporter a note with directions to find a green plastic shopping
bag on a seat in the terminal. Inside were the last two chapters of the
Pentagon Papers. The reporter, Martin Schram, recounted the “covert” and
“borderline comical plan” in a
last month.

As Alperovitz dispatched members of the Lavender Hill Mob around the
city, he never actually met any of the journalists himself—except for
one: the CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. Alperovitz, posing again as Mr.
Boston, called Cronkite to offer him a scoop—an on-camera interview
with Ellsberg, who was still in hiding. Cronkite, like other
journalists, seemed to believe he was talking to Ellsberg himself,
Alperovitz said. He did not correct him.

Cronkite and his crew rushed to Boston. Alperovitz arranged for them to
get a batch of the papers, and had a volunteer drive the anchorman to a
nearby home in Cambridge, which an associate had lent for the day. The
member of the Lavender Hill Mob “drove them around and around and back
and forth to make sure they hadn’t been followed,” Alperovitz said. “If
anyone smelled Cronkite, that would be trouble.” (The driver declined to
be interviewed for this article.) With Alperovitz looking on, Ellsberg
gave a dramatic interview that aired that night.

On June 28th, after a final burst of stories in newspapers from Long
Island to Los Angeles, Ellsberg agreed to surrender to federal
authorities in Boston. A mob of journalists and onlookers met him
outside the federal courthouse. Alperovitz went, too, watching from a
distance. He could not risk being seen with Ellsberg, but he wanted to
be there to mark the end of the saga that had begun three weeks earlier,
at the dinner in Cambridge. What struck him most about the scene,
Alperovitz said, was the huge throng of supporters cheering on Ellsberg.
“It was like we weren’t alone,” he told me.

via The New Yorker

January 29, 2018 at 02:04PM