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How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers

To Mr. Sheehan, however, it seemed that Mr. Ellsberg’s reservations were “about going to jail.”

“Because when The Times got it,” he said, “The Times would go ahead with it. And when it came out, he might get caught. And he didn’t have a politician yet to protect him.”

He was, Mr. Sheehan said, “totally conflicted.”

Mr. Ellsberg was also taking serious risks, Mr. Sheehan said. He had made multiple copies and had paid carelessly with personal checks. He had approached members of Congress about holding hearings. “There’s no way The Times can protect this guy,” Mr. Sheehan remembered thinking. His ostensibly secret source had “left tracks on the ceiling, on the walls, everywhere,” he said.

“Sooner or later, I was afraid he was going to run into a politician who’d go right to the Justice Department,” Mr. Sheehan said. That person would get on the phone to the attorney general “and say, ‘Hey, The New York Times has got some kind of big secret study, they got it from Dan Ellsberg.’ ”

Mr. Sheehan realized, he said, that he had to move fast. Once word leaked out, the government would go to court to block publication. Lawyers for The Times would end up arguing with the Justice Department over classified material, the importance of which neither the judge nor the public would be in a position to understand.

“Oh, I felt really quite angry,” Mr. Sheehan recalled. Like Mr. Ellsberg, he had turned against the war and intended to do what he could to stop it. “So I was quite upset when Ellsberg said, ‘You can read, take notes, but no copies,’ ” he remembered. “And over the fact that he was out of control.”

He made up his mind, he said, “that this material is never again going in a government safe.”

Back in Washington, he confided in his wife, Susan Sheehan, a writer for The New Yorker. He recalled her saying, “If I were you, I’d get control of that situation.” Play along with Mr. Ellsberg, do your best to protect him, but get the material to The Times.

“Xerox it,” he remembered Ms. Sheehan saying.

He returned to Cambridge to continue reading and taking notes. When Mr. Ellsberg let it be known that he was leaving on a brief vacation, Mr. Sheehan asked to continue working in the apartment where the documents were kept. Mr. Ellsberg agreed and gave him a key. He reminded Mr. Sheehan: No copies.

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