WASHINGTON, D.C. — Neil Sheehan, a reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who obtained the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, died Thursday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 84.
Neil Sheehan covered the Vietnam War for United Press International and the Times from 1962 to 1966.
He won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1989 for “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.”
In an 8,000-word cover story for the Times Book Review in 1971, Sheehan cited 33 books on Vietnam and suggested that President Richard M. Nixon was guilty of war crimes, The Washington Post reported. The article helped Sheehan gain the trust of Daniel Ellsberg, who would be his link to the Pentagon Papers.
A military analyst for the Rand Corp., Ellsberg served on the committee that produced the papers, a 47-volume, 7,000-page history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, the newspaper reported.
Ellsberg leaked the papers to Sheehan. They revealed that successive administrations had expanded U.S. involvement in the war and intensified attacks on North Vietnam while covering up their doubts about the efforts’ success, the Times reported.
The leak was the largest disclosure of classified documents in U.S. history up to that point, the newspaper reported.
Attorney General John Mitchell accused the Times of violating the Espionage Act and demanded the paper stop publishing the documents, the Post reported. When the Times refused, the government won a court order barring further publication, setting the stage for a sequence that was dramatized in the 2017 movie “The Post.”
The Supreme Court ruled 17 days later that the newspaper could resume publishing the articles. They won the Times a Pulitzer Prize for public service, the newspaper reported.
Sheehan, who never spoke publicly about how he had gotten the papers, agreed in 2015 to tell his story to the Times on the condition that it be published only after his death. In that interview, he said Ellsberg had agreed initially to allow him to make a copy of the papers, then reneged, fearing prosecution and imprisonment.
Sheehan took advantage of Ellsberg’s absence from his home to override his instructions, taking the copied documents back to Washington in bags strapped onto an airplane seat beside him, the Times reported.
Accepting an award later in 1971, Sheehan said that the Times, in publishing the papers, had given “to the American people, who had given to those who governed us 45,000 of their sons and $100 billion of their treasure, a small accounting of a debt that can never be repaid.”
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