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Context of 'June 30, 1971: Supreme Court Refuses to Block Publication of Pentagon Papers'

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Book cover of the Pentagon Papers.Book cover of the Pentagon Papers. [Source: Daniel Ellsberg]The New York Times receives a huge amount of secret Defense Department documents and memos that document the covert military and intelligence operations waged by previous administrations in Vietnam (see January 15, 1969). The documents are leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official who worked in counterintelligence and later for the RAND Corporation while remaining an active consultant to the government on Vietnam. Ellsberg, a former aide to Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and a member of the task force that produced the Defense Department documents, has, over his tenure as a senior government official, become increasingly disillusioned with the actions of the US in Vietnam. [Herda, 1994] The documents are given to Times reporter Neil Sheehan by Ellsberg (see May 1969). [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 313]
Ellsberg Tried to Interest Senators - After he and his friend Anthony Russo had copied the documents (see September 29, 1969), Ellsberg had spent months attempting to persuade several antiwar senators, including William Fulbright (D-AR), Charles Mathias Jr (R-MD), George McGovern (D-SD), and Paul “Pete” McCloskey (R-CA), to enter the study into the public record, all to no avail. But McGovern suggested that Ellsberg provide copies of the documents either to the New York Times or the Washington Post. Ellsberg knew Sheehan in Vietnam, and decided that the Times reporter was his best chance for making the documents public. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 333; Moran, 2007] Ellsberg originally gave copies of the documents—later dubbed the “Pentagon Papers”—to Phil Geyelin of the Washington Post, but the Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee decided not to publish any of the documents. Ellsberg then gave a copy to Sheehan.
Documents Prove White House Deceptions - The documents include information that showed former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had made a secret commitment to help the French defeat the insurgents in Vietnam. They also show that Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, had used a secret “provocation strategy” to escalate the US’s presence into a full-blown war that eventually led to the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident. The documents also show that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had planned from the outset of his presidency to expand the war [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] , and show how Johnson secretly paved the way for combat troops to be sent to Vietnam, how he had refused to consult Congress before committing both ground and air forces to war, and how he had secretly, and illegally, shifted government funds from other areas to fund the war. Finally, the documents prove that all three presidents had broken Constitutional law in bypassing Congress and sending troops to wage war in Vietnam on their own authority. [Herda, 1994]
Times Publishes Against Legal Advice - The Times will begin publishing them in mid-June 1971 (see June 13, 1971) after putting Sheehan and several other reporters up in the New York Hilton to sift through the mountain of photocopies and the senior editors, publishers, and lawyers argued whether or not to publish such a highly classified set of documents. The management will decide, against the advice of its lawyers, to publish articles based on the documents as well as excerpts from the documents themselves. [Moran, 2007]

Entity Tags: Paul McCloskey, Washington Post, Phil Geyelin, RAND Corporation, New York Times, Johnson administration, Kennedy administration, Charles Mathias, Jr, Ben Bradlee, Anthony Russo, Neil Sheehan, Daniel Ellsberg, Henry A. Kissinger, George S. McGovern, Katharine Graham, J. William Fulbright, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

At the behest of President Nixon (see June 15, 1971), the Justice Department files a motion with the US District Court in New York requesting a temporary restraining order and an injunction against the New York Times to prevent further publication of articles stemming from the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 13, 1971). The landmark case of New York Times Company v. United States begins. The government’s argument is based on the assertion that the publication of the documents jeopardizes national security, makes it more difficult to prosecute the Vietnam War, and endangers US intelligence assets. The Times will base its defense on the principles embodied in the First Amendment, as well as the argument that just because the government claims that some materials are legitimately classified as top secret, this does not mean they have to be kept out of the public eye; the Times will argue that the government does not want to keep the papers secret to protect national security, but instead to protect itself from embarrassment and possible criminal charges. The court grants the temporary restraining order request, forcing the Times to temporarily stop publishing excerpts from the documents. [Herda, 1994; Moran, 2007]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Richard M. Nixon, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

After a series of rulings and appeals that fail to remove the temporary restraining order against the New York Times in the case surrounding its publication of the “Pentagon Papers” (see June 18, 1971), the newspaper files a request to have its case against the government heard in the US Supreme Court. Fearing that the articles will soon begin appearing in newspapers all over the country, the government asks the Supreme Court to block publication of the Papers in the press, and the Court agrees. Other newspapers hold off publication of similar articles until the Court can rule. [Herda, 1994]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Opening arguments in the Pentagon Papers case of New York Times Company v. United States (see June 15, 1971 and June 24, 1971) begin in the Supreme Court. The government argues that the publication of articles based on the documents constitutes a “grave and immediate danger” to US interests, and that the “integrity of the institution of the presidency” must be protected. For the Times, the arguments are that, first, since it took days for the government to respond to the publication of the first articles, the documents must not be that sensitive; lower courts could not find a single sensitive document among the documents; the government had no right imposing restraints on a newspaper’s First Amendment rights to publish in this situation; and that many times in recent history the Times and other news outlets had published “leaked” information, often information that was deliberately leaked by government sources. [Herda, 1994]

Entity Tags: New York Times, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The Supreme Court rules 6-3 not to permanently enjoin the New York Times and other press organs from publishing articles derived from the Pentagon Papers (see June 26, 1971). Three justices, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Thurgood Marshall, insist that the government can never suppress the publication of information no matter what the threat to national security; the other three in the majority, Potter Stewart, Byron White, and William Brennan, use a more moderate “common sense” standard that says, though the government can suppress publication of sensitive information under circumstances of war or national emergency, this case did not meet the criteria for such suppression. Chief Justice Warren Burger is joined by Harry Blackmun and John Harlan in dissenting; they believe that the president has the unrestrained authority to prevent confidential materials affecting foreign policy from being published. The Times’s lawyer says that the ruling will help ensure that a federal court will not issue a restraining order against a news outlet simply because the government is unhappy with the publication of a particular article. [Herda, 1994]

Entity Tags: Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Byron White, Hugo Black, John Harlan, New York Times, Potter Stewart, William O. Douglas, Warren Burger, William Brennan, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

Erwin Griswold.Erwin Griswold. [Source: US Department of Justice]Former Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, who represented the United States before the Supreme Court in the landmark Pentagon Papers case in 1971 (see March 1971 and June 30, 1971), now writes that he saw nothing in those documents that threatened national security. In 1971, without ever actually reading the documents, Griswold argued that their publication constituted a “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.” Griswold writes in a Washington Post op-ed that he relied on the judgment of “three high officials, one each from the Defense Department, the State Department and the National Security Agency” to explain to him why the documents posed such a threat. (In 2006, then-White House counsel John Dean will write that Griswold “did not insist on knowing what was actually contained in the Pentagon Papers, and he never found out, even as he insisted on the importance of their continued secrecy.”) In 1971, Griswold told the Court: “I haven’t the slightest doubt myself that the material which has already been published and the publication of the other materials affects American lives and is a thoroughly serious matter. I think to say that it can only be enjoined if there will be a war tomorrow morning, when there is a war now going on, is much too narrow.” Griswold now writes: “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication [of the documents]. Indeed, I have never seen it even suggested that there was such an actual threat.… It quickly becomes apparent to any person who has considerable experience with classified material that there is massive overclassification and that the principal concern of the classifiers is not with national security, but rather with governmental embarrassment of one sort or another.” [Washington Post, 2/15/1989; FindLaw, 6/16/2006; Siegel, 2008, pp. 200]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Erwin Griswold, John Dean, US Department of State, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Nixon and Watergate

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