Nat Hentoff's Role in the Pentagon Papers

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June 24, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 25

U.S. v. N.Y. Times v. Zion v. Earth
By Nat Hentoff

As has been noted in the Washington Post, among other places, I printed the only pre-publication reference to the New York Times' story on the secret Pentagon history of the American involvementt in Vietnam. I can't, however, claim any credit for "investigative reporting" in this instance because the information was given to me without my having to search it out or, for that matter, without my having previously known there was anything to search out.

In running that short report in the May 20 Voice, I quite willingly allowed myself to be used as a spur.

The source of my information knew that a number of Times editors read the column I write for The Voice, particularly when it concerns the press. He was concerned that an evidently extraordinary story which had been worked on in secrecy by a Times team at the Hilton might not run. Or it might be thoroughly diluted before it was allowed to run. Accordingly, he hoped an indication here that someone outside knew there was a story might help spring it loose.

I don't know whether my tipping that story did help accelerate its release, although my source says it did. In any case, there had certainly been an internal debate at the Times concerning the story. My information from several sources, is that publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was initially quite cool to the idea of printing it.

I am also told that this time -- unlike his attitude immediately prior to the decimating of the Bay of Pigs story -- James Reston argued for publication of the Pentagon report. Apparently Sulzberger came to recognize, as he told the New York Post over the weekend, that "once it was in the house, we had very little option left." The purpose of my box on the story in the May 20 Voice was to further convince him of that.

Eventually, the story of what actually happened inside the aeries of the Times before Sunday, June 13, will come out. But that sub-theme is far less important than the decision Sulzberger did make, an act that obviously assures him an important place in the history of the fight to make the press free. Great credit is also due the Washington Post, of course, for breaking its own story from the Pentagon documents when the Times had been silenced. And also to the Boston Globe.

As I write this, I don't know the final legal disposition of the cases against the Times and the Post. Nor does anyone else, since the Supreme Court is going to be the ultimate arbiter. But whatever way the decision against these two papers goes, those documents will be printed somewhere. It is impossible to lock them up again.

The ramifications of this event have only just begun to be realized -- in terms of re-defining "the national interest" as well as the "responsibilities" of the press. An unwittingly ludicrous reduction of this issue to the texture of baby food was Whitney North Seymour, Jr.'s argument for the government in U.S. District Court here Friday: "As we see it, the issue in this proceeding is a very simple one, and that is whether, when an authorized person comes into possession of documents which have been classified under lawful procedures, that person may unilaterally declassify those documents in his sole discretion."

That's the caliber of U.S Attorney you get under Nixon and Mitchell.

Judge Gurfein's opinion, worth reading in its entirety in the June 20 Times, demolishes the concept of the issue as being "very simple." But I doubt that most of the principals in this case fully recognize the depths of its significance. On Friday, for example, Judge Gurfein suggested that the Times and the Washington Post might sit down with the Department of Justice to screen the documents "as a matter of simple patriotism to determine whether the publication of any of them is not dangerous to the national security."

Consider the assumptions in that quotation.

What is "simple patriotism" these days?

And, after Nuremberg, is "national security the deciding test? What if the security of the rest of the world depends on breaching American "national security"? of the existence of Pentagon plans, let us say, for a "protective reaction" nuclear strike against China. But what if these plans are only options, among others? Should not the citizens of this country and the rest of the world nonetheless the possibilities of their annihilation? No matter what he classification of such documents is.

When any war can become a nuclear war, are all American "war secrets" (whatever that may mean) immune to exposure by a press that considers itself free? Put another way, now that we live in a time when a full-scale war, if it breaks out, will allow no time for publication of anything, including "war secrets," what is the responsibility of the Times and the rest of the media concerning what the Pentagon and the White House are planning militarily now?

...A subsidiary motif in this battle between the government and the press has been the rather bizarre role of Sidney Zion. A former Times specialist, and an excellent one, on law reporting, Zion fingered Daniel Ellsberg as the supplier to the Times of the Pentagon SECRET HISTORY. His forum Barry Gray's WMCA radio show.

Why did he do it? I talked with a number of journalists, here and in other parts of the country, in the next few days, and their reaction ranged from "incomprehensible" to "incredibly self-destructive ego-tripping."

My initial reaction was both anger and incomprehension. I watched Zion tell Chris Borgen on WCBS-TV: "I'm still a newspaperman and when I have a story, I give it! I don't know what else to do with it."

"Give" isn't quite the word. Zion was selling that story earlier in the week to the highest bidder among several London newspapers. The Daily Express won, and printed the piece -- without Ellsberg's name, and without Zion's by-line. The Daily Express denied to me that the piece was based on anything it had gotten from Zion; but Zion's wife, who works for the agency that sold it -- Transworld Feature Syndicate -- told me that he did indeed sell the information to the Express.

It's also of interest how Zion got on that Barry Gray show. I didn't see that part of the story in the papers, so I called Gray. According to Barry, Zion called him at about 20 minutes past 10 that night, and said: "The FBI is about to make an arrest in the New York Times case. I know who the guy is. I'd like to break the story on your program."

Gray, who had another program prepared, made room for Zion. My question: was the FBI "about to make an arrest"? If so, how come, as of this writing, June 22, no arrest has been made? How come, at the time Sid appeared on the Gray show, there were no police alerts for Ellsberg in Boston or Cambridge? I ask these questions because if Zion's rationale for his exposure of Ellsberg was that the FBI was about to move in anyway, the FBI crossed Sid up that night, the next day, and into this week.

On Saturday morning, Sid Zion returned my call of the previous day. I asked him about that ringing declaration: "When I have a story, I give it! I don't know what else to do with it." Any story? What if he knew who stole the FBI documents in Media, Pennsylvania? His answer: "I can't say what I'd do. I wouldn't know what I'd do until I knew what I had."

An honestly ambivalent answer, but inconsistent with what he had said before...

Sid came back to this line of argument when he made this basic point during our conversation: ""i'm supposed to be an immoral bastard for breaking the story, but the editors of the Washington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had assigned some of their best investigative reporters to find the guy who gave the Pentagon material to the Times. Are they immoral for having made that assignment? Are their reporters immoral for going after the story and printing it if they get it? Am I being called immoral only because I'm not in the club any more? Because I'm not on a newspaper? I broke this by myself. Suppose I'd been on the Washington Post when I broke it? Would these people have had the same reaction to what I'd done? Or, would I have been even more 'moral' if I had waited to read someone else's story on who had given the documents to the Times?"

....Every journalist, I would think, can agree on the point made by the St. Louis Dispatch as it supported the Times' printing of the "classified" documents: "It would be naive to think that behind the scenes activities depicted in the study are not continuing. In the public manifestation of the Nixon administration policies may be seen the same reluctance to negotiate, the same reliance on military power, the same temptation to broaden the war."

At the time, the press failed miserably to get the story that the Times and the Washington Post have begun to print about what was happening in those years. What about now? Is the press doing that much better? Do we have any real sense of what's going on in the Pentagon, at the White House, in Henry Kissinger's game rooms?

That is the crucially immediate question to emerge from the most vital newsbreak in many years. This is a continuing story, and who is doing basic investigative reporting on its current elements this week, this month? Or, are we going to have to wait for another delivery of secret documents five years from now?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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