The relationship between The New York Times and its most famous source, Daniel Ellsberg, reads like a thriller, filled with secret meetings, top secret documents and a war in the background.
The connection was mutually beneficial. For Mr Ellsberg, a former military analyst who died on Friday at the age of 92, uncovering a secret government history about the Vietnam War changed how the nation thought about a conflict he detested. And the publication of the documents in 1971, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, tarnished The Times’ reputation as a government watchdog.
Yet Mr. Ellsberg had conflicting feelings about The Times.
Mr. Ellsberg was pleased with the major coverage The Times gave of the Pentagon Papers – “their courage in doing so and the risks they took” – Mr. Ellsberg’s son Robert said in an interview. And he respected the story’s lead reporter, Neil Sheehan, believing he picked the right person for the leak.
But the younger Mr. Ellsberg said his father had “some remorse and resentment about the way he felt he had been treated, which he felt was very unnecessary.”
In particular, Mr. Ellsberg was unhappy about being misled by Mr. Sheehan. Mr. Ellsberg was also upset that The Times later ran an article detailing how he had provided the documents.
Mr. Ellsberg and Mr. Sheehan discussed the Pentagon Papers in detail in March 1971, during an hour-long conversation that lasted well into the night. Mr. Ellsberg smuggled the Pentagon Papers — all 7,000 pages of them — out of an office, past security guards, in the fall of 1969. He deputized Robert Ellsberg, who was 13 at the time, to help make the copies.
Eventually, Mr. Ellsberg granted Mr. Sheehan access to the papers, but with one condition: Mr. Sheehan could study and take notes on the documents, but he could not make copies of them.
Mr. Sheehan violated that agreement by making copies of the documents with the help of former The New Yorker writer Susan Sheehan. Mr. Sheehan did not tell Mr. Ellsberg. Over the next several months, he misled Mr. Ellsberg about the newspaper’s timetable for publishing a story about the documents.
When The Times was close to publishing its stories, Mr. Sheehan asked Mr. Ellsberg for a complete copy of the documents, believing that the request would be interpreted as a signal that the newspaper was preparing to publish a story. . But Mr. Ellsberg missed the hint. He provided the documents but was shocked when The Times published the first article to reveal the documents on June 13, 1971.
The Nixon White House demanded that the paper stop publishing the information contained in the documents. The Times won a court victory against the Nixon administration, setting a precedent blunting prior restraint by the government. Later, the government sought jail time for Mr. Ellsberg. A judge dismissed the case against Mr. Ellsberg, citing government misconduct.
Decades later, the day Mr. Sheehan died, The Times published an article about the Pentagon Papers being leaked. The article was based mostly on an interview with Mr. Sheehan that took place in 2015, in preparation for his obituary, the first time he had publicly spoken in detail about his role in obtaining the papers. He gave the interview on the condition that his account not be disclosed until after his death, according to the reporter Jenny Scott, who wrote the article.
“I was barred from being able to run my account by anyone, including Mr. Ellsberg, until after Mr. Sheehan’s death,” said Ms. Scott, who left the paper before the article was published.
In the interview, Mr. Sheehan said that he misled Mr. Ellsberg about the timing of the article because he was concerned that Mr. Ellsberg was behaving irrationally and might do something to jeopardize the story. He said the documents were too important to leave in his hands.
Mr. Ellsberg disagreed with Mr. Sheehan’s characterization that he feared going to prison, and was unhappy that he was not given an opportunity to respond to that point and others in the article.
Mr. Ellsberg tweeted a complaint about the article shortly after it was published, noting that he had given Mr. Sheehan a copy of the documents before The Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers. Mr Ellsberg later criticized his treatment by The Times in an interview with The New Yorker.
Mr Ellsberg’s son said his father was always prepared to give documents to The Times if he had a commitment that the paper would publish them – even at the cost of going to jail.
Robert Ellsberg said, “Among other things, the effect of not telling him was that he was caught unprepared with a copy of the papers in his apartment where the FBI could go in and find them.”
The New York Times said on Monday it had no comment about Mr Ellsberg’s complaints about the relationship.
Months after the article about Mr. Sheehan, Mr. Ellsberg was part of The Times’ 50th anniversary package about the Pentagon Papers. He provided several comments for an oral history. He also did an interview for the opinion section and podcast.
Still, some of his interactions with the newspaper surprised them. He gave several interviews in his final year, including with Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The Times, and James Risen, a former The Times reporter who now works for The Intercept. In both interviews, Ms. Abramson and Mr. Risen said, they expressed their frustrations with The Times.
Neither interview has been published. Ms. Abramson was in discussion with The Times for writing a guest opinion column about Mr. Ellsberg’s relationship with the company, although The Times later hired a staff writer instead. Mr. Risen said his article, also about Mr. Ellsberg’s relationship with The Times, would be published soon.
In his 2003 memoir, “Secrets”, Mr. Ellsberg explained that he was excited by the culmination of the story he had helped set in motion. Once he heard that the first article was being published, he and his wife bought a copy of the Sunday paper late on Saturday night.
Mr. Ellsberg wrote, “We were walking up the stairs in Harvard Square reading the front page, which had a three-column story about the secret collection, feeling great.”