After publication of the Pentagon Papers was shut down, Dan Ellsberg leaked the top secret history to Sen. Mike Gravel. This is how Gravel got the Papers, what he did with them and what happened next. Part One.

by Consortium News

This month is the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers, the top secret study of the war in Southeast Asia, which showed that U.S. leaders knew the war was lost but continued the killing and dying anyway. Driven by his conscience, one of the study’s authors, Daniel Ellsberg, leaked the Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

In response, the Justice Department of President Richard M. Nixon slapped injunctions on the newspapers preventing them from continuing publication. Both newspapers sued the administration in a case that would be decided by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Ellsberg had sought another way to get the Papers out. He approached several sitting members of Congress to have them released during a legislative act. Several senators turned him down until the first-term senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel, said yes.

This Consortium News multi-part series focuses on that little-told part of the Pentagon Papers story: how Gravel obtained the Papers from Ellsberg, how he arranged to read them in Congress and what were the consequences Gravel suffered for this bold act, which ended in the early morning of June 30, 1971, just hours before the Supreme Court decided the Pentagon Papers case.

The excerpts published here are from the book A Political Odyssey by Sen. Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria (Seven Stories Press). It is Gravel’s story as told to Lauria.

Part One: Top Secret

By Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria

It was a fairly steamy, early summer afternoon in the drained swamp of a city that had become Washington, DC, as I struggled with the two black flight bags up the steps of the Capitol. I walked briskly past the police and some inquisitive tourists through the cool, marble hallways to my office. I feared the FBI might be after me.

I had asked Vietnam Veterans Against the War to send me the most disabled soldiers they could find. When I got to my office they were there, arrayed in their wheelchairs, medals pinned on, ready to do battle. They would have thrown their broken bodies in the way if the FBI tried to get in. These crippled men guarded the heavy flight bags behind the door until I was ready to take them onto the floor of the Senate. It was June 29, 1971.

I walked across the red and blue carpet straight to my mahogany desk that had once been used by Harry Truman and lowered the bags near my seat. As I sat down, Ed Muskie, the lanky senator from Maine who had been Hubert Humphrey’s running mate three years earlier, walked over. He was on the Public Works Committee with me and had a question. As he began to ask it he looked down his nose at me with a little smile forming at the edges of his mouth. He pointed toward the floor.

“What the hell have you got in there?” he asked me. “The Pentagon Papers?”

I ignored him.

Plan A

The plan I had worked out with my staff was this: I would read the entire 4,000 pages of documents contained in the bags as part of a filibuster I was waging since the middle of May to force the expiration of the military draft. I was to read for thirty straight hours on the Senate floor going beyond the midnight, June 30 deadline for extending the draft law.

I wanted to beat Strom Thurmond’s filibuster record of twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes, which he waged against civil rights legislation in 1957. To do that I had to hold the floor no matter what. Huey Long, the radical senator from Louisiana felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1935, would just pee on the floor during his filibusters. But I was going to be more dignified than that. I had myself hooked up with a colostomy bag with a valve at the ankle.

Joe Rothstein, my administrative assistant, would have the honor of bleeding the bag as I spoke. To successfully filibuster I had to control the chair. So Alan Cranston, the California senator and my closest friend in Congress, agreed to chair the session. He and I went to the Senate doctor together to get fitted with bags. We also secured enemas so we would only deal with a liquid problem. That morning Alan had tried to talk me out of it on the phone, but I was adamant.

Read the rest at Consortium News