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In part two of this multi-part series, Sen. Mike Gravel gets a mysterious phone call from someone saying he had the Pentagon Papers, which Gravel later agreed to accept just blocks from the White House.

This is Part 2 of Consortium News’ multi-part series on the 50th Anniversary of Sen. Mike Gravel obtaining the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg and the consequences Gravel faced for revealing the top secret documents in Congress, just hours before the Supreme Court decided the case on June 30, 1971.

In Part One, Gravel brought the Papers to Capitol Hill to make them public by reading them into the Congressional Record. Through a procedural screw-up, Gravel was forced from the Senate floor into the basement of a Senate office building to begin reading the Papers at a subcommittee meeting. In this part, Gravel gets the papers from Ellsberg through an intermediary and is overcome by emotion as he begins reading from them. 

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 Two: Getting the Papers

By Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria

The 7,100-page study, which had been obtained and secretly given to me, detailed in 4,100 pages of analysis–I was missing as many as 3,000 pages of supporting documents–how the federal government had consistently lied to the American people about our military involvement in Vietnam.

They revealed a detailed portrait of an arrogant, authoritarian and secretive leadership, spanning Democratic and Republican administrations from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, irresponsibly leading the nation gradually into a war they knew they could not win.

Among many deceptions exposed over three decades, the Papers showed, for instance, that despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s public promise that he would not expand the war, he secretly did just that, with bombing raids on Laos and North Vietnam as well as the insertion of U.S. marine combat units, long before the public found out.

The Papers had been prepared as a secret study beginning in June 1967 at the direction of Robert McNamara, then defense secretary. It was to be an internal document telling members of the government themselves, but no one else, the truth about what successive administrations had really been up to in Vietnam since 1940. The study was classified “top secret-sensitive” to mostly cover up the screw-ups and hidden motives.

McNamara had copies of the forty-seven volumes filed in two double-combination locked drawers to prevent them from being leaked. On Friday, June 18, eleven days before I entered the Capitol with the flight bags, I was getting a massage in the Senate gym. It was off limits to all but the initiated, that is, senators. Even staff was barred, but my staffer Joe Rothstein was trying to get in. His message was so urgent that he bribed the guy at the door. It was slid open and he slipped in.

I was having my back rubbed, with my face turned to one side. I opened my eyes and there was Joe’s mug staring back at me. He leaned over the table and whispered into my ear: “Someone has just called and he wants to give you the Pentagon Papers. And he’s gonna call back.”

‘Let’s Get the Son-of-a-Bitch’

Five days earlier, on Sunday, June 13, The New York Times had published the first installment of the leaked Papers. President Richard M. Nixon was still enjoying the afterglow of the previous day’s Rose Garden wedding for his daughter Tricia when his copy of The New York Times arrived. Though the study stopped with the Johnson administration and might have been seen as a boon to the Republicans, Nixon could not have been pleased.

The war that he had promised to end was not only still going on, but had been expanded, secretly into Cambodia. He feared that other secrets of his prosecution of the war would be leaked. On that Sunday, according to the White House tapes, he told Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser: “People have gotta be put to the torch for this sort of thing … let’s get the son-of-a-bitch [who leaked it] in jail.”

The next day the Justice Department requested the Times stop. The paper refused. So on Tuesday, June 15, after Nixon pounded his Oval Office desk and shouted, “Goddamn it, somebody has got to go to jail!” Attorney General John Mitchell, who would later himself go to jail over Watergate, obtained a temporary restraining order against the Times. Publication stopped the next day.

Just before I went for my massage, two days later, I saw that that morning’s Washington Post had published its first installment. But the government then immediately restrained them, too. Both the Times and the Post were fighting their way to the US Supreme Court. No one knew if the Papers would ever be published again.

I threw on my clothes, dashed back to the office, and sat there waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, a few minutes later, I didn’t have a clue who was on the line. Then the voice said: “Senator, would you read the Pentagon Papers as part of your filibuster against the draft?”

I said: “Yes, and we should hang up right now.”

It would be some time before I knew I was speaking with Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst and Pentagon consultant. He was a member of McNamara’s thirty-six-man Study Task Force that had researched and written the Papers. Ellsberg, in an act of supreme patriotism, had stolen a copy of those classified documents to expose the lies behind American mass murder in Southeast Asia.

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