In June 1971, the report became an important political issue once Daniel Ellsberg, a former hawk who had worked for the CIA in Vietnam, leaked it to the press. President Nixon and, especially, his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, were incensed by the leak and their increased paranoia and determination to “get” Ellsberg started the descent into Watergate.
Nixon was initially relaxed about the leak as the first installment, printed in the New York Times on 13 June 1971, seemed to be an opportunity to embarrass his Democratic opponents. It focused upon Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential election campaign against Barry Goldwater and clearly documented Johnson’s deception over his Vietnam policy.
However, within a few days the leak had turned into a flood as the New York Times started printing pages of top secret cables from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The massive national security violation was clearly damaging the Nixon administration and it could have undermined Kissinger’s secret negotiations with China and North Vietnam. A number of foreign countries were also pressing for action to stop the flow of embarrassing reports about their roles in the war.
The White House responded by starting an FBI investigation and seeking a court injunction against the Times preventing further publication. A federal appeals court agreed to the government’s request but the Washington Post started printing extracts instead.
A different federal appeals court refused to grant an injunction against the Post, and other papers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, started printing parts of the report as well. Eventually, a dozen newspapers took part while a Democratic senator, Mike Gravel, started reading the Papers into the Congressional Record.
The Nixon administration pursued the case to the Supreme Court, but on 30 June the justices voted six to three against it. The Court found that the government had failed to justify prior restraints against publication and had hence breached the First Amendment guarantees of press freedom.
Despite the Court’s decision, the government was still able to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg, who had been quickly identified as the source of the leaks. Ellsberg was then an MIT research assistant but he had worked on CIA pacification programs in Vietnam in the 1960s.
He had also worked under Henry Kissinger at both Harvard and in the White House—which further inflamed the national security advisor—before joining the Rand Corporation, where he had photocopied the papers over a number of months.
Kissinger and Nixon became determined to discredit Ellsberg, whose denunciations of them and the war in Vietnam were making him into a peace movement hero. A cheering crowd greeted him when he turned himself in to federal authorities in Boston on 28 June.
A grand jury had already been impaneled to investigate the leaking but the White House prevented full cooperation in order to cover up its previous misdeeds. Ellsberg’s lawyers were told that the government had no wiretap records involving their client but he had been taped fifteen times on one of the secret “Kissinger taps.” These taps were not run through the usual FBI channels and revealing the records of Ellsberg would have divulged the whole secret (and illegal) operation.
Nixon also wanted to connect Ellsberg to a Communist country as this would not only discredit him but would also increase his maximum possible jail sentence. No such link could be found, however, and Nixon was convinced that this was because the FBI wasn’t performing a thorough investigation. (Ellberg’s father-in-law was an old friend of J. Edgar Hoover.)
He therefore ordered a White House investigation that was started by E. Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA man. Nixon also wanted action to prevent further leaks, so a new White House unit, which became known as the Plumbers, was formed involving David Young, Egil Krogh, G. Gordon Liddy, and Hunt.
The unit soon decided that a CIA psychological profile of Ellsberg would greatly help to discredit him. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist had already refused to give his files to the FBI and when the CIA drew up a profile using the Plumbers’ material it was very short and superficial.
The Plumbers, with the approval of the president’s chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, therefore decided to perform a covert operation to retrieve the files. Liddy and Hunt organized it but, despite their men wrecking the psychiatrist’s office, nothing was found.
No further such operations were carried out, but the Plumbers continued to dream up schemes to discredit Ellsberg, including drugging him with LSD. They also persisted in pursuing the CIA profile and were eventually rewarded with an eight-page analysis blaming Ellsberg’s actions upon aggression against his father, the president, and Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
The CIA profile probably wasn’t used for anything, but the White House did use other material on Ellsberg. An article drawing together the left-wing causes his lawyer had supported was leaked to the press by Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Charles Colson, who later served seven months in jail after pleading guilty to infringing on Ellsberg’s right to a fair trial.
Ellsberg, however, avoided a prison sentence as his trial collapsed in May 1972 in the midst of Watergate. During the trial, Judge Matthew Byrne had been made aware of the “Kissinger taps” and the Plumbers’ break-in, as well as being publicly offered the post of director of the FBI.
The cumulative effect of this government misconduct, he said, offended a sense of justice and, instead of ordering a retrial, he dismissed all of the charges against Ellsberg and his codefendant, Anthony Russo of the Times. Coming just after the resignation of Nixon’s chief aides, H. R. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, the trial’s collapse added to the air of crisis and corruption engulfing the White House.