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George Wilson, who played role in Pentagon Papers case, dies

WASHINGTON -- George Wilson, an author and former Washington Post reporter who covered the military from the perspective of soldiers crawling in the mud and from the offices of decision-makers in Washington, and who played a notable role in the Pentagon Papers case, died Tuesday at his home in Arlington, Va. He was 86.

The cause was leukemia, said his son, Jim Wilson.

After working at Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, Wilson joined The Washington Post in 1966 as a military affairs reporter. He became a Pentagon "gold mine," former Washington Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee wrote in his memoir.

Over the decades, Wilson examined how decisions were made about who would fight and when, where and with what equipment. He also was a Post correspondent in Vietnam in 1968 and 1972 and was the author of several books about military matters.

Wilson left The Washington Post in 1990 and later wrote for National Journal, serving as an embedded correspondent in a mobile Marine artillery unit after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

His books included "Supercarrier: An Inside Account of Life Aboard the World's Most Powerful Ship, the USS John F. Kennedy" (1986), based on seven months of reporting on the $4 billion ship. He was on the vessel in 1983 when a terrorist bombing at the U.S. military compound in Beirut left 241 service members dead.

The Kennedy was ordered to carry out a retaliatory airstrike. A U.S. pilot subsequently died after ejecting from his plane, and another American flier was shot down over Lebanon and taken prisoner.

The most dramatic moment of Wilson's career may have come when he found himself in a federal courtroom, deep in the legal thickets of the Pentagon Papers case. The case, which arose in 1971, involved efforts to publish a trove of papers that formed a secret history of the Vietnam War and how the United States became embroiled in it.

After the papers were obtained by The Washington Post and The New York Times, the Nixon administration tried to prevent the newspapers from publishing them, arguing that the revelations would damage national security. The government attempt to stop the publication of the secret papers was known as "prior restraint" and prompted questions about freedom of the press, guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In his memoir, Bradlee recounted a day in court in which the government extracted, from deep within the huge file of documents, a particular passage. If that passage were to be made public, the government told the judge, national security would be harmed.

Then, Bradlee wrote, "the remarkable George Wilson stunned everyone by pulling out of his back pocket a verbatim record" of the same information, which had already appeared in a public transcript of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings.

It was a turning point in the case and demonstrated Wilson's encyclopedic knowledge of the most minute details of the war. It also showed him as a man who kept his wits in a tight spot.

The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the right of the newspapers to publish. The ruling has been viewed as vindication of the media and a triumph for believers in the First Amendment.

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