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From covert-ops to cover-ups

Almost forgotten: Newsday’s role in publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in "The Post." Credit: 20th Century Fox via AP / Niko Tavernise

The leaking of secret Pentagon documents, it turns out, can be cloaked in layers of secrecy, but topped with stunningly little subtlety.

At least that’s the way it was on a June day in 1971, the day I obtained for Newsday the last two chapters of the purloined “Pentagon Papers.”

Following a leaker’s carefully clandestine instructions, I’d just disembarked in Boston from the Washington air shuttle. Suddenly I heard my name blasting over Logan Airport’s loudspeakers:

“Passenger Martin Schram please report to the passenger information counter for a message.” Everywhere I glanced people looked like potential FBI agents. But clearly, the leaking to Newsday had finally begun.

It was part of a covert, carefully complex, melodramatic and borderline comical plan to make sure Americans could finally read and reflect upon the Pentagon’s secret historic record of how and why the United States had misjudged, miscalculated and mired itself in a war in South Vietnam that successive U.S. administrations weren’t going to win.

This month, the new film, “The Post,” focuses our nation’s over-politicked attention back to the conflicted days when America grappled with the controversial leaking and publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Movie stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks dramatize the genuine conflicts that then-Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham and then-Executive Editor Ben Bradlee wrestled with to defend our First Amendment rights in clashes with President Richard Nixon’s White House.

The tale of Newsday’s smaller and almost forgotten piece of that Pentagon Papers drama is worth recalling now — as a reminder of how things really happen, but also for its almost downright comic back story.

But first, let me bring you up-to-date on the background that brought me to Logan Airport on that June day in 1971: A source whose name hadn’t been confirmed (but who was whispered to be a disillusioned former Pentagon official, Daniel Ellsberg) had slipped The New York Times a photocopied version of the 47-volume secret history — from covert-ops to cover-ups. The study had been commissioned by Kennedy-Johnson era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, whose infuriatingly cocksure optimism that he’d soon have the war won was rumored by 1967 to be shattered.

But when the Times printed its first revelations, an enraged Nixon obtained a federal court injunction barring the Times from publishing more. Next, The Washington Post, seemingly scooped, got its leaked copy; so Nixon took on the Post, too. Then several other newspapers got a few chapters — and I’d sought to make sure Newsday got in on the action.

Ellsberg, one of the central figures in preparing McNamara’s study, was understood to have become skeptical that the war could be won, and critical of the rate in which U.S. troops were being sent into combat. So when The New York Times published its first Pentagon Papers reports, I traveled to meet a source close to Ellsberg and made clear Newsday was ready to report on the contents of as many chapters as we could get. I was told only that my message was understood.

The next day, a senior Newsday editor in our Garden City main office received a cryptic phone call from a source identifying himself as “Sam Adams.” The editor confirmed Newsday’s determination to publish what we could obtain. Soon, another man, identifying himself as “Sam Adams II,” telephoned with instructions: I was to take a specific Eastern Air Lines shuttle flight from Washington National to Boston’s Logan airport. It all seemed cleverly clandestine until I heard my name echoing through Logan’s vast terminal.

As I walked toward the information counter, a young man (like me, in his 20s) approached and asked: “Marty?” I nodded. Returning to state-of-the-art secrecy, he quietly asked my last name, then handed me an orange paper bearing instructions: Go down the escalator, turn left, find on a chair a green plastic shopping bag labeled “Vermont Tweed Shop.” Got it. Inside was a white plastic bag with red polka-dots. And inside that were hundreds of photocopied pages — the last two leaked chapters of the Pentagon Papers. All cloak, no dagger. Mission accomplished.

I called my original contact to seek some verification signal that what I now had was the real deal; my source cryptically said that he was sure I was quite a happy fellow. I carried Newsday’s piece of that still-secret history back to our Garden City newsroom, where my Washington bureau colleagues Myron S. Waldman and Russell Sackett were waiting. We divided up the hundreds of pages and began reading.

Our next edition reported this major revelation:

After two years of intensive bombing of North Vietnam, McNamara had written a May 19, 1967 memo to President Lyndon Johnson concluding: “There continues to be no sign that the bombing has reduced Hanoi’s will to resist or her ability to ship the necessary supplies south.” McNamara told LBJ he saw no purpose in continuing the bombing. But he dutifully added that Gen. William Westmoreland, his commander in Vietnam, remained “frankly dismayed” at any suggestion of stopping the bombing.

One month after writing that memo expressing his personal and professional disillusionment, McNamara signed his secret order officially commissioning the study that became the Pentagon Papers. A half-century later, Americans are still debating whether we have truly learned the lessons that became the legacy of the architect of America’s Vietnam War failure.

Martin Schram, a former Washington bureau chief for Newsday, is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.

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