The Untold Story of the Pentagon Papers Co-Conspirators
In June of 1971, Gar Alperovitz, a thirty-five-year-old historian, sped through suburban Boston, looking for an out-of-the-way pay phone to use to call a reporter. Alperovitz had never considered himself much of a risk-taker. The father of two ran a small economic think tank focussed on community-building. He had participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and rung doorbells with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boston, as part of an antiwar campaign. But what he was doing on this day, propelled by his desire to end the conflict, could lead to federal prison.
He pulled his old Saab up to a phone booth on the outskirts of Harvard Square, and rang a hotel room nearby. When the reporter picked up, Alperovitz identified himself with the alias he had adopted: “It’s Mr. Boston.” Alperovitz told the journalist to open the door. Waiting in the hallway was a cardboard box, left minutes before by a runner working with Alperovitz. Inside were several hundred pages of the most sought-after documents in the United States—the top-secret Vietnam history known as the Pentagon Papers.
The handoff was one of about a dozen clandestine encounters with journalists that Alperovitz orchestrated over the course of a three-week period, when he and a small group of fellow antiwar activists helped Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst at the rand Corporation, elude an F.B.I. manhunt and distribute the Pentagon Papers to nineteen newspapers. Ellsberg, who had smuggled the documents out of rand’s Santa Monica office two years earlier and copied them with the help of a colleague, has long been the public face of the leak. But Ellsberg was aided by about a half-dozen volunteers whose identities have stayed secret for forty-six years, despite the intense interest of the Nixon Administration, thousands of articles, books, documentaries, plays, and now a major film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, about the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg told me that the hidden role of this group was so critical to the operation that he gave them a code name—The Lavender Hill Mob, the name of a 1951 film about a ragtag group of amateur bank robbers. He has referred obliquely to his co-conspirators over the years. But he held back from identifying them because some in the group still feared repercussions.
Now, Alperovitz, who is eighty-one, has agreed to be revealed for the first time. “I’m getting old,” Alperovitz told me, with a laugh. Several other members of the group told me that they still wished to remain anonymous, or declined interview requests. One former Harvard graduate student who also played a major role—she hid the papers in her apartment and organized hideouts for Ellsberg—considered coming forward in this piece, but she ultimately decided not to, after conferring with lawyers. As a green-card holder, she worried that her involvement could lead to her deportation by the Trump Administration. Still, she remains proud of her role. “Those were extraordinary days,” she told me. “It was about questioning the government and being against the government. I was very, very angry about what was happening in Vietnam.”
Alperovitz said that the renewed interest in the Pentagon Papers, brought on by “The Post,” pushed him to finally acknowledge his role, but he also alluded to the “very dangerous” climate under President Trump. A historian and political economist, whose writings have focussed on the dangers of nuclear war and economic inequality, Alperovitz said that Trump’s “outrageous and destabilizing” rhetoric on North Korea compelled him to tell his story and “to suggest to people that it’s time to take action.”
“We were trying to stop the war,” Alperovitz told me, in an interview in his home near Washington. “I’m not heroic in this, but I just felt it important to act,” he said. “There were lots of people dying unnecessarily. There were lots of people who were taking risks to try to end the war, and I was one of them.”
Ellsberg told me that Alperovitz, in particular, was “critical to the way this thing worked out,” organizing the broader distribution of the papers. Ellsberg had initially turned over the documents only to Neil Sheehan, a reporter at the Times, which published the first front-page article on the Pentagon Papers, on June 13, 1971. (The Nixon Administration quickly secured an injunction to halt the Times from continuing to publish the documents.) But it was Alperovitz who devised the strategy of distributing the papers to as many news organizations as possible, including the Washington Post, an approach that later proved to be crucial from both a legal and public-relations standpoint. And it was Alperovitz who came up with the elaborate techniques for slipping the documents to reporters while evading the authorities. “Gar took care of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Ellsberg said.
The danger to the Lavender Hill Mob could hardly be underestimated. Alperovitz “would’ve been indicted in a heartbeat” if he had been identified, Ellsberg said. Senior officials in the Nixon White House had become obsessed with arresting and discrediting Ellsberg and any of his accomplices. They created a group of Nixon campaign operatives, who became known as “the plumbers,” to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in what would be a precursor to the Watergate scandal. In a 2010 documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” Egil Krogh, one of the operatives, says that the Administration was obsessed with identifying who else was involved in the leak. “Did Daniel Ellsberg work alone? Was he working with some other people? Was he part of a conspiracy?” Krogh, who was imprisoned for his role in the Watergate break-in, says in the film. F.B.I. agents—and Nixon’s plumbers—tracked leads from Los Angeles to Paris. The perpetrators, it turned out, met less than a mile from Harvard Square, the epicenter of the liberal, Ivy League élitism that Nixon so detested.
In early June of 1971, Ellsberg, who had left rand and was working as a senior research fellow at M.I.T., hosted a small dinner party at his home in Cambridge. Ellsberg, who was then forty, had never met Alperovitz but invited him after a colleague said that they shared an intense opposition to the war. The Harvard graduate student was there as well.
Alperovitz had worked in the U.S. government on foreign affairs from 1961 to 1966—first in Congress, then at the State Department—and it was there, as an insider, that his opposition to the war hardened. As a Senate aide, in 1964, Alperovitz worked unsuccessfully to stop what he still calls the “phony” Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate America’s military involvement in Vietnam. More than anything, the congressional vote confirmed his view that the war was a fraud perpetrated on the American public.
At the dinner, Alperovitz and Ellsberg, a former Marine and Pentagon analyst, talked about Nixon, liberal activism, nuclear weapons, and, of course, Vietnam. The top-secret papers never came up. But, as the party wrapped up and Alperovitz walked to his car, the Harvard graduate student pulled him aside and made a cryptic comment about some sensitive material on Vietnam and “boxes and boxes of papers,” Alperovitz recalled.
A day or two later, the graduate student arranged to meet Alperovitz at a park, she told me in an interview. She explained to Alperovitz that Ellsberg had entrusted her with thousands of pages of the documents, and that she had stashed them in cupboards in the pantry of her small apartment. Ellsberg had given copies of the papers to a Times reporter several months earlier, but had not heard from him since. She and Ellsberg didn’t know when the newspaper might run the story, or if it even intended to do so, and were eager to distribute more of the papers to other news outlets. “I needed help to do this work,” the woman told me, and Alperovitz seemed like “exactly the right person.”
When she asked Alperovitz if he would help, he immediately agreed. Decades later, Alperovitz said that his eagerness, despite the obvious risks, still puzzles him. “I’m a very cautious person, but I didn’t blink—which I don’t understand,” he told me. “I’m surprised I didn’t just say, ‘Whoops, I’m busy tomorrow.’ It was out of character.”
In a subsequent meeting with Ellsberg, Alperovitz mapped out a strategy. Ellsberg, who had tried to leak the secret papers to members of Congress but had been rebuffed, wanted to get all seven thousand pages of the papers out at once, if not in the Times then in the Washington Post or somewhere else. “My nightmare was that the F.B.I. would catch me and capture all the papers first,” Ellsberg recalled. He even considered using the Harvard Crimson’s presses to print the documents himself. Alperovitz talked him out of it. “I said to Dan, ‘Look, this is seven thousand pages of material, you’ll get one story, maybe two,’ ” Alperovitz said. “If you really want to get this out to the public, you’ve got to break it up and keep the story going.”
To Ellsberg’s surprise, the Times ran its first story on the papers several days later. The Nixon Administration quickly secured an injunction to halt publication. By then, Alperovitz was already working the pay phones around Cambridge and Somerville to contact a reporter from the Post and get more coverage. Days later, with Alperovitz acting as an intermediary, Ellsberg met with a Post reporter in a local motel room and gave him the entire secret report. After the reporter left, Ellsberg and his wife, who were hiding out in the motel, saw on television that F.B.I. agents had descended on their home to question him. For the next two weeks, the Ellsbergs remained holed up, with the Harvard graduate student taking the lead in finding new places to stash them. “I moved them every few days,” she recalled. “I’d call friends and say, ‘I need your apartment for two days, and I just want you to go somewhere else. Just don’t ask me any questions.’ ” Each time the couple moved, she crammed boxes of the secret history into her small Volkswagen and moved them along with the Ellsbergs.
The one time that Ellsberg knew whose apartment he was using, he said, was during weekend that he spent in Cambridge with a friend, Jeffrey Race, a fellow Vietnam veteran. Race recalled watching a television news report with his fiancée about the F.B.I. searching for Ellsberg. “They can’t find him,” Race told me, “and we joked that, ‘Hey, he’s lying right here in his underwear on the floor taking a nap in front of the TV.’ ”
It was at Race’s apartment that Ellsberg had his closest brush with arrest. At Ellsberg’s request, from a pay phone outside of Race’s apartment, Alperovitz called a friend of Ellsberg’s in Los Angeles to arrange a way for him to speak with his children and let them know that he was all right. As Ellsberg watched from the window, Alperovitz hung up and walked away. Minutes later, police cars converged around the phone booth. Ellsberg guessed that the F.B.I. must have been tapping his Los Angeles friend’s phone, or perhaps the pay phone, in their effort to find him. “We ducked behind the window,” Ellsberg recalled. “I’m thinking, Oh my God!” He and his wife left that same night for a different hiding place.
Alperovitz asked the administrator of the Cambridge Institute, the think tank he ran, to vacate her apartment for the Ellsbergs for several days. “It was a very matter-of-fact thing,” the administrator, Nancy Lyons, who is now retired and living in Concord, Massachusetts, said in an interview. She immediately agreed—she saw it as an opportunity to be involved in something larger than herself. “I might have just been naïve, but I didn’t have any hesitation.” The one concern she had, she told me, was that she had waited a long time to get the rent-controlled apartment, and she didn’t want to lose it if someone found out. (No one did.)
Alperovitz’s primary task was devising how to distribute the papers to as many news organizations as possible. Ellsberg usually told Alperovitz which newspapers to contact—the Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Detroit Free Press, among them—but he left it to Alperovitz to figure out the logistics.
Alperovitz told me that he improvised the elaborate handoffs. “I invented this stuff as I went along,” he said. “I don’t know how.” Getting journalists interested in the papers, then the most sought after documents in the United States, was easy. He would call a newspaper’s city desk from a pay phone, identify himself as Mr. Boston—a code name that got a few references in “The Post”—and then offer to share some of the papers. “They were very happy to take them. Everyone wanted to be in on it,” he said.
The trickier part was handing off hundreds of pages of documents without being detected. Alperovitz and the Harvard graduate student recruited a handful of college students—all ardently opposed to the war—to help not only with mundane tasks, like getting the Ellsbergs’ groceries, but also to act as runners who delivered the papers.
During the frantic three weeks it took to distribute the documents, Alperovitz typically didn’t have time to even read all the papers before parcelling them out to reporters. He simply grabbed a few hundred pages, boxed them up, and sent the runners on their way. Alperovitz usually found out what was in each stack only when he read the news stories. The pace was so hectic that he and other participants have trouble remembering the exact sequence today. Alperovitz can’t remember, for instance, which reporter he called at the Cambridge hotel with instructions for finding the papers in the hallway. The former Harvard graduate student recalls a nighttime handoff of papers at an acquaintance’s home, but the details are hazy.
There were also furtive meetings at Boston’s Logan Airport, chosen by Alperovitz because it was a convenient place for out-of-town reporters to blend in. One student helping with the operation was dispatched to Logan to meet a Newsday reporter whom Alperovitz had summoned from Washington. Posing this time as Sam Adams, Alperovitz had the airport page the reporter over the public-address system; the student then handed the reporter a note with directions to find a green plastic shopping bag on a seat in the terminal. Inside were the last two chapters of the Pentagon Papers. The reporter, Martin Schram, recounted the “covert” and “borderline comical plan” in a story last month.
As Alperovitz dispatched members of the Lavender Hill Mob around the city, he never actually met any of the journalists himself—except for one: the CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. Alperovitz, posing again as Mr. Boston, called Cronkite to offer him a scoop—an on-camera interview with Ellsberg, who was still in hiding. Cronkite, like other journalists, seemed to believe he was talking to Ellsberg himself, Alperovitz said. He did not correct him.
Cronkite and his crew rushed to Boston. Alperovitz arranged for them to get a batch of the papers, and had a volunteer drive the anchorman to a nearby home in Cambridge, which an associate had lent for the day. The member of the Lavender Hill Mob “drove them around and around and back and forth to make sure they hadn’t been followed,” Alperovitz said. “If anyone smelled Cronkite, that would be trouble.” (The driver declined to be interviewed for this article.) With Alperovitz looking on, Ellsberg gave a dramatic interview that aired that night.
On June 28th, after a final burst of stories in newspapers from Long Island to Los Angeles, Ellsberg agreed to surrender to federal authorities in Boston. A mob of journalists and onlookers met him outside the federal courthouse. Alperovitz went, too, watching from a distance. He could not risk being seen with Ellsberg, but he wanted to be there to mark the end of the saga that had begun three weeks earlier, at the dinner in Cambridge. What struck him most about the scene, Alperovitz said, was the huge throng of supporters cheering on Ellsberg. “It was like we weren’t alone,” he told me.
Ellsberg never did any prison time. Two years later, a judge threw out the charges against him, ruling that the break-in by Nixon’s plumbers at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office had “incurably infected the prosecution.” For years, Ellsberg kept his distance from the people who helped him for fear of endangering them. He and Alperovitz saw each other occasionally at political or academic events, but they rarely spoke of those weeks in Cambridge, both men said. When Ellsberg was writing his 2002 memoir, “Secrets,” he went to Alperovitz and asked if he could name him in the book. Ellsberg said that he wanted to finally acknowledge the efforts of him and the others. Alperovitz declined. “I didn’t need credit or blame,” he said.
Last year, Ellsberg was doing a book-signing event when an older woman in line handed him a note asking him to dedicate her book “to The Lavender Hill Mob.” Ellsberg looked up and recognized one of the young students who had helped him. He hadn’t seen her in four decades. “After all these years, it was the most amazing thing,” he said.
Over the last forty years, a few reporters asked Alperovitz if he was involved, but he always denied it. The closest he came to being identified was a reference to an anonymous intermediary in some news reports recounting the leak. Today, he sees those weeks as a risk he had to take at a historic moment for his country. “I was someone who was trying, along with many people, to stop this killing. It was a moral issue of the first order,” he said. If Alperovitz regrets anything, it is only that the revelations in the papers didn’t force a quick end to America’s involvement in the war, as he had hoped. It would be another two years before most American military troops pulled out of Vietnam, and another four before the war came to an end—after the deaths, he noted, of “three million people, fifty-seven thousand Americans, for nothing.”
[Eric Lichtblau was a reporter in the Washington bureau from 2002 until 2017, covering beats that included the Justice Department, terrorism, law enforcement and lobbying. He and James Risen won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for their coverage of the secret N.S.A. eavesdropping program approved by President George W. Bush. He is also the author of two books: "Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice" and "The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men." ]