The intimate details on how New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan broke the story on the Pentagon Papers have never been revealed—until now. In 2015, Sheehan explained exactly what happened to a reporter, on the condition the story not be published until after his death, which happened Thursday. The Times now has his tale in full, with a focus on the revelation that Rand Corp. employee Daniel Ellsberg, Sheehan's source for the expose on the US government's involvement in the Vietnam War, hadn't actually given Sheehan the confidential documents: Sheehan had simply taken them. In his retelling, Sheehan explained that Ellsberg had agreed to let him see the papers, but only to read them—no copies allowed. But Sheehan soon got nervous that word would leak he was working on the story, possibly getting it blocked from publication. That's when Sheehan's wife, New Yorker writer Susan Sheehan, gave him some advice on Ellsberg's top-secret materials: "Xerox it."
He did just that. Ellsberg had agreed to let Sheehan work from his Massachusetts apartment where Ellsberg was keeping the documents, and Sheehan smuggled them out while Ellsberg was on a short trip. Sheehan used a couple of copy shops that could handle the 7,000 pages, then holed up in hotels in DC and NYC in secret with editors to complete his story. When it was finally published in June 1971, Sheehan says he heard from Ellsberg's wife, who told him her husband was happy with how the story was presented, but "unhappy over the monumental duplicity." The two men didn't talk for six months, when they ran into each other in New York City and Sheehan came clean. "So you stole it, like I did," Sheehan recalled Mr. Ellsberg saying. "No, Dan, I didn't steal it," Mr. Sheehan said he told his source. "And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States." (More on Sheehan's amazing tale here.)