Neil Sheehan: “A tireless chronicler of the Vietnam War who later received the Pulitzer Prize for his book ‘A Bright Shining Lie.’”

Update: The New York Times obit of Neil Sheehan by Janny Scott.

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Neil Sheehan, N.Y. Times reporter who obtained Pentagon Papers and chronicled ‘Bright Shining Lie’ of Vietnam, dies at 84”:

Neil Sheehan, a tireless chronicler of the Vietnam War who obtained the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times and later received the Pulitzer Prize for his book “A Bright Shining Lie,” a meticulously researched indictment of America’s role in that conflict, died Jan. 7 at his home in Washington.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, author Susan Sheehan.

Mr. Sheehan, the son of impoverished Irish-immigrant dairy farmers, graduated from Harvard University and served in the Army before joining the United Press International wire service. Reporting from Saigon in the early 1960s, he became known as one of the “fearless threesome” of Vietnam War correspondents.

Along with Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press and David Halberstam of the Times, he ferreted out details about battlefield casualties and war-zone dysfunction, crafting dispatches that challenged sunny reports from the daily military press briefings that some journalists ridiculed as “Five O’Clock Follies.”

Mr. Sheehan was buffeted by editors who found him too slow in churning out stories, generals who labeled him a liar, and politicians and other critics who derided his work as unpatriotic, even detrimental to national security. Rarely, if ever, was he rattled by authority.

“If you’re afraid of going to jail,” he once quipped, “you have no business being a newspaperman.”

Mr. Sheehan was recruited to the Times in 1964 and soon became a Defense Department correspondent. A dogged but difficult reporter, he pushed deadlines, endlessly reworked his stories and wrote opinion pieces that, some of his bosses said, sullied the newspaper’s reputation for dispassionate journalism.

In an 8,000-word cover story for the Times Book Review in 1971, Mr. Sheehan cited 33 recent books on Vietnam and suggested that President Richard M. Nixon was guilty of war crimes. It was a shocking accusation by a reporter who covered the White House and Pentagon, but, according to Halberstam’s media history “The Powers That Be,” the article helped Mr. Sheehan gain the trust of Daniel Ellsberg, his link to the Pentagon Papers.

A military analyst for the Rand Corp., Ellsberg had served on the committee that produced the papers, a 47-volume history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 and detailed government deception across four presidential administrations.

Disillusioned by the war effort, Ellsberg sought an outlet that would publish large sections of the 7,000-page report. He chose Mr. Sheehan and the Times in part because he had previously leaked secret documents to the reporter. When they struggled to reach an agreement that would allow Mr. Sheehan to take a copy of the documents to his editors, Mr. Sheehan struck out on his own.

With the help of his wife, he photocopied the papers while Ellsberg was out of town. . . .Explaining his decision to go behind Ellsberg’s back, Mr. Sheehan later said the documents belonged not to any one man but “to the people of America and of Indochina, who had paid for them with their blood.”

The potential consequences of publishing the documents were uncertain, ranging from fines and financial ruin for the Times to charges of treason and prison sentences. Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger recalled feeling that “the entire operation smelled of 20 years to life.”

Nevertheless, he greenlighted publication of stories that Mr. Sheehan and other Times reporters worked on for weeks inside a guarded Manhattan hotel suite. The first of the stories, published above the fold on June 13, 1971, carried Mr. Sheehan’s byline alone.

The response was explosive. Attorney General John N. Mitchell accused the Times of violating the Espionage Act and demanded the paper stop publishing the documents. When the Times refused, the government won a court order barring further publication, setting the stage for a sequence that was dramatized in the 2017 movie “The Post.”

Obtaining its own copies of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, The Washington Post began to publish stories about the documents, defying the injunction against the Times. Other newspapers started to publish stories as well. . . .

For Mr. Sheehan, whose bank records had been subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation into his work, the legal victory was muted by the enduring fact of the war itself, which eventually claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and at least several hundred thousand Vietnamese.

“Some would have us believe that in publishing the Pentagon Papers we committed theft and treason,” he said in 1971, receiving the Drew Pearson Prize for excellence in investigative reporting. “I believe that in publishing this history of the Vietnam War, we gave to the American people … a small accounting of a debt that can never be repaid. But if to report now be called theft, and if to publish now be called treason, then so be it. Let God give us the courage to commit more of the same.”

The newspaper, not the reporter, received the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service, despite a recommendation from the prize’s five-member jury that the Times share the honor with Mr. Sheehan. Mr. Sheehan, who left the Times in 1972, won the Pulitzer, along with a National Book Award, for “A Bright Shining Lie” (1988).

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