Skip to content

The Most Dangerous Man in America in Context

The Ellsberg-Russo Trial

Daniel Ellsberg and colleague Anthony Russo were charged with theft and unauthorized possession of classified documents under the Espionage Act in 1971, but were eventually acquitted. The revelation that a special investigations unit created by President Nixon had burglarized the offices of Ellsberg's psychoanalyst was a major factor leading to the president's resignation in 1974.



On June 28, 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, who had gone into hiding after distributing copies of the Pentagon Papers to newspapers, surrendered in Boston to face criminal charges. Under the Espionage Act, Ellsberg was charged with theft and unauthorized possession of classified documents.

Anthony Russo, a former RAND colleague of Ellsberg's who had helped photocopy the documents and urged Ellsberg to distribute them, was subpoenaed in August 1971 and imprisoned for six weeks after refusing to testify against Ellsberg before a grand jury. In December 1971, a second indictment was issued against the two men, listing them as co-conspirators in the matter. Ellsberg faced five counts of theft and six of violations of the Espionage Act, for a maximum total of 115 years; Russo faced one count of theft and two of violating the Espionage Act, for a maximum total of 35 years.

Their trial began in Los Angeles (where the photocopying had taken place) on January 3, 1973. Five days later, the Watergate burglary trial commenced in Washington, D.C. The Los Angeles trial continued for more than four months and included testimony by both Russo and Ellsberg. Until the final days of the trial, reporters could not guess how the verdict was likely to go. Then, in late April, Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert submitted a memo that revealed that two members of a special investigations unit known as "the plumbers" that had been created by President Nixon — G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt (who had just been convicted in the Watergate burglary trial) — had burglarized the offices of Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg's psychoanalyst, in search of files that could be used to discredit Ellsberg. (The Fielding burglary had occurred nine months before the Watergate burglary.)

Days later, in early May, the judge in the Los Angeles trial, William Byrne, revealed that John Ehrlichman — one of Nixon's top aides — had offered Byrne the job of director of the F.B.I. while Byrne was presiding over the Ellsberg-Russo trial. Then, on May 10, it came to light that the F.B.I. had secretly and illegally recorded conversations between Ellsberg and Morton Halperin, who had supervised the Pentagon Papers study. The government claimed it could not find any records pertinent to the wiretapping.

Byrne stated to the court, "The totality of the circumstances of this case, which I have only briefly sketched, offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case." On May 11, the judge declared a mistrial and the charges against both Ellsberg and Russo were dropped.

John Dean — the former White House counsel who revealed to Watergate investigators the existence of the Fielding break-in — maintains that "it was the cover-up of the Ellsberg break-in that concerned the White House" and that "the seeds of all of Watergate occur in the Pentagon Papers." He makes the point that the Watergate break-in was never tied directly to the White House (only to the presidential re-election committee), but that in contrast, the Fielding burglary had been initiated by the White House.

On March 21, 1973, during the conversation in which Dean famously reported telling Nixon, "There is a cancer growing on the Presidency," Dean revealed to the president that Hunt was threatening blackmail, quoting Hunt as saying, "I will bring John Ehrlichman down to his knees . . . [he'll] never survive it" (referring to what Nixon termed “that Ellsberg business.”) Dean went on to tell Nixon the blackmail threat might cost up to $1 million. Nixon responded by assuring Dean, "You [one] could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten." It was revelation of the Fielding break-in, Dean asserts, that Nixon feared. And indeed, when the House Judiciary Committee, in 1974, adopted three articles of impeachment against Nixon, two of them directly concerned the Fielding break-in. After that, Nixon had no choice but to resign.

Sources
» Daniel Ellsberg's Website. "Biography."
» Daniel Ellsberg's Website. "Extended Biography."
» "Judge William Byrne; Ended Trial Over Pentagon Papers," Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2006.
» "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers." The University of Southern California.



Are you aware of our Comment Policy?

* Your email address is for verification purposes only and will not be published, shared, or sold to other entities.