Anthony J. Russo, 71, Pentagon Papers Figure, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN Published: August 8, 2008 in The New York Times
Anthony J. Russo, a shaggy-haired, countercultural, unemployed policy wonk when he teamed up with Daniel Ellsberg, a more button-downed antiwar figure, to leak the voluminous, top-secret government history of the Vietnam War called the Pentagon Papers, died Wednesday in Suffolk, Va. He was 71.
Mr. Ellsberg announced the death on a Web site, antiwar.com. Mr. Russo suffered from heart trouble.
Mr. Russo chafed at being called the “Xerox aide” because of his role in finding a copying machine and working long nights to reproduce the 7,000-page study. In fact, it was Mr. Russo’s words — after weeks of conversations — that had definitively started the enterprise: “Let’s do it!” he said, according to Mr. Ellsberg’s book “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.”
The two started copying the next night in a Hollywood, Calif., advertising agency that was above a flower shop and was owned by Mr. Russo’s girlfriend. It had an inauspicious beginning; they mistakenly left on a burglar alarm and were interrupted by a policeman. He paced about, gave no sign of suspicions and left.
In June 1967, Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary, set up the Vietnam Study Task Force, ultimately employing 36 analysts and historians, to prepare a classified history of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967. Its 47 volumes revealed conversations at the highest levels of government that sometimes directly contradicted official statements, including the timing and the scale of the United States’ troop buildup.
It was classified “Top Secret — Sensitive.” David Rudenstine wrote in “The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case” (1996) that “sensitive” was not part of the official classification system. It was a signal the contents could cause embarrassment.
Mr. Ellsberg first offered the papers to several senators and Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser. He found no takers. He then offered them to newspapers.
The New York Times decided to publish the materials and was followed by other newspapers. The Times won a landmark case when the Supreme Court ruled that the government had not met the heavy burden of proof required to stop publication of something in advance.
But in the later trial of Mr. Ellsberg and Mr. Russo in Federal District Court, on charges of violating conspiracy, theft and espionage laws, other important issues were raised but not decided. One was whether the Espionage Act of 1917 prohibits publication of secret material, or whether it must be passed to an enemy to be a violation.
The men were cleared even though their case never reached a jury, because Judge William M. Byrne Jr. dismissed the case in May 1973 after several bizarre twists. These included the judge’s learning that the office of Dr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist had been burglarized and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had lost records of perhaps illegally taped telephone conversations, as well as the fact that during the trial, the judge himself was approached about becoming director of the F.B.I.
From Mr. Russo’s perspective, the ordeal — even the beatings he claimed to have endured after being imprisoned for refusing to testify to a grand jury — was worth it. “The case has messed up my life,” he said in an interview with The Times in January 1972, “but what difference does that make?”
Mr. Russo was born in Suffolk on Oct. 14, 1936, and grew up in a middle-class family. He earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at Virginia Tech in 1960, then worked for NASA, helping to design the space capsule. He next earned two master’s degrees at Princeton, one in aeronautical engineering and one in public affairs.
He went to work for the RAND Corporation, which sent him to Vietnam to work on a study that involved interrogating Vietcong prisoners, whom he admired for the strength of their convictions. He broke out in tears in court when telling of a prisoner’s reciting poetry to him.
After returning to work at RAND in California, Mr. Russo experimented with the counterculture, riding motorcycles and writing poetry, according to Peter Schrag in “Test of Loyalty: Daniel Ellsberg and the Rituals of Secret Government” (1974).
Tom Wells, in his “Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg” (2001), said that Mr. Ellsberg — who had worked on preparing the Pentagon Papers as an analyst and moved to RAND in 1968 — told Mr. Russo he wanted to meet “some hippies,” particularly women. Mr. Russo took him to a commune.
Mr. Russo became Mr. Ellsberg’s closest male friend at RAND, Mr. Wells wrote; their conversations increasingly turned to the 2 of the 15 copies of the Pentagon Papers that had been deposited at RAND.
Mr. Russo pushed Mr. Ellsberg to use his more influential position to make the contents public. At first, Mr. Russo told Mr. Wells, Mr. Ellsberg “rolled his eyes at the ceiling.”
But Mr. Ellsberg increasingly concentrated on how to release the study and how much of it to release. He eventually decided to hold back four of the volumes, covering 1964 to 1968, to avoid criticism that he had harmed the peace negotiations.
Mr. Ellsberg said in his obituary of Mr. Russo that he had thought Mr. Russo would not be in danger of prosecution. But it turned out Mr. Russo, too, was indicted. Both admitted doing everything charged in taking the documents to be copied and releasing them to newspapers, but contended that this did not constitute a violation of the law.
Mr. Russo had earlier refused to testify before a grand jury and was imprisoned until he agreed to do so, but he never had to testify. In a news conference after the final trial, he recalled that it was “in the bowels of that courthouse I was beaten up by guards.” Prison officials denied this.
Mr. Russo was married and divorced twice and had no children. He worked for the Los Angeles County Probation Department for many years.
He told The Times that the Pentagon Papers case had transformed him into a “committed, full-time radical.” He always credited the Black Panthers with being his strongest supporters.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 9, 2008, on page A17 of the New York edition.