Anthony J. Russo, 71; Rand staffer helped leak Pentagon Papers
Along with colleague Daniel Ellsberg, he copied a classified
government history of the Vietnam War that was later passed to newspapers.
By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 8, 2008
Anthony J. Russo, a Rand researcher in the late 1960s who encouraged
Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers and stood trial with him
in the Vietnam War-era case that triggered debates over freedom of
the press and hastened the fall of a president, has died. He was 71.
Russo, who lived in Santa Monica for many years, died Wednesday of
natural causes in his native Suffolk, Va., according to a spokesman
for the Suffolk Police Department. Russo had been in poor health
since he had a heart attack three years ago.
In 1971, Russo helped Ellsberg copy a classified government history
of the Vietnam War that Ellsberg later supplied to the New York Times
and other newspapers. Dubbed the Pentagon Papers after the Times
published extensive excerpts and analysis, the secret study provided
evidence of lying by government officials, including several
presidents, about the scope and purposes of the war.
Ellsberg went on to become an antiwar icon, sought-after lecturer and
author, but Russo was relegated to a few lines in history books. His
supporting-role status -- "the notion that I had just been a Xeroxer"
-- rankled him to the end.
Russo was born in Suffolk on Oct. 14, 1936. He studied aerophysics at
Virginia Tech in the late 1950s before earning a scholarship to
Princeton University, where he shifted his focus to engineering and
public affairs. In a foreign relations course during his third year
at Princeton, he learned about the Rand Corp.'s work in Vietnam. The
tumult of the '60s was underway, and Russo decided to leave school
and apply to Rand.
At the Santa Monica think tank, Russo was assigned to the Viet Cong
Morale and Motivation Project. His research in Vietnam radicalized
him. His support of the Viet Cong, the communist army opposed by the
United States and South Vietnam government, was controversial and
sparked the interest of Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst
who by 1968 was also working at Rand.
Ellsberg, who described Russo as his best friend at Rand, asked his
colleague to brief him on the Viet Cong project. "I explained how the
so-called enemy, the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese, were
actually the legitimate parties and how the U.S. presence was
illegal, immoral and unwise. I supplied him with reams of
documentation," Russo later wrote in a personal account of the
period. He was fired from Rand a short time later.
During one conversation with Ellsberg, he learned of a secret study
commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that chronicled the
origins of the war. Ellsberg said that it showed that the U.S. had
falsely charged North Vietnam with an act of unprovoked aggression in
the Gulf of Tonkin, the basis for President Lyndon B. Johnson's
broadening of U.S. involvement in the war in 1964.
Russo said that when he heard about the fabrication of the Gulf of
Tonkin incident, he urged Ellsberg to "turn that over to the newspapers."
Ellsberg was shocked by his friend's subversive suggestion. "This was
an extraordinary thing for someone who had until recently held a
top-secret clearance to say to anyone, least of all to someone who
still had a clearance," Ellsberg said Thursday in a statement
distributed by the blog antiwar.com.
Russo's and Ellsberg's accounts differ on when the latter
conversation occurred. Russo said it happened in late 1968; Ellsberg
said that it was in September 1969, after he had read several volumes
of the Pentagon Papers that had been stored at Rand. That was when he
called Russo and asked for his help.
"I asked him if he knew where we could find a Xerox machine,"
Ellsberg said, "and within an hour he got back to me with the word
that his then-girlfriend had a machine in her office we could use."
What followed were several weeks of furious copying behind locked
doors of the girlfriend's Hollywood advertising agency. The documents
were given to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in March 1971.
Publication of the first installments in June sparked an FBI manhunt
for Ellsberg and an unprecedented attempt by the Nixon administration
to restrain the newspaper from publishing any more of the information
Ellsberg had provided.
Russo was harassed by police and placed under surveillance. When he
was subpoenaed by a grand jury, he refused to testify against
Ellsberg and was jailed for 45 days. A few days before Christmas
1971, both men were indicted on charges of conspiracy, theft and espionage.
Although Russo's name was listed before Ellsberg's in the court
papers filed by the government, everyone called it the Ellsberg
trial. This description only added insult to injury, as far as Russo
was concerned. He believed that Ellsberg wanted to keep the limelight
to himself and saw Russo as "horning in on his thing."
The co-defendants were quite unalike in many ways. Russo was large
and rumpled, Ellsberg trim and elegant. Russo spoke in the rhetoric
of a left-wing rebel, while Ellsberg, a former Marine, was far more measured.
Once the trial was underway, they clashed repeatedly on strategy.
Russo wanted to radicalize the proceedings with defense witnesses
such as activists Tom Hayden and Howard Zinn, but Ellsberg preferred
more established figures, such as McGeorge Bundy and Theodore
Sorensen, both of whom had worked in the Kennedy administration.
Perhaps none of it mattered. The case against them was dismissed May
11, 1973, after the court learned that a covert team had broken into
the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist looking for information to
discredit the star defendant.
The break-in had been committed by operatives from the White House,
whose crimes had come at the behest of Nixon and his top aides. Nixon
resigned from office Aug. 9, 1974.
Russo, who worked for the Los Angeles County Probation Department
after leaving Rand, returned to work for the county when the trial ended.
After his retirement and his mother's death in the early 1990s, he
moved back to Suffolk but continued as an activist for peace and
other causes. He was married and divorced twice and had no children.
Lee Boek, a friend for more than 20 years, said Russo had a contrary
streak and "never felt he got the credit he deserved" for his role in
publicizing the Pentagon Papers.
He risked his life and his jobs. He suffered a lot for it," Boek
said, adding that his friend saw himself as "a real patriot of this
country, someone who fought for right and justice."
On Thursday, Ellsberg sought to give his former colleague and
co-defendant his due.
"The fact is I will be eternally grateful to Tony for his courage and
partnership in what proved to be a useful action," Ellsberg said. "He
set an example of willingness to risk everything for his country and
for the Vietnam that he loved that very few, unfortunately, have emulated."