The story about how the Inquirer published the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a cloak-and-dagger tale, involving a furtive plane trip to Boston, hotel switches, mystery phone numbers, and code words — "ornithological papers" — that led a Washington correspondent to a closet where the top-secret documents about the Vietnam War were stashed.

The New York Times had the papers first.

In March 1971, Neil Sheehan, a Times reporter based in Washington, corresponded with an old source, a disgruntled former military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg. The analyst, opposed to the escalation of the Vietnam War and embittered by his inability to gain attention from lawmakers, passed along top-secret reports.

Included in those documents were the detailed strategies of the U.S. military's campaign in Southeast Asia, which conflicted with information long presented to the public and Congress.

Those reports, which quickly became known as the Pentagon Papers, were first published by the Times on June 13, 1971.

Immediately, there was backlash.

The U.S. government filed a court order restraining the newspaper from publishing further information from the reports, and prevailed after the Times published two more stories.

Political cartoon by Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth that was published on June 18, 1971, criticizing the U.S. government’s attempt to quash the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Auth won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for his work in 1976.
Inquirer Archives
Political cartoon by Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth that was published on June 18, 1971, criticizing the U.S. government’s attempt to quash the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Auth won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for his work in 1976.

On June 18, the Washington Post went against the injunction and filed its own report. That decision is the subject of the newly released film The Post reviewed by Inquirer and Daily News critic Gary Thompson — which has sparked renewed interest in the rights and consequences of a free press.

Eleven days after the Times first published the papers, 16 other U.S. newspapers followed suit, among them the Inquirer, then owned by  Knight Newspapers Inc.

The front page of the Inquirer on June 24, 1971, which includes the newspaper’s first story containing information taken from the Pentagon Papers.
Inquirer Archives
The front page of the Inquirer on June 24, 1971, which includes the newspaper’s first story containing information taken from the Pentagon Papers.

The reason the Knight papers got the papers grew out of Ellsberg's frustration with the injunction constraining the Times and the Post.

So he turned to his friends.

Robert Boyd, who turns 90 on Thursday, was the chain's Washington bureau chief at the time. Boyd said that Ellsberg was friends with C.A. "Pete" McKnight, editor of another Knight paper, the Charlotte Observer.

McKnight called Boyd, with these marching orders: Fly up to Boston, and check into a local hotel.

And then head to another hotel in Cambridge, across the Charles River.

Check in there, and then dial a special phone number.

" 'And tell the people who answer that you are there for the ornithological papers,' " Boyd recalled over the phone Tuesday. "Ornithological papers was the code word I was supposed to use."

The person on the other end of the phone gave him an address.

Boyd took a taxi to the residence — student housing not far from the hotel — and rang the doorbell.

"A young couple opened," he said. "And I said, 'I'm here for the ornithological papers.' And their eyes grew wide and they said, 'Oh, come in, come in.' "

The couple took Boyd around the corner and into a closet where four large cardboard boxes sat before him.

He jumped back into the waiting taxi with the boxes, and headed toward the airport, certain he had not been sent on an errand regarding the studies of birds.

"There's a scene in The Post where a man is on an airplane with a cardboard box," Boyd said. "That would have been me."

He flew back to Washington, and checked into a hotel a block from the Knight papers' Washington bureau at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Boyd was joined by McKnight as well as a crew of reporters and editors who divided up the material.

"And in about 48 hours we had written a whole series of stories," Boyd said.

Sometime after publication, Boyd recalled, "my home telephone was making funny noises, and I sort of assumed that the wiretappers were at work again on me, but nothing came of that. Just suspicion on my part."

The decision for the Inquirer and its sister papers to publish the documents was made by top executives of the newspaper chain. In Philadelphia, that decision was supported unanimously, said Michael Pakenham, a former editor of the editorial page.

On June 27, Knight Newspapers president John S. Knight's wrote in his weekly column that the Pentagon Papers were simply a recitation of history and breached no security laws. He emphasized the need for the American people to realize that in a totalitarian state, the press is not free and is used as a mouthpiece for the powerful.

On June 27, 1971, John S. Knight, head of the Knight Newspapers chain, commented in his weekly column on the importance of preserving a free press.
Inquirer Archive
On June 27, 1971, John S. Knight, head of the Knight Newspapers chain, commented in his weekly column on the importance of preserving a free press.

"Under a democracy such as ours, there exists a free flow of reporting and opinion — a normal, productive adversary relationship between government and the press," he wrote. "If the press reported only what is advantageous to the government, where lies the protection against exploitation of the people by the government?"

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that publication of the papers could lawfully resume. The federal government's response to the Pentagon Papers marked the first time it had tried to impose prior restraint on the press in the name of national security.

Justice Hugo Black wrote that chief among a free press' duties is that "to prevent any part of the Government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."