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OBITUARIES / Anthony J. Russo, 1936 - 2008

Rand staffer encouraged Pentagon Papers leak

August 08, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

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.

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