F.B.I. destroyed file on Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, ‘Times’ publisher behind the Pentagon Papers

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. ()
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The Federal Bureau of Investigation has destroyed its file on Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the late New York Times publisher who defied the federal government in the twilight of J. Edgar Hoover’s reign, Capital has learned.

The file’s existence and its destruction were acknowledged to Capital by the F.B.I. through the National Archives and Records Administration.

Sulzberger’s 1971 decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam War, was met with an unprecedented federal restraining order and angered the administration of President Richard M. Nixon at a time the White House was instructing F.B.I. Director Hoover to provide them with damaging personal information on journalists who crossed the White House.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, F.B.I. records pertaining to Sulzberger became accessible upon his death on Sept. 29, 2012, but the Sulzberger file had been destroyed less than 10 months earlier.

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I filed a Freedom of Information request with the F.B.I. in October, and they replied 11 weeks later to say that unreviewed but potentially responsive records had been sent to the National Archives. I then filed a second Freedom of Information request with the National Archives.

“We could not locate the file among our holdings and contacted the FBI for assistance,” the National Archives’ chief of Special Access and FOIA staff responded on Tuesday. “The FBI has informed us that the file was destroyed on December 1, 2011, according to an authorized agency records disposition schedule.”

The F.B.I. routinely destroys documents and files under guidelines set in 1981, as part of their goal to balance “historic preservation with the explosion of modern records and limited resources to preserve these records.” In other words, there’s only so much history they can hold on to, and documents are evaluated and preserved based on their value to history.

It is surprising that the Bureau has found insufficient historic value in the information it collected on the person whose decision to publish secret documents led to an unprecedented federal injunction to stop a newspaper from publishing an article and a Supreme Court decision that, to quote Sulzberger’s obituary, “established the primacy of a free press in the face of a government’s insistence on secrecy.”

Two days into the 15-day injunction against publishing, Nixon instructed White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to “do everything we can to destroy the Times,” according to Haldeman’s notes quoted in David Rudenstine’s book, The Day the Presses Stopped. Haldeman had previously contacted F.B.I. director Hoover seeking lurid and damaging information on journalists and Hoover complied, according to a Hoover telephone memo released by the F.B.I. in 1987.

Sulzberger is not the first historically important figure to have his records destroyed. The F.B.I. acknowledged the existence and destruction of its file on civil rights icon Rosa Parks, according to a report in The Detroit News.

The F.B.I.’s destruction of these files does not rule out the possibility that Sulzberger material, either these records or other ones, might surface in the future. The F.B.I.’s archives are vast, containing declassification exemptions and a “special file room” for secret information and particularly sensitive documents and information. So there may yet be information to discover. In 2009, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite’s F.B.I. file was said to be destroyed, but further FOIA appeals revealed other Cronkite documents in Bureau records.

The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers rested solely with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. No matter how insignificant the destroyed file might have been on its own, it pertained to a person who stood atop the citadel of American journalism and asserted the freedom of the press against the commands of federal power at a time when the two were locked in a historic combat.

“We weren’t writing for the benefit of the government,” Sulzberger later said of making his historic decision, “we were writing for the benefit of the reader, who is entitled to know.”