As the latest production of Top Secret nears its March 2010 opening at New York Theatre Workshop, another retelling of the Pentagon Papers story is also hitting theaters.Â The Most Dangerous Man in America, which opened at select theaters in January 2010, is a documentary focused on the story of Daniel Ellsberg, the former high-level Defense Department analyst and consultant who leaked the Pentagon Papers to newspapers around the country.
The documentary, narrated by Ellsberg, traces his personal journey from as a Marine and Vietnam strategist who becomes convinced, in part because of the material he read in the Pentagon Papers, that the Vietnam War was a mistake.Â As he says in the film, Ellsberg at first felt “half a radical,” but soon realized that his special access to secret documents placed him in a unique position to act on his sense of responsibility to help end the war.
By telling the Pentagon Papers story from Ellsberg’s perspective, The Most Dangerous Man in America provides an excellent complement to Top Secret which dramatizes aspects of the same story from the perspective of the Washington Post.
On Tuesday, February 2, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the film’s nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Those seeing the New York Theatre Workshop production of Top Secret, can catch the film at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, New York, NY.
Feb. 16’s New York Times included a front-page article (published online Feb. 15) disclosing that Pakistani and American intelligence forces had recently captured the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
In the eighth paragraph of the story, the Times disclosed that its journalists obtained information on this capture on Thursday, Feb. 11, “but delayed reporting it at the request of White House officials, who contended that making it public would end a hugely successful intelligence-gathering effort.”Â Speaking on NPR’s The Takeaway, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained that Times reporters learned of the capture from sources on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan last week, and were asked, when they approached the White House for comment, to hold off on disclosing the information to avoid disrupting ongoing intelligence operations.
Keller’s NPR interview audio:
In the NPR interview, Keller explained the Times‘s decisionmaking this way:
. . . [W]e get asked to withhold information, not often but from time to time sometimes itâ€™s a no-brainer, you know we have reporters embedded in military operations â€” obviously they donâ€™t file information that would put troops at risk. Weâ€™ve had other stories that were much more controversial where we decided that we would publish. This one was not, honestly, a very hard call. Obviously we were eager to break the story, it represented a lot of resourceful reporting by Mark and Dexter, but there was no obvious public interest reason to rush the story into print and you know we are responsible people; we didnâ€™t want to compromise what sounded like a possible intelligence coup.
What does this story tell us about the events depicted in Top Secret?
Top Secret follows the behind-the-scenes decisionmaking at the Washington Post that led to the Post‘s decision to publish information and excerpts from the Pentagon Papers despite knowledge that the White House opposed such publication.Â Journalists and editors who participated in the decision argued that, as seasoned journalists experienced in national security matters, they had the knowledge and judgment necessary to decide what was safe to print and when.Â With the Pentagon Papers, the newspapers’ decisions conflicted with the position of the Executive Branch.Â In this recent Times example, the Times arguably deferred to the White House’s additional knowledge about intelligence efforts that would be threatened by the Times‘s publication.
As Keller stated on NPR “I donâ€™t have spies in the National Security Agency, so knowing whether publishing a story would actually put national security at risk is a harder thing for me to figure out than it would be for somebody whoâ€™s actually in the government. . . ”
However, in some cases, as with the Pentagon Papers, a newspaper may decide that its judgment as to what is safe or appropriate to publish differs from the judgment of the Executive Branch.Â What factors lead to different results?Â Does the decision depend on different relationships between the executive branch and the press under different administrations?Â On the urgency of the public’s interest in certain information? Or merely on differences in the political environment and national security interests at stake?
Welcome to the newly-redesigned Top Secret blog!Â Founded in 2007 and redesigned in 2010, this blog will report on Top Secret performances and related events and track news and policy developments tied to the themes raised by Top Secret.
News and commentary to be highlighted here will focus on government secrecy, press freedoms, classification and declassification of information, journalist ethics, and national security and the media.Â Audio, interviews, and related content from Top Secret performances and discussions will also live here.Â Posts on these themes from past years have been imported into this new blog format.
Top Secret will run at New York Theatre Workshop starting Feb. 24, 2010, with post-show discussions on twelve dates in February and March, starting Feb. 25.Â Click here for show information and here for information on scheduled panel discussions.
This Article offers a new way of thinking and talking about government secrecy. In the vast literature on the topic, little attention has been paid to the structure of government secrets, as distinct from their substance or function. Yet these secrets differ systematically depending on how many people know of their existence, what sorts of people know, how much they know, and how soon they know. When a small group of similarly situated officials conceals from outsiders the fact that it is concealing something, the result is a deep secret. When members of the general public understand they are being denied particular items of information, the result is a shallow secret. Every act of state secrecy can be located on a continuum ranging between these two poles.
After tracing some of the existing constituional, structural, and theoretical analyses of government secrets, Pozen applies his new framework to point out that the deeper a secret, the smaller the group of people (and possibly dissenting views) available to deliberate about it.Â Pozen notes that government can still keep the substance of some government actions as “shallow secrets” while allowing additional debate and deliberation, concluding that:
Even among the subset of government secrets about which the public knows nothing . . . the comparative insularity of the deeper secrets can pose a special threat to good governance, to liberal democratic values, even to the Constitution. We cannot and should not seek to prevent the executive branch from keeping secrets. We can and should seek to have them kept as shallow as possible.
Along the way, Pozen evaluates a number of the secrets kept by the Bush administration, including many that are discussed elsewhere on this website.Â For Pozen’s take on the Pentagon Papers era, see p. 292 of the article where he describes the Vietnam and Watergate era as one of the first times in American history where scholars began to see the government’s asserted need for secrecy as implicating constitutional values.
A recent piece in Slate (“I Want My Pentagon Papers!”) asks whether a recent New York Times article on a report by RAND Corp. regarding the Iraq war planning would be equivalent to a modern-day Pentagon papers, and questions whether the Times should release full the text of the report, and the Daily Kos asked the same question about a recent Pentagon Report that characterized the war as a ‘debacle’.
On Wednesday evening, Congress passed the first FOIA Reform bill in a decade to the praise of freedom of information groups. Meanwhile, the Senate is working on a FISA reform bill that it will seek passage for during the beginning of next year, and the CIA has agreed to work with the House on the ‘torture tape’ investigation.
In Spring 2010, the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy hosted TOP SECRET TALKS, post-show discussions that featured Daniel Ellsberg, James Goodale, and more. More info/audio on our blog. Read More →
The Supreme Court decided on First Amendment Grounds that prior restraint could not prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers, even though the information related to defense and national security. Read More →
The right to publish the Pentagon Papers was viewed as a triumph for free press, but the press’s constant duty to deal carefully with national security has led to many other moments of conflict with the government. Read More →