Ellsberg Documentary Released; Nominated for Oscar; Catch it in NYC at Cinema Village

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.  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.  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.

NYTimes Puts Security “Hold” on News of Taliban Capture

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.”  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 it’s a no-brainer, you know we have reporters embedded in military operations — obviously they don’t file information that would put troops at risk. We’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 didn’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.  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.  With the Pentagon Papers, the newspapers’ decisions conflicted with the position of the Executive Branch.  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 don’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 who’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.  What factors lead to different results?  Does the decision depend on different relationships between the executive branch and the press under different administrations?  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?

Top Secret Blog Re-lauch!

Welcome to the newly-redesigned Top Secret blog!  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.  Audio, interviews, and related content from Top Secret performances and discussions will also live here.  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.  Click here for show information and here for information on scheduled panel discussions.

Deep Secrets: Law Review Article Provides New Theoretical Framework for Understanding the Pentagon Papers

The Stanford Law Review‘s January 2010 issue includes Deep Secrecy, 62 Stan. L. Rev. 257 (2010), an article by recent Yale Law School grad David Pozen that proposes a new theoretical framework for understanding government secrets (pdf of article; earlier article draft on SSRN).

According to the Review’s abstract:

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.  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.  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.

Los Angeles Performance Finale

As Top Secret ended its final run at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Los Angeles Times published an excellent preview piece, and a later op-ed relating the Pentagon Papers episode to current events, and there have been a number of stories about the impressive slate of events held as part of the collaboration between Top Secret and Sunshine Week, including a panel that followed the March 13 performance, (which was replayed in radio form on KPCC-FM in Los Angeles on June 28). The dialogue after the final live performance was led by Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. Panelists were  David C. Kohler, former CNN general counsel who now is director of the Donald E. Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute and Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School, Los Angeles; and Marc Cooper, lecturer and associate director of USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism. “This partnership provides an exciting and creative new avenue to engage people in the discussion about how important it is to our democracy to protect people’s right to information,” said David Westphal, Washington editor for McClatchy Newspapers and co-chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee.” You can also view two of the post-show panels including John Dean and Bob Shear.  Sunshine Week is a national initiative that encourages discussions about the importance of open government and freedom of information led by ASNE. Additionally, two new books, one about Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell (which has been garnering attention and controversy), and one about the history of research at the  RAND corporation, will be sure to continue to provide insight into this historical period. UPDATE: The Boston Globe recently published an excellent op-ed from its former editor commemorating the anniversary of their publication of the Pentagon Papers.

New Pentagon Papers?

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’.

Meanwhile, the Top Secret tour wrapped up a performance at Penn State University (video), and one at the University of Pennsylvania that was met with acclaim by the Philadephia Inquirer and other outlets . The show’s final performance after its 23-city tour will be in Los Angeles this March. The issues explored by this docudrama take on an even deeper resonance as Congress debates secrecy in the reform proposals and liability implications for the nation’s wiretapping programs, as the executive enacts cuts in funding for the ombudsman position of the recently reformed FOIA system, and as presidential candidates debate ways to break the current culture of secrecy.

‘Pentagon Papers’ Return to Washington Post

The theatre section of the Washington Post, the newspaper that itself is a key subject of Top Secret, published a glowing article and photo slide show about the play, as a precusor to the engagement at the University of Maryland, which featured a pre-show discussion that brought former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Daniel Ellsberg together for their first-ever meeting. The panel was moderated by American Journalism Review President Thomas Kunkel and the performance was attended by several key figures who were subjects of the play.This came after very successful events in Iowa,  critically-acclaimed performances (“It’s no Secret: these guys can act!”) in Sprinfield, Illinois and WashU, insightful panels in Columbia, Mo. (which will be rebroadcast and webstreamed on KBIA on March 9),  good reviews at UConn (hailing a “Top” notch performance), and an Asheville, N.C. peformance that was a source of lasting inspiration, as was the Wake Forest presentation, a recording of which was aired and web-streamed live on WFDD on Feb. 10. (the same day as the Sarasota, Fl. performance). The tour continues to Penn State on Feb. 13 and then on to California in March.

Spring Tour Kicks Off Strong

The Spring Tour of “Top Secret: the Battle for the Pentagon Papers” has begun with a comprehensive and exciting kick-off at Wake Forest University which is generating great ‘buzz’ , including a review calling it a “joy to watch” and an excellent column about the actress playing Katharine Graham. As part of that university’s “Voices of our Time” series, the performance will be accompanied by an address by Daniel Ellsberg, as well as radio broadcasts. The Wake Forest engagement will be followed by a two-day performance at the Diana Wortham Theatre in North Carolina, and then on to a great program at  University of Richmond Jan 22-23, which is being widely anticipated. There are also compelling events planned to accompany the performance on Jan. 28-29 at the University of Iowa, as well as mounting excitement for the Feb. 6 Concord, N. H. performance. Click here to read what audiences are saying about the play.

Leaks, Classified Docs, and Tell-Alls

As Washington fumes and demands answers in light of the leak of the destruction of the CIA “torture tapes“, the House, Senate, and Executive are all promising investigations, and are focusing the nation’s attention on the potential CIA abuses of the classification system and national archiving policies. Key texts in understanding the CIA and classification systems include Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes and Ted Gup’s Nation of Secrets (which was subject of a recent discussion).  These developments also come on the heels of more decisions favoring secrecy over transparency, such as the DOJ opinion that the Vice-President’s office is exempt from classification rules, and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s rulings will remain under seal. Meanwhile, former Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh has released a memoir on “Integrity”, and Daniel Ellsberg is supporting other whistleblowers.