Publishing Secret Government Information Today: Managing Editors of NY Times and Washington Post discuss current practices following performances of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

In Top Secret, audiences watch as the Washington Post‘s managing editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham reject their lawyer’s advice to hold off one day on publishing Pentagon Papers material and approach the government to allow officials an opportunity tell them what information from the Papers might be most damaging and necessary to keep secret.

In two recent talkbacks following Top Secret performances, however, the current managing editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post shared with audiences behind-the-scenes stories of how their papers did just that:  ie, approach the government for just such a conversation prior to publishing two of the most important recent news stories that revealed secret, security-related government programs.

In a talkback on March 6, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson shared the story of that paper’s decision to publish its 2005 stories on the NSA wiretapping program. Rather than publishing those articles without informing the government about its information, as was done with the Pentagon Papers, Abramson described how her paper, after uncovering the program, went to the government for comment and, thereafter, listened to government officials’ requests that the paper not make this program public — including a request made directly to her by then-President George W. Bush. Abramson’s paper eventually did publish its story and make this information public.

Marcus Brauchli, managing editor of the Washington Post, described a similar series of events surrounding that paper’s 2005 stories regarding secret CIA-run prisons, called “black sites,” in European countries.

Does the fact that these papers sought pre-publication comment from the government  represent a retreat from the position of the Post and the Times at the time of the Pentagon Papers’ publication? Or instead, is it that the Times and the Post were enabled to take this responsible approach to publication only because the court precedent in the Pentagon Papers case made it so the papers knew that the ultimate decision to publish was theirs, even if the government requested continued secrecy?

Listen to Abramson – along with fellow panelists Carl Bernstein, legendary investigative reporter; Norm Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer, Bloomberg L.P.; and Geoffrey Cowan, Top Secret playwright and Director, Center on Communication Leadership & Policy – here:

Audio: Top Secret 03.06.10 Abramson, Bernstein, Pearlstine Panel Discussion

And listen to Brauchli – along with fellow panelists Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent, ABC News; Tim Weiner, Pulitzer prize-winning Journalist and Author, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA; and Carroll Bogert, Associate Director, Human Rights Watch – here:

Audio: Top Secret 03.04.10 Brauchli, Ross, Weiner, Bogert Panel Discussion

Shrum, Cowan, Stephens Discuss Journalism about Government Secrets at First TOP SECRET TALKS Post-show Event 2/25

Following Top Secret‘s second preview performance on February 25, USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy presented the first in what will be a twelve-part discussion series regarding the contemporary questions raised by the play.

UPDATE: Audio Recording of 2.25.2010 Discussion Now Available:

Top Secret 02.25.10 Cowan, Shrum, Stephens Panel Discussion

This February 25th talk featured a lively discussion between Top Secret playwright, Geoffrey Cowan, who is a former Dean of USC Annenberg’s School of Communication and former director of Voice of America and Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism and communication at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and author of, among other things, A History of News.  The discussion was moderated by Robert Shrum, veteran political consultant and author of No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.  Shrum is now a Senior Fellow at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, which co-hosted the talk.

Shrum started off the discussion by noting that publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate scandal that soon followed, ushered in an era in American culture defined by a “presumption against secrecy,” during which the American public expected that most information about government operations would be publicly available.  Given the events of 9/11 and our current war on terrorism, Shrum asked, has that “presumption against secrecy” and any corresponding openness in government eroded today?

Cowan agreed that threats of terrorism and other factors may be eroding this presumption, citing the the Obama administration’s recent actions in first agreeing and then declining to release so-called “torture photos” sought by the ACLU.  The administration was criticized for appearing to “go back on” initial promises of increased transparency when it later supported Congress’s efforts to tighten the federal FOIA law to avoid any requirement to disclose the materials.  Cowan noted, however, that a pull toward secrecy shouldn’t be associated with any particular administration, but rather is a natural tendency of those in power.

Shrum turned the discussion to a question brought into sharp focus by the events of Top Secret: whether and when journalists’ efforts to break through government secrecy can actually threaten national security.

Cowan and Stephens’ opinions here converged regarding whether journalism often poses a real threat to national security — concluding not  — but presented possibly differing interpretations on why that might be the case.  Despite the alleged national security threat posed by publication of the Pentagon Papers, Cowan and Stephens agreed that almost no historical examples easily came to mind of stories published by the US press that actually caused a severe threat to national security.

In reflecting on this lack of examples, Cowan emphasized the possibility that journalists do often break stories that include secret or security-related information, but may find reporting tactics that make their stories less threatening such as voluntary withholding of stories until information is less threatening and sensitive reporting that reveals information only to the extent necessary to tell the story.  As examples, Cowan pointed to the 2005 New York Times series that exposed the NSA’s involvement in a secret wiretapping program, which revealed this confidential program, but was held by the Times for over a year before its release, and to Dana Priest’s series on CIA “black sites,” which included sufficient detail on this program to influence public opinion while withholding the names of the particular countries involved.

The continued possibility for this kind of reporting was called into question by one audience member who, reacting to the dramatization of editorial and publisher’s discretion displayed in Top Secret, asked whether that kind of “curating” of journalism would be continued on blogs and other non-traditional media sources.  The panelists noted that online media, while breaking some stories about politicians’ personal lives, also had yet to break a truly threatening national security story.  When they have the chance, will they employ some of the tactics Cowan identified?

Stephens saw the lack of news stories threatening national security not as a sign of sophisticated reporting, but instead as a possible indication of timidity in the press about uncovering and disclosing government secrets.  Stephens noted that very few articles in this list of the Top 100 Works of Journalism included revelations of or inquiry about government secrecy, and asked whether this may be because the press behaves too conservatively in the face of possibly secret information.

Shrum saw echoes of these concerns in the recent coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq war in which selectively leaked information painted a certain picture about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a picture which was not generally questioned in the media.

For Stephens, the theme of Top Secret was best embodied by a line said by H.R. Haldeman in the play’s second scene regarding the Pentagon Papers publication (a line actually said by Haldeman and recorded on Nixon’s White House taping system): “For the ordinary guy, all of this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing, which is: You can‘t trust the government, you can‘t believe what they say and you can‘t rely on their judgment.”  To Stephens, the story of the Pentagon Papers “is a story about government cynicism.”  The material in the papers taught the reporters and then the public at that time to be cynical, and therefore, more challenging and critical of government, something which Stephens does not see as often today.

Stephens calls on the media to err on the side of challenging the government’s version of events.  In slight contrast, Cowan’s recent examples of reporting that discloses secret programs in a manner that is sensitive to national security concerns implies that good journalism can often result from some trust and cooperation with the government.

Shrum recalled a story from the Kennedy administration when the New York Times had the Bay of Pigs story, but Kennedy officials convinced the Times not to publish.  After the invasion, according to Shrum, members of the administration said they wished the Times had published the story.  Could the Times have made a better decision at the time?  And how would a paper, or the government make this decision today?

This story and the panel as a whole highlighted the importance of a balance between government secrecy and tough inquiry and investigation by the press.  For journalists’ efforts to report sensitively to work, the press must also engage in the courageous and critical reporting Stephens seems to be looking for that will keep the government on its toes.  If the government can expect press scrutiny, it will be more likely to make decisions that would withstand such scrutiny and merit the public’s trust if revealed and when the press and the public can put some trust in the government to make such decisions, then the public can trust a sophisticated press to cooperate with the government and report sensitive information in a way that doesn’t threaten national security.

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?

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.

Fall Tour Wraps Up; Government – Press Tension Continues

The Fall 2007 tour of Top Secret, which opened in Hampton, Va., visited universities across the country, including Stanford, and concluded with a performance in Omaha, Nebraska — picking up critical acclaim along the way. Preparations for the 2008 tour are underway, and the kick-off for the second leg of the national tour will be at Wake Forest University on Jan. 17.

But as the tour closed, revelations surfaced about the New York Times, once again withholding information at the request of government officials: “The New York Times has known details of the secret program for more than three years… The newspaper agreed to delay publication of the article after considering a request from the Bush administration, which argued that premature disclosure could hurt the effort to secure the weapons…. Early this week, the White House withdrew its request that publication be withheld, though it was unwilling to discuss details of the program.”

Does this represent another example of the Times holding the story to prevent upsetting a political balance, as it has been accused of doing with the NSA wiretapping story, or is it an example, as piece author David Sanger claims, of the Times holding the story only until as long as necessary for security matters. The discussions around this and other topics will be dynamic as the 2008 tour gets underway.