Listen to Nixon’s Response to the Pentagon Papers’ Publication at National Security Archive Blog

Nate Jones at the National Security Archive Blog just put up this post that includes the audio of the June 14, 1971 tape from President Nixon’s White House recording system in which Nixon responds to the New York Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Included in this tape is H.R. Haldeman’s memorable quote – a quote that is included in Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, in which Haldeman notes that even though the content of the Pentagon Papers may be “gobbledygook” to the public

. . . out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants [them] to do even though it’s wrong. And the president can be wrong.

Jones notes that

In time for Sunshine Week, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America” (which relied upon National Security Archive documents) has re-raised the issues of government secrecy, national security, and which types of information the American public has the right to know.

We’d add that Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers does the same.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Opens at New York Theatre Workshop

On March 9, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, the documentary play by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons opened at New York Theatre Workshop’s Fourth Street Theater.

Reportedly, Washington Post reporter George Wilson, who played a key role in protecting the Post against the Justice Department’s efforts to enjoin publication, was at the opening.  Wilson is the latest of several Pentagon Papers participants attending the NYTW production.  At a March 7 preview, Linda Amster, a New York Times researcher who worked on that paper’s Pentagon Papers series borrowed the microphone during the post-show discussion (audio available here) to share her memories of the dramatic and passion-filled weeks she spent working on the project.  On Tuesday, March 16, Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst who leaked the Papers to the Times and the Post will share his perspective in a post-show discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Responding to the opening, theater critics found the play an informative rendering of events that continue to resonate today, with Peter Santilli for the Associated Press writing that although “[i]t has been nearly 40 years since the story played out in the national media, [] the perennial struggle by the press to illuminate government secrets never seems to get old.”  The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood agreed that Top Secret provided an “intelligent and informative” dramatization of a “historic chapter in 20th-century journalism” that “continues to resonate today, as the desire of the government to keep its secrets and the responsibility of the press to monitor its workings come into frequent conflict,” although he took issue with both the presentation of the play as a radio drama and with its focus on the Washington Post‘s perspective.

Pentagon Papers Publication as Protest and the Changed Spirit Today

Panelists at two recent TOP SECRET TALKS events reflected on how the events depicted in Top Secret required what they saw as acts of courage by the Washington Post leaders depicted in the show, commenting that perhaps this same courage was less common among the press and the public today.  Tracing this theme back to the originator of the leaked Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, and the process by which he decided to leak the Papers perhaps helps explain the changing times.  What do you think?

UPDATE: Audio Recording of 2.28.2010 and 3.2.2010 Discussions Now Available:

Audio: Top Secret 02.28.10 Schell Panel Discussion

Audio: Top Secret 03.02.10 Panel Discussion with Top Secret Cast

Following the Feb. 28th performance, brothers Orville and Jonathan Schell drew on their deep knowledge of journalism to reflect on the unique story told in the show. First, Jonathan Schell noted that, to him, the Post‘s publication of the Papers resulted from decisions by a series of courageous individuals starting with the front line reporters:  When faced with the possibility that the Post would decline to publish the Papers story, senior reporter Chal Roberts threatened to resign.  This threat inspired a similar one from editor Ben Bradlee, and both threats were communicated to the Post‘s publisher Katharine Graham, which Schell saw as helping to catalyze her own display of courage in ordering the paper to publish.

Orville Schell noted several structural factors that made it harder for reporters today to exercise such independent acts of protest. Citing what he called the failure of the competitive market in journalism, Orville Schell noted that a resignation threat from most journalists today would ring false.  Few papers today have a single person (like Graham) at the helm to whom a reporter, even one making a resignation threat could appeal, since the chain of command at most papers is now more diffuse.

In addition to these structural factors, however, Orville cited a decline a certain spirit of protest, wondering if perhaps young people, including younger reporters, have replaced the hope necessary for courage with a cynicism that you can’t really change anything. Noting what he perceived as a lack of critical interrogation by the media of the lead up to the Iraq War, Jonathan Schell also wondered whether it was a “feistiness” or “protest spirit” unique to the Vietnam era that allowed the events surrounding the Pentagon Papers publication to occur.

After the March 2 Top Secret performance, actor Peter Strauss, who plays Ben Bradlee in the show, expressed a similar feeling.  Strauss appeared on a panel along with other Top Secret cast members and NYTW casting director Jack Doulin.

After becoming familiar with the Post‘s story through his experiences in Top Secret, Strauss described feeling as if the press did a better job during the Pentagon Papers era challenging the government’s version of the lead-up to war.  Like the Schells, he saw the press today as having repeated the government’s version of events, rather than challenging that version, prior to the Iraq War.  In speaking about the contrasting approach of journalists, Strauss likened the courageous acts of the Post‘s journalists to the original act by Daniel Ellsberg in copying and distributing the Pentagon Papers in violation of his legal and other duties to his employers and the Defense Department.

This comment helpfully connected the threatened resignations and other decisive actions at the Post to the prior act of protest that gave journalists the opportunity to take action in the first place, Daniel Ellsberg’s illegal copying and distribution of the Pentagon Papers.  When Ellsberg pressured the reporters to whom he gave the Papers to promise they would use them:  Ellsberg was, in part, burdening the reporters to act as boldly as he did.  So what inspired Daniel Ellsberg?

In The Most Dangerous Man in America, a Pentagon Papers documentary now in theaters, Daniel Ellsberg explains that he did see his copying and distribution of the Papers as an act of protest, and traces his inspiration for that act to what he saw as personal acts of courage displayed by draft resisters.  Only after hearing one such activist describe how he was willing to go to jail to protest the war and stand up for his beliefs did Ellsberg come to grips with his own unease about the war, and begin to feel the spirit of protest deeply enough to violate the codes of secrecy that governed his career as a defense strategist.

Under this view of events, perhaps what is missing today is not merely a critical spirit of protest among journalists, but that same critical spirit among the larger public.  But Ellsberg and the Post journalists made choices to act in protest only when directly confronted with the opportunity to protest not just in the abstract, but regarding events and actions within their sphere of control.  At least under the version of events Ellsberg narrates in the current documentary, his act of protest was directly inspired by, not just a general spirit of protest, but actual acts of protest he saw in the larger public.  Without a draft, the American public –even those who may wish to protest aspects of the current war in theory — are not engaging in actual acts of individual protest today.  To those who wish to see more critical reporting from the press – what acts by the larger public might help inspire more activist reporting?

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.

‘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.

New Nixon Tapes Released

The Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has just released an amazing new set of presidential recordings from the Nixon years, including his initial reaction to the Pentagon Papers stories. The remarkably revealing conversations between Nixon and his top aides, discussing the newspaper’s scoop and their response to it, are available in both sound recording and transcript form. Slate editor Jack Schafer also points out the personal viciousness targeted at Katharine Graham by Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (going so far as to call her an ‘old bag’) on the day that the Supreme Court rules.

House Judiciary Holds FISA Hearing

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Warrantless Surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act: The Role of Checks and Balances in Protecting Americans’ Privacy Rights which featured testimony by Pentagon Papers staff director and chief organizer Mort Halperin expressing his strong reservation about the “Protect America Act“, calling its ambiguity and vagueness “simply unacceptable and a threat to both our liberty and our security.”