LATW Presents: Top Secret China

This short documentary on the tour of TOP SECRET in China gives a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to take this play, with its themes of freedom of the press, to three cities in China – and at the reaction of the audience and the Chinese government.

Cowan’s play on press freedom completes tour in China

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, a docu-drama co-written by CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan and the late Leroy Aarons, was performed in China in November and December 2011. The L.A. Theatre Works production was performed in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. The tour was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Top Secret was last presented during a successful Off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop in 2010.

This China production of Top Secret was directed by award-winning director Stephen Sachs. The cast included well known actors from stage, screen, and television including Henry Clarke, JD Cullum, James Gleason, Nicholas Hormann, Amy Pietz, Russell Soder, Josh Stamberg, Peter Van Norden, Steve Vinovich and Tom Virtue.

In conjunction with performances, CCLP presented post-performance discussions with Cowan and other special guests in partnership with China’s leading law and journalism schools. This provided a valuable opportunity to contextualize the content of the play, which is authentically American, within Chinese society.

In addition to the performances and discussions, Cowan delivered the prestigious F.Y. Chang lecture, a joint program of Peking University Law School, Tsinghua University Law School and the Harvard University Law School East Asian Legal Studies Program.

Links to coverage:
Voice of America
New York Times
Los Angeles Times

Tour Details

November 21 – 26, 2011 / Shanghai
Seven performances in the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center’s Annual International Contemporary Theatre Festival
Panel discussions with Cowan and NYU Shanghai public interest law professors and Fudan University School of Journalism.
One performance at the Peking University (PKU) School of Transnational Law as part of the celebrations in honor of PKU Shenzhen’s 10th Anniversary;
Panel discussions, lectures, and workshops with bilingual law students, law professors, and local community led by law school Dean Jeffrey Lehman and Cowan.

November 29 – 30, 2011 / Guangzhou
Two performances at Sun Yat-Sen University
Panel discussions with Cowan about the role of journalists and journalism in society

December 1 – 5, 2011 / Beijing
Four performances at the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture’s Annual International Theater and Dance Festival
Panel discussions and lectures at the Comparative Law Program at Renmin University of China Law School; Peking University; Tsinghua University
Panel discussions with the American Bar Association.

Wolf, Neuborne, Marshall Reflect on Implications of Pentagon Papers Story for Journalists and Law Today

On March 27, the final Spring 2010 Top Secret Talks discussion brought audiences a nuanced reflection on many of the legal and journalistic forces at play behind the Pentagon Papers story.

Joining for this panel discussion were: the Honorable Mark L. Wolf, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts and former First Deputy U.S. Attorney and Special Assistant to the United States Atorney General; Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties at New York University and Legal Director of the Brennan Center for Justice who also represented Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg in his trial on federal espionage charges; and Joshua Marshall, leading online journalist and founder of Talking Points Memo and

In a discussion that brought together many of the themes explored in prior Top Secret Talks, the panelists reflected on how the legal questions raised by the Pentagon Papers provide guidance for both the conduct of journalists and resolution of legal policy questions today.

Audio: Top Secret 3.27.10 Wolf, Neuborne, Marshall

To Marshall, the recent federal prosecution of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr. and the related contempt proceeding against New York Times reporter Judith Miller provided new context for understanding the high stakes faced by the individuals who leaked and reported on the Pentagon Papers. Witnessing both the government’s decision to prosecute Libby for allegedly leaking confidential information to the press and the jailing of Miller for refusing to disclose her source, brought home to Marshall the full panoply of consequences that could attach to gathering and reporting on confidential government information.

Marshall’s comments revealed that concern about imprisonment could certainly lead some journalists today to think twice about publishing leaked confidential documents. Perhaps drawing on his experiences as both a judge and a prosecutor, Chief Judge Wolf noted that while some might call this a “chilling effect,” others might call it a “deterrent effect” — with deterrence being an oft-cited and generally proper goal of criminal law and prosecutions. Especially in matters of national security, might it be appropriate for journalists and government employees to think carefully about all possible consequences when handling government that has been identified as confidential?

To tie these policy questions to now-pending legislation, Chief Judge Wolf asked the other panelists for their thoughts on a proposed federal shield law, a law summarized on this blog here.

Although a journalist and a civil liberties lawyer might be expected to come out in favor of a law designed to shield journalists from disclosing confidential sources, both Marshall and Neuborne — perhaps to everyone’s surprise — came out against a federal shield law.

Marshall opposed the idea because it seemed to artificially distinguish between “journalists” and other members of the public at a time when the internet makes that distinction less clear. Neuborne, on the other hand, opposed the proposed shield because he felt it could operate to protect the government by allowing government officials to selectively disclose information to journalists knowing that those journalists would not have to disclose their sources. In fact, the source Judith Miller was refusing to identify was a government source: Mr. Libby.

Listen to the audio above for further comments and questions from these panelists and audience members on the duties of journalists to evaluate received leaks and information, and on policy questions about government regulation of the internet and on the differences between legal protection of government secrets and trade secrets.

Ellsberg, Gelb, Goodale, Lemann Reflect: Where are the Pentagon Papers of Today?

Following the March 16, 2010 performance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, a post-show discussion hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review reunited some key participants in the Pentagon Papers story: Daniel Ellsberg, former military strategist and consultant at the RAND Corporation, who went against the written and unwritten rules of his profession when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971; Leslie Gelb, one of the main compilers of the Pentagon Papers, later a journalist and diplomat who also led the Council on Foreign Relations; and James Goodale, former in-house counsel at the New York Times.  These participants were joined, from the Journalism School at Columbia University, by Nicholas Lemann, Dean and Henry R. Luce Professor, and Victor Navasky, Chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Delacorte Professor of Journalism, who moderated the discussion.

Audio: Top Secret 03.16.10 Panel Discussion Ellsberg, Gelb, Goodale, Lehman, Navasky

In a lively evening, these panelists responded to questions from the audience and each other – with one highlight coming when Goodale, who had read the supposedly “top secret” papers (as counsel to the Times) when the Times obtained them, asked Gelb a question Goodale had wondered about since the 1970s: was there really any basis to mark the Papers and so many other documents “top secret”?  Gelb responded that much classification while he was at the Pentagon resulted more from a general culture of classification at the Pentagon than from any page-by-page analysis of a genuine threat posed by the papers’ release.

Perhaps the most difficult questions of the night, however, were not those about the events of the Pentagon Papers era, but those the panelists themselves raised about the state of journalism and foreign policy today.

When asked: where are the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan?  Ellsberg challenged the U.S. government and the audience by positing that such materials couldn’t be disclosed soon enough and that they would read much like the Pentagon Papers: tracing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan back to earlier U.S. involvement there, and revealing that the U.S. troop commitment necessary to end our involvement will be much larger than is generally understood.

In support of his evaluation, Ellsberg cited the example of Matthew Hoh, a senior U.S. foreign service officer in Afghanistan who resigned publicly in protest against U.S. policy there.  While praising Hoh’s controversial actions, Ellsberg noted that Hoh’s resignation could have been more powerful if Hoh had taken documents with him for public release.

But would such “Afghanistan papers” get the public attention Ellsberg seeks?  When Ellsberg asked how many audience members had read the “Eikenberry cables” – internal state department cables containing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s strong reservations about General Stanley McChrystal’s recommended course in Afghanistan – only a handful of audience members raised their hands, even though the cables were reported on extensively and eventually posted by the New York Times.  Ellsberg exhorted the audience to think critically about Afghanistan and to take action to lead the nation to do the same.

The need for such critical thinking was supported further when Gelb shared his reflections on the “domino theory” that had, in his opinion, undergirded U.S. foreign policy decisions in Vietnam and which may still be at work today motivating much of the thinking behind the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Turning to the role that today’s journalists should play in reporting on foreign policy and other topics, Lemann noted that the most prominent recent stories about national security issues (including the Times reports on NSA wiretapping and the Washington Post reports on CIA secret prisons) resulted not from the publication of leaked documents, but from the work of journalists to slowly uncover and piece together the details of a secret government program.

To encourage the type of critical reporting that Ellsberg and others would seem to call for, therefore, Lemann stressed that media would require additional support to build and maintain repertorial resources, including journalistic staff and foreign bureaus – a topic also discussed in a prior Top Secret Talks panel discussion.

Listen to the audio for more detail on these and other questions raised in this panel discussion!

Center for Public Integrity Hosted Discussion Reflects on Investigative Journalism Then and Now

In the final scene of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, George Wilson points out that the Post‘s court victory allowing continued publication of the Pentagon Papers was especially sweet because the strong precedent it created could help protect journalists at smaller papers that lacked the Post‘s resources to go to court themselves.  In light of the declining resources and profitability of the news business, one naturally wonders do media outlets today, especially newspapers, have the resources to fight court battles like those depicted in Top Secret?

The Center for Public Integrity‘s post-show panel on March 11 explored this question, but also raised questions about another impact a lack of resources may have on journalism: less resources available for long-range and deeply investigated stories.

In reflecting on differences between investigative journalism today and at the time of the Pentagon Papers case, panelist Bill Kovach, former New York Times reporter and current Chairman, Committee of Concerned Journalists, commented that the expertise and investigative work displayed in researching stories on the Pentagon Papers is still necessary to produce rigorous and cutting-edge reporting today.  As the profitability of print media declines, however, Kovach wondered: are there still sufficient resources to support detailed, time- and resource-intensive reporting?

Some U.S. government departments, he noted, like the Department of Agriculture, no longer have a reporter assigned to cover them every day.  Without this daily coverage, panelist Geoffrey Cowan agreed, even seasoned journalists can lack the necessary context when they do report on an agency.  Although the number of sources of news has proliferated on the internet, it is not clear that web news sites have more resources than print media for deep, long-range investigative journalism.

Audio: Top Secret 3.11.10 Kovach, Cowan, Coronel Panel Discussion

Listen to the audio above for the Center for Public Integrity’s panel discussion, including Kovach’s story about how he placed a surreptitious call to rent one of only 4 hi-speed xerox machines in Cambridge so that Times staffers could copy their set of Pentagon Papers.

NPR on Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

NPR’s Margot Adler filed this report on the current New York Theatre Workshop production of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.  Download the audio here.

Adler quotes from the March 3, 2010 post-show discussion with David Rudenstine, Todd Gitlin, and Steve Wasserman, in which these scholars contrasted the historical context in which the play takes place with the different political climate that exists today.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Performance and Discussion Celebrating Leroy Aarons

The Sunday, March 7 performance of Top Secret was followed by a panel discussion honoring the late Leroy Aarons, a Washington Post reporter and bureau chief and founder of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) who was also one of the co-creators of Top Secret.

Click below to hear the audio from Sunday’s post-show discussion.

Audio: Top Secret 03.07.10 Caldwell, Kaiser, Miller, Alba Panel Discussion

Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr. of the NLGJA posted this reflection on Sunday’s performance and discussion, including the following reflections on Leroy Aarons and on Sunday’s event:

Leroy Aarons, the late founder of NLGJA, was a man of many talents. He fused his interest in the theater with his expertise as a news man by co-authoring the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” with Geoffrey Cowan, who most recently was dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

Originally a radio play on NPR, it has been adapted for the stage at LA Theatre Works. In collaboration with New York Theatre Works in the East Village of Manhattan, it is making its first off-Broadway run through March 28.

A special sold-out matinee performance was held on Sunday, March 7, in honor of Roy. Joshua Boneh, Roy’s partner, was in attendance, as were many of Roy’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

A panel discussion was held after the performance to discuss Roy’s legacy. Esteemed journalist and author Charles Kaiser, one of the founding members of the New York chapter of NLGJA, was one of the panelists.

. . .

Wonderful acting made sure a good time, as they say, was had by all, capped off by a gathering at a local wine bar after the performance for those in attendance.

I strongly encourage NLGJA members to see this play. It’s a testament to Roy’s talents, but it’s much more than that. It’s a reminder of the important role that the news industry plays in our democracy.

Sunday’s post-show discussion at NYTW featured several people with distinct perspectives on Leroy Aarons and his work.  Earl Caldwell, a renowned former New York Times journalist and contemporary of Aarons, is currently the Scripps Howard endowed professor of journalism at Hampton University and host of the “Caldwell Chronicle” radio program.  Caldwell, who was the first black journalist to write a regular column in a major daily newspaper, also played a unique role in journalistic history, when his refusal to disclose the sources his New York Times reporting on the Black Panthers was one of three cases considered by the Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972).

Also on the panel was Charles Kaiser, Author, Full Court Press and Founder and Former President, NLGJA NY Chapter.  Kaiser is a renowned commentator on gay issues in the media.

Also participating in the discussion was Rebecca Miller, who acted in the Golden Globe nominated 2009 Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby.  Prayers for Bobby was based on a book by Aarons which told the true story of a religious, suburban mother struggling to accept her son after she finds out he is gay.  Miller described the numerous emails and letters the cast of the film recieved from teenagers and families across America who received help from the film in working on issues within their own families and community.

Monica Alba, a recent USC graduate, also spoke, describing the impact of a USC journalism course Aarons designed to introduce journalism students there about reporting on sexuality and gender identity.

**Note: In the post-show discussion Sunday, an audience member spoke about a July, 1967 article Aarons wrote for the Post about events in Plainfield, NJ that month that included riots and the death of a policeman.  Click here for access to that article, in which Aarons describes the successful efforts of Donald McDonald, a black NJ government employee, to stave off further violence.

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

Contextualizing the Pentagon Papers Publication with Todd Gitlin, Steve Wasserman, and David Rudenstine

In a talk following the March 3 performance of Top Secret, Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia and Steve Wasserman of NYU’s NY Institute for the Humanities, built on the themes discussed in the below post regarding seeing the publication of the Pentagon Papers as an act of courage or protest.

In the talk, Wasserman tied the publication of the papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post to the larger acts of protest going on against the Vietnam War at the time, including prior publication of leaked documents and information by more radical “alternative” presses against which, Wasserman theorized, the Times and the Post were in competition to break news of the stories behind the war.  Wasserman described this spirit of protest as a “tide that lifted all boats,” leading to the Times and Post‘s publication.

Gitlin went further, contextualizing Ellsberg’s leaking of the Papers and the Times and the Post‘s acts of publication, not only within the anti-war movement, but within the larger spirit of protest that captured the nation and inspired many of its journalists throughout the 1960s and 70s. Gitlin tied the spark of this protest spirit to the civil rights movement, through which many Americans saw a rupture between what they saw on the ground and  information they received from the government and authorities — a rupture that permitted them to challenge the received information and authority.

For more, check out Gitlin’s book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and listen to the audio of the March 3 talkback, which also features commentary on the court system and behind-the-scenes stories about the Pentagon Papers case from David Rudenstine, Sheldon H. Solow Professor at Cardozo Law School and author of The Day the Presses Stopped, a definitive and highly-detailed history of the Pentagon Papers case.

Audio Recording of 3.3.2010 Discussion Now Available:

Audio: Top Secret 03.03.10 Wasserman, Gitlin, Rudenstine Panel Discussion