Monday, March 8, 2010

Top Secret

We went to the New York Theater Workshop the other day to see and hear what is being called a radio play about the 1971 decision of the New York Times and the Washington Post to print the Pentagon Papers, a series of supposedly top secret documents about American's involvement in Vietnam. The focus of this particular play is on the Washington Post under the leadership of Ben Bradlee, editor, and Katherine Graham, publisher, to continue printing the papers after the New York Times was prevented from doing so. The Post at that point was still trying to establish itself as a national newspaper, similar to the Times, and so there was considerable pressure to show that they had the courage to stand up to a government that may have been trying to cover up its mistakes as much as it was trying to protect national security.

Yet, there was a lot uncertainty about this and real concern that the Post might be printing papers that were genuinely sensitive and that could jeopardize American lives. As the play clearly demonstrates, however, thanks to the defense experts that the Post relied upon, especially one named George Wilson who had tremendous knowledge of foreign policy and preternatural power of recall, there was virtually nothing in the Papers, however sensitive some of the documents might have seemed, that had not been already been publicly revealed. Interestingly, the case became one of a government eager to protect its right to classify documents, even when those documents had virtually no national security value. The Post and the Times, in turn, while trying to show they were protecting first amendment rights, were never put to the most difficult of tests in the end, as their case rested on the persuasive claim that what was in the Pentagon Papers wasn't even mildly sensitive from a security point of view after all.

To relive Katherine Graham's courageous decision to approve the publishing of the Papers is rousing theater, as is the reenactment of the Court transcripts in which Nixon's assistant attorney general goes to great lengths to prove the extreme sensitivity of one document, in particular, that the brilliant George Wilson is, in turn, able to show to be in the public domain. There is some disappointment in realizing the first amendment is not put to its ultimate test in this case, but there is, at the same time, great satisfaction in learning about a democratically elected government that thought it could act with absolute impunity, only to learn that better informed citizens have a right, and even a duty, to call that very government into question when it oversteps its bounds.

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