In June 1971, the New York Times began publishing sections of the classified Pentagon Papers, which detailed the events surrounding the United States’ entry into the Vietnam War. When a court-ordered injunction prevented the Times from continuing to publish them, the Washington Post picked up where they left off. Top Secret tells the story of the Post’s decision to publish and the resulting court battles, which ended with a Supreme Court decision affirming their right under the First Amendment to publish the material.
The company, which specializes in audio theater, staged the production as a live radio play, with the actors mainly standing at a row of microphones, and a table toward the back of the stage where a sound-effects person could be seen rustling papers, pouring water, or “typing.” However, the play was still mesmerizing–I was literally on the edge of my seat through the entire thing. Perhaps it was because much of the dialogue was taken from real transcripts of tape recordings and court proceedings, or perhaps because the themes of the play are still very relevant today, more than 30 years after the events took place.
The audience Thursday night was fortunate to have among its members four men who were key figures in the events depicted in the play: Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Post at the time; George Wilson and Murray Marder, Post reporters; and Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the newspapers. After the performance, they joined the director and actors onstage to answer questions from the audience. Particularly interesting were Mr. Ellsberg’s comments about his decision to make the documents public. He said that at the time, he did not realize that the U.S. does not have an “Official Secrets Act” which would make it a crime to leak classified government information. Although he felt the Pentagon Papers contained information the public needed to know, he expected that he would be sent to prison for leaking them. However, though there are narrower laws which cover specific areas such as nuclear information, the U.S., unlike many countries, doesn’t have a broad law of this kind. Mr. Ellsberg warned, however, that a current bill in Congress seeks to change this. He believes that today it is more important than ever for people to be informed about these issues.
A second performance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers will take place tonight, Jan. 8, at 8:00pm. For more information about the show see: http://claricesmithcenter.umd.edu/2007/c/performances/performance?rowid=5448