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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Nearly 40 years ago, the battle over the Pentagon Papers pitted national security against the freedom of the press to publish. The top secret government study painted a picture far different from the government's public statements about the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration battled the newspapers all the way to the Supreme Court, and the newspapers won. It should come as no surprise that this rich piece of political theater has finally made its way to the theater.

"Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers," has opened off-Broadway in New York, and NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: The Pentagon Papers was first leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a government military analyst who is only a whisper in this play. He is referred to in one scene taken from the Nixon tapes, a discussion between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Nixon.

(Soundbite of play, "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As President Richard Nixon) What about this guy Ellsberg?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Henry Kissinger.) He's a nut, the most dangerous man in America. He was once a student of mine, a genius but mad. Mr. President, he must be stopped. He has access to very critical defense secrets of current validity.

ADLER: The stage is bare. People stand at microphones, scripts in hand with a Foley artist doing the sound effects.

The play looks at one narrow moment: after the New York Times was stopped form publishing by a court injunction, the battle shifted to the Washington Post. In one room, publisher Katharine Graham sits with advisors and her lawyer, deciding whether to publish, while in another, reporters Chal Roberts, George Wilson and Murray Marder sift through thousands of pages trying to create a story in hours.

(Soundbite of play, "Top Secret")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) You remember (unintelligible), early 1965, North Vietnamese attacked the big air base there, killed a bunch of our soldiers?

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Of course, I remember. That's why we started bombing North Vietnam.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) So we were told.

Unidentified Man #4: (As character) So what's the point?

Unidentified Man #3: (As character) The point is, it was all a lie. Yeah, these papers show that Bundy(ph) and LBJ had already decided to bomb the north, and they were just looking for an excuse.

ADLER: Meanwhile, the Washington Post lawyer argued with editor Ben Bagdikian.

(Soundbite of play, "Top Secret")

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) By showing an attempt to be responsible, we're in a far stronger position to assert the right to publish.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As Ben Begdikian) I always thought the way to assert the right to publish is to publish.

ADLER: Which the Post proceeded to do. The second act takes the audience into the courtroom, where the government tussles with the judge.

(Soundbite of play, "Top Secret")

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor): (As character) I move that you examine the document in chambers in the absence of all the parties.

Unidentified Man #8 (Actor): (As character) The answer to that is a flat no. I've never excluded counsel for people that are being excused, and I'm not about to start now.

ADLER: David Rudenstine is the author of "The Day the Presses Stopped," a legal history of the Pentagon Papers. He notes that the judges, often Republican appointees during a Republican administration, thought independently, made up their own mind on the difficult issues of national security, freedom and the nation. Think of that scene with the judge you just heard.

Mr. DAVID RUDENSTINE (Author, "The Day the Presses Stopped"): Today, in most cases involving national security that grow out of 9/11, the other side isn't even in the courtroom. The only people in the courtroom are going to be the lawyers for the government and the judge.

ADLER: 1971, said Rudenstine, was a high-water mark of judicial independence. The public, he says, doesn't even recognize the distance traveled in 39 years.

The play benefits from a series of panel discussions after many performances, giving historical context. Several panelists noted that the play does not look at the larger context that allowed these newspapers to act.

Mr. STEVE WASSERMAN: How did The New York Times and The Washington Post find its vertebrae?

ADLER: Steve Wasserman, formerly with the Los Angeles Times, argued that the newspapers came late to the battle. You can't understand the Pentagon Papers without understanding the widening of the war, the killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State, 1,000 veterans throwing their medals on the steps of the capitol mere weeks before the Pentagon Papers was published, a half-million people marching on Washington and 13,000 people arrested in anti-war protests in May of that year.

Mr. WASSERMAN: The rising tide of the anti-war movement lifted all boats and helped stiffen their spines.

ADLER: Geoffrey Cowan, a former dean at USC, wrote the play along with the late Leroy Aarons, who was with the Washington Post for many years. Cowan says this play asks: what does it mean to be a courageous leader? What does it mean to put a company in jeopardy because it's the right thing to do?

Mr. GEOFFREY COWAN (Co-author, "Top Secret"; Former Dean, University of Southern California): What does it mean to print a story when the government is telling you that it's dangerous to do it, when you're - everything you possibly know about it tells you that it's not dangerous?

ADLER: Yet, at the same time, he says, sometimes there are real secrets.

Mr. COWAN: And sometimes the most important decision for an editor and publisher is to say: we shouldn't print.

ADLER: Some people would argue that there's less independence in government, in journalism, everywhere today. "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers," is playing in New York for the next couple of weeks. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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