September 7, 2011, 3:30 pm ET by Philip Bennett
On a rainy day in October 2005, Dana Priest was escorted across the immaculate marble lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia along with a pair of her editors from The Washington Post (I was one of them). We crowded into a private, key-operated elevator that opened into a study that would have seemed almost cozy if not for the arresting artifact at the far end of the room: an American flag, scorched and battered, recovered from Ground Zero and now hanging behind the director’s desk.
The purpose of the meeting was to urge The Post not to publish Priest’s story about a global network of secret CIA prisons. The discussion was off the record, but senior officials in the room later made the same arguments in public. They said the story would disrupt the detention of highly prized prisoners. It could endanger American lives by interfering with efforts to stop another attack. And revealing this one secret might set off an invisible domino effect, ruining the government’s reputation for keeping others.
It was an icy and awkward encounter, but it could have been scripted by the Founders. Disputes over secrecy are as old as the republic. In this case, officials who had authority to order people’s deaths had no power to stop a newspaper article (which must have been infuriating). At The Post, we had no way of knowing if the benefits of running the story outweighed potential costs (which was humbling). Where was the boundary between our responsibility to inform the public and hold the government accountable, even in wartime, and harm to national security? Wrestling with this question, case by case, was how the contest between security and freedom worked.
FRONTLINE goes inside The Washington Post’s major two-year examination into the massive, unwieldy, top secret world the U.S. government has created in response to 9/11.
A major examination by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin is the subject of an upcoming FRONTLINE documentary produced by veteran producer Michael Kirk. The Post’s two-year investigation looks at the top secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—a world that has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that few know how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or how many agencies duplicate work being done elsewhere.
See the full documentory at Top Secret America