27 September 2010

Building Better Lives Through Science

[After the explosion on the BP drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico last April, reporters, commentators, analysts, and ordinary people demonstrated two conflicting—but often simultaneously held—opinions about science and technology. On the one hand, they assumed, even demanded, that science solve the problem and became impatient, even angry, when it didn’t do it immediately and completely. Science, in the minds of many Americans, is credited with the capacity to solve any problem no matter what. The second view is disillusionment with science and technology because it is seen as the cause of such catastrophes as the gulf oil spill, global warming, nuclear contamination such as that caused by the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island melt-downs, the Challenger and Columbia explosions. Except for the environment, science and technology gave us those devices, they failed, and science hasn’t been able to stop or fix them. So we expect an almost magical power from science, which is our servant, and at the same time we believe science is flawed and inadequate and is poised to become our master. Clearly, neither of those propositions is accurate—or not wholly accurate. I’m going to examine the issue from a very personal perspective and see what, if any, benefit science and technology has provided in my own life.

[In a 1992 article called “Science’s Big Shift” in Time magazine, Dick Thompson wrote: " The public hears that we're No. 1 in science, and they want to know why that fact isn't making our lives better. The one thing that works in this country doesn't seem to be paying off." I was teaching a writing course at the time, so I quoted this statement for an essay exam and asked my students to address the idea that we don’t see science making our lives better. I also decided to answer the question myself as a model for an essay-exam response. I’ve based the essay below on that response.]

Science is the most visible indicator of how far humans have come from stone tools and wooden wheels. There’s question, however, whether scientific developments are actually making our lives better. While some perceive no betterment, even evils, from modern science and technology, the indisputable benefits in such fields as medicine, computers and robotics, and energy demonstrate that science makes our lives easier, healthier, safer, and more productive.

Medicine and health are fields plainly affected by new science and technology. Advances in organ transplants, immune-suppressant drugs, diagnostic tools like MRI’s and CAT scans, and new medicines and therapies mean illnesses we might have inevitably died from, like heart disease and cancer, are now routinely curable and others we couldn’t even diagnose until an autopsy, like tumors or weak blood vessels deep in the brain, are treatable. If medical technology has outstripped our ethical and legal capacities, that’s hardly a reason to disparage the usefulness of the scientific advances. It’s a reason to spur society and the law to catch up.

I can personally attest to at least one benefit of medical science and technology in my own life. Like most men my age, I’ve suffered the indignity of prostate examinations and colonoscopies, procedures that have come along only in recent decades to detect cancers that kill millions of men—but killed many more in the past because they weren’t detectable until much later in their progress. Those are common experiences for men (and women, too, in the case of colon exams) of a certain age, as they used to say. But somewhat rarer is the operation I had some years ago now that relieved me of a encumbrance with which I’d been saddled since I was about 12. I’m very astigmatic and I’ve had to wear glasses for over half a century. (I wore contacts for several years in the middle of that period, but they’re still lenses, prostheses.) I hated wearing glasses—not out of vanity (I’m not so good-looking to begin with that lenses were an additional disadvantage), but because as my eyes got worse, the lenses got thicker and heavier, and I couldn’t go anywhere without them. I always had to go about with glasses, and usually a pair of prescription sunglasses, too. If I traveled, I had to take an extra pair. Eventually, I got bifocals, which drove me nuts anyway; I took to carrying reading glasses for work in a library or other environment (because doing a lot of reading with the bifocals gave me headaches) and the bifocals for street use, plus the sunglasses. Three different pairs of glasses. I’d been asking my eye doctor about Lasik surgery, but he kept telling me it hadn’t been perfected enough to correct my vision problems yet. (Ironically, the same situation had occurred when I wanted to replace my glasses with contacts decades before.) Finally the doctor agreed that I was a good candidate and I had the surgery in a procedure that lasted 15 minutes, caused no discomfort, had no side effects, and left me with vision so good that I didn’t need even the drugstore reading glasses the doctor told me I might. It’s been over five years now and I haven’t worn prescription glasses of any kind since the operation (though my eyes have deteriorated in the meantime—the operation can correct the current conditions but it can’t stop your eyes from continuing to age). The operation cost several thousand dollars, which wasn’t covered by any insurance, but it was the best money I ever spent. Just waking up in the morning and not needing glasses to read the clock justifies the decision. For this alone, I can affirm that technology (for the laser device that performed the actual cutting) and science (for developing the technique of applying the laser) has benefited my life unquestionably.

Technological benefits from computers are also indisputable. Factories and offices work more efficiently, products are cheaper, retooling is easier and faster, and dangerous tasks are performed safely by non-human workers. Computer-aided design, for instance, makes possible the development of products with fewer design flaws before a prototype is even manufactured. Computer-generated models are created and tested in computer-generated environments, less costly than test laboratories and tracks, and their potential malfunctions and weaknesses detected long before metal and plastic are molded. The final design is electronically sent to the robot machine that makes the product, saving hours of expensive labor. When the time comes to change the design, the new specifications are sent to the robot, avoiding costly retooling and retraining. Though outsourcing has become an economic drawback (but not a technological one), the lost manufacturing jobs are eventually replaced with high-tech work programming, maintaining, and running the computers, and the computer glitches that occasionally plague our daily lives are becoming less and less frequent as we all become computer-literate.

I’ve written about the application of computer technology to theater and live performance (“Theater and Computers,” 5 December 2009), and that progress continues apace. (Film, which is always in the vanguard of such applications, is beginning to use performance capture—a feature of James Cameron’s Avatar—and the appearance of that tech on the live stage is probably not far away.) But once again, I can testify to the benefit computers have provided my own life. We all use ATM’s for their convenience and many of us use PDA’s and smart phones to access e-mail and the ‘Net when we’re on the move. (On my recent trip to Istanbul, many of my traveling companions were busily texting and e-mailing their friends and families back in the States from their hand-helds.) But my personal boon from computers is probably simpler and more commonplace. I’ve also written about my writing process and how I developed it (“Writing,” 9 April 2010). When I first contemplated that, I’d just started using a wordprocessor and I was very conscious of how that tool was changing how I wrote. I began to write more avidly, and sometimes more words as well, because it was fun. I couldn’t count drafts anymore, because each piece of writing was all one flexible draft that just reformed itself every time I made a change—until I decided it was finished, and sent it to the printer. Since there was no retyping every time I wanted to edit a draft, I began to do far more editing and revising. Where I’d used to give up on a change because it was too tedious to make—say, changing a small word or reversing the order of two sentences—I could push a couple of keys and I’d have exactly what I wanted, instead of what I’d used to settle for. Then conveniences like dictionaries and encyclopedias on CD became available and I had a whole reference and research library at my fingertips, obviating the need for constant trips to a library for small tasks. (I still go when I have major research or have saved up several smaller tasks that can’t be accomplished at home.) This was followed by the Internet and the array of reference and research sites that technology brought right to my screen. (All this eventually led to the launching of ROT, a lagniappe from the computer world that isn’t a benefit to my writing, but has become an outlet for the results. Others will have to determine whether that’s been worthwhile.)

The wordprocessor’s also been a huge asset for my teaching, as has the ‘Net. E-mail’s made communicating with research clients, colleagues, students (I work by e-mail with a woman now whom I tutored for a while and now help as a writing coach and editor), and, of course, friends and family. Business correspondence by e-mail is faster than by letter and more efficient and unambiguous than by telephone. We all know about the inaccuracies and even falsehoods that can be found on the Internet, but judicious use can make it a terrific research resource that saves countless hours in a library or even in my home reference collection. Small details I might have just left out, I can now verify and include because I don’t have to run off and spend an hour or two getting to and from a library and looking for the right reference book. As a result, my writing is both more detailed and specific, and faster. No danger that the Internet poses would make me wish to go back to a typewriter and a legal pad. I may prefer a printed book to an electronic one for reading (“Books in Print,” 9 July 2010), but I see no drawback to writing on a computer; there’s no downside.

A sidelight to computer writing that comes not from my own experience but from a friend’s is on-line publishing. I don’t mean publishing such as a blog or submission to an on-line journal, but publishing a book through an on-line service. Kirk Woodward did that with The Art of Writing Reviews, on which I commented at length on ROT (4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009). It’s the only way I know of for a little guy like Kirk or me to get a book into print. Furthermore, Kirk can reedit the text instantly to make corrections and additions and potential readers can buy Writing Reviews on line as either a printed book or as a download. I have no idea how well the books published that way do in sales, but it’s still an accomplishment, and computers made it possible.

Communications and media are another field in which scientific and, especially, technological progress have had prominent consequences. Television has improved at both the viewing and the transmission ends with the introduction of digital and high-definition broadcasting, flat screens, green-screen technology, and satellites. (The content, however, may not seem better than 50 years ago! There’s just more of it.) Even old reliable radio has advanced with the birth of satellite transmission. In world events, we’ve seen how the fax machine brought news of the 1989 Tiananmen protest in Beijing out and sent encouragement in and then, two decades later, when Iran erupted after a disputed election, it was digital cameras, cell phone images, and the Internet that kept the story before the world. Perhaps the most salient—and personal—technical change in communications, however, is the cell phone which has gone from a large, clumsy, expensive device that few but the wealthiest enthusiasts owned to the ubiquitous, nearly omnipotent, tiny object that resembles the Star Trek communicator. While we’ve all heard (and experienced) the annoyances that go along with the proliferation of cell phones on our streets (and in our restaurants, stores, theaters, and everywhere else), the convenience and, in an emergency, necessity of a mobile telephone can’t be denied. Readers of ROT may already know the recent urgent situation that prompted my mother and me finally to get our first cells; I described it in “Meeting Mom” (in “Short Takes I,” 30 March 2010). To recap briefly: I was waiting at Penn Station for my mother to arrive on a bus from Washington last Thanksgiving. She was scheduled to get in at 3 p.m. but the bus ended up being 3½ hours late and she couldn’t reach me to tell me what was happening and I couldn’t call her to ask where she was. Long story short: we now each have a cell. No emergency like that has occurred since (yet, halevai!), but the potential exists, hence the necessity of the cell phone in my life.

In the mid-1970’s, the oil-producing nations embargoed the source of most of the world’s energy, teaching us that relying on this imminently exhaustible product is dangerous. Now the spill in the Gulf of Mexico gives us another reason to reconsider fossil fuel, even domestically produced, as our sole energy source. For twenty years, scientists have been looking for new, less vulnerable energy sources. Though no replacement for hydrocarbons has yet emerged, many possibilities have. Nuclear energy, the most common next to oil and coal, has serious drawbacks, but it also has advantages. It’s efficient, cheap, and virtually inexhaustible. The radioactive waste and the danger of a leak or melt-down, as has already happened at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island and the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl reactors, are very real problems. This doesn’t mean they’re insoluble, and the technology to make reactors and their waste safer is already under development. Meanwhile, scientists are working on producing power from nuclear fusion—much cleaner than the fission used in current reactors—geothermal energy, and electromagnetics. The latter is already used in Japan in trains that float on cushions of air instead of rolling on wheels and track. The reduced friction saves wear and energy, and the high speeds will greatly reduce overland travel time. Even the old stand-by, petroleum, is being cleaned up in experiments with so-called gasahol where alcohol is added to the gasoline to make it burn cleaner and pollute less. Ethanol, too, has been examined as an alternative and though it’s not perfected, the prospect is still encouraging. The resulting more efficient engines and cleaner air are doubtlessly beneficial to all of us, and electric and hybrid engines are gaining popularity as that technology is improved and made less expensive. Busses that run on natural gas are appearing in cities all over the country as well.

Scientific advances can be a double-edged sword, however. In the realm of forensics, we’ve seen how scientific and technological progress has made detection and prevention of crime easier and faster, and solving crime and assigning blame has become more certain because of advances in science. DNA alone must be responsible for the convictions of hundreds of criminals across the country—as well as the exoneration of wrongly convicted defendants from the past. (A friend who’s a criminal defense attorney is very active in the Innocence Project, which has effected the release of hundreds of innocent prisoners.) But the trade-off, as I experienced it in a court, is that we civilians have come to expect a level of certainty that probably can’t be met in real life. I call this the CSI Syndrome because that TV show and its like have popularized the notion that science and scientists can solve any crime. When I was on the jury of an assault trial, we deliberated for several hours and ultimately found the accused, a man charged with the attempted rape of a women who rented a room from him, not guilty. The problem, we determined, was that there wasn’t enough evidence to convince us beyond the mandated reasonable doubt that the man had actually tried to rape the woman. We knew something had happened and that the woman had been a victim, and we suspected that the charge was true, but we couldn’t convict the defendant of such a crime solely on the testimony of the woman (who had credibility problems herself). There wasn’t any forensic evidence of an attempted rape. There was no medical evidence (the woman hadn’t gone to the hospital until after she’d reported the attack, which was some time after it was supposed to have occurred) to confirm a failed sexual assault. (There was also no corroborating testimony from other witnesses.) The accused hadn’t been charged with simple assault, a charge on which we could have convicted without a problem (the prosecutor explained that the DA’s office had decided that an assault charge carried too light a penalty), so we had no alternative but to acquit the man. But, I wondered afterwards, Were we putting too much reliance on criminal science? Has the CSI Syndrome convinced us non-scientists, non-criminalists that there must always be forensic proof, that there always is forensic proof and if there’s not, then conviction is impossible? Have we been taught, apparently falsely, to expect, to trust in, something that’s not really possible?

One question must be asked now, of course: Was my one experience at all typical of other juries of lay people across the country? If it was, then court cases and forensic science may be a metaphor for society’s general attitude toward science and technology: we raise it up on a pedestal, attributing to it capabilities it doesn’t have and when science fails to meet the impossible standards we’ve set, we tear down the pedestal and cast the whole discipline into the trash bin of cultural authority. Meanwhile, of course, real forensic scientists and technicians continue to do their valuable work and to push the envelope of their field to new and useful accomplishments.

Yes, there are disadvantages to scientific developments, and some new technologies may seem frivolous now. The new computer-generated environment called virtual reality is little more than an expensive toy right now, but its potential for real benefits is unmistakable. Television was a rich man’s plaything in the 1940’s and many intellectuals dubbed it a “vast wasteland” poised to rot our brains. Its power as a means of global, even interplanetary communications, however, has been demonstrated time and time again. From the first TV war in Vietnam to the landing on the moon in June 1969, this electronic gadget has proved its value, however badly it’s sometimes used. The same is obviously true of inventions in fields like space (miniaturization), transportation (supersonic jets, bullet trains), the military (nightscopes), and communications and the media (cell and satellite phones). Clearly, science has made our lives better—as long as we know how to use what it gives us. And don’t expect too much from its gifts. Despite the horrors of apocalyptic sci-fi tales, the true dangers of technology and science are on the human side.

22 September 2010

A Broadway Baby

On Sunday, 13 June, Vanity Fair and GQ contributing editor David Kamp reported in a New York Times “Cultural Studies” column that “the musical-theater idiom has regained its currency, and is enjoying what may be its greatest popularity among young people since the pre-rock era.” When I read that, it heartened me. According to Kamp, young teens and preteens, including boys, are going to theater in large numbers; kids in general accept their friends who go to theater more than previous generations; and applications for places like Stagedoor Manor, the summer theater camp in Loch Sheldrake in the Catskills, have increased (also among boys) by large numbers. If Kamp's right and this isn't just a bubble, that's really encouraging. One thing Kamp doesn't say, however, is whether there's any evidence that this increased interest in theater is occurring beyond the New York City area. Stagedoor Manor does report, according to Kamp’s article, that the rush of new campers is coming from all over the country and beyond. The column, "The Glee Generation," puts the responsibility for the rise in interest on the Disney TV movie High School Musical and on the TV series Glee for making it acceptable.

A new generation of young theatergoers would be a great development. As most people who have any interest in theater know, the audiences for live theater is aging and shrinking all over the country. It’s not just on Broadway, where ticket prices have climbed well into the three-figure range, that this problem is visible; and it’s not entirely because of the current economic downturn that people are staying away from theater—though that crisis has exacerbated the decrease. Live theater, in competition with movies, cable and broadcast TV, DVD’s, rock and pop concerts, the Internet, and iPods and other portable devices, has been losing audience for years, much to the concern of producers, theater owners, rep company artistic directors, and boards of directors. Every time a new presence in theater, especially musical theater, shows up, like Jonathan Larson with Rent in 1996 and Paul Simon with The Capeman in 1998, there’s hope across the theater world that maybe a new, youthful sound will bring young theatergoers into the half-empty houses and get them to line up at the ticket windows. We’ll never know what Larson might have accomplished after the immense success of the rock-oriented Rent because his tragic death the night before the Off-Broadway opening cut short any influence he might have had to bring along other new composers; and the failure of Capeman put an end to any draw Simon might have had to encourage other pop composers to give theater a try. Spring Awakening (2006) and the revival of Hair (2009), two other rock-infused hits, have brought spectators to the theater, but haven’t inspired imitators. Kamp, however, does note that Hair along with this year’s American Idiot have been among the biggest attractions for young theatergoers. These enthusiasts aren’t like the “bused-in tourists” of past seasons, Kamp observes, shepherded to the big musicals on the Great White Way because that’s what you do on vacation in New York City. These young spectators, he says, are “true believers for whom love of musicals brings happiness, transcendence, and, strangely enough, social acceptance” If Kamp is right, “We’re raising a generation of Broadway babies,” as he puts it.

The emphasis on the inclusion of boys in this new development is not only impressive—girls have always been more drawn to theater, as anyone who’s ever tried to cast a play in middle or high school can attest, and they are much more likely to be accepted by their non-theater friends if they are—but very encouraging as well. Not long ago, as recently as 2007, the Times reported that teen and tween girls were the target demographic of theater promoters who were campaigning to build new audiences. The enthusiasm of the girls alone, the producers saw, wasn’t enough to keep shows running into hit territory. If Kamp’s observations are correct, we may now be seeing the brothers of those girls following their sisters into the theater right behind them.

I don’t know if “The Glee Generation” is accurate or not—though I fervently hope it is. It doesn’t bother me at all that the young people Kamp’s encountered, who include his own 14-year-old daughter, are focusing on musicals right now. Anyone who’s ever bought a ticket for a Broadway show knows that the musicals are the most popular entertainments offered by the theater, followed by comedies. (Most theater spectators are entertainment seekers; true theater enthusiasts have always been a smaller proportion of the audience. I’d guess that the disparity is even greater for musicals.) If musicals are the hook that gets young people into the theater, it’s all good. My own interest in musicals when I was little expanded into a much broader interest in theater by high school. I suspect that that’s how it happens for most habitual theatergoers: we begin with the musicals—I even started with Gilbert and Sullivan—and move on to more challenging fare as our tastes and our intellects mature. It’s like drug addiction in a (benign) way: when we start, the light fare of musical theater satisfies our desires, but then we need more to accomplish what the musical used to do alone so we add the straight comedy, then the drama, then, finally, Off-Broadway and experimental theater. (Some traditionalists don’t ever get to that last stage, I think. But the line of progression is the same, even if it stops short.)

I grew up loving what used to be called musical comedy. If I didn't see them on stage when I was a kid, I saw the movies (as I did with Damn Yankees and Oklahoma!) or I listened to the albums, which my dad had from his youth. (Dad took my mom to the original Oklahoma! on one of their early dates. He had a collection of cast albums that went back to the ‘30s. Some were even 78’s! I still have his cast albums of Kiss Me Kate and Carousel, among others.) I literally grew up on that music—and when I was little, I knew (and could actually sing) all the words to all the songs. I’d actually come out of the theater singing the score. I saw all kinds of theater at home in Washington, including Shakespeare, but my first Broadway experiences, when I came to visit my grandparents, were musicals. Fiorello! was my very first show on Broadway; I saw My Fair Lady a little later, but it still had the original cast. When I was teaching upstate, a bus-and-truck tour of MFL came through and played at the college theater. All the theater students went, of course, and I met one of mine in the lobby during intermission. "It's really good, isn't it?" she said, adding, "Of course, she's no Audrey Hepburn." I chuckled to myself and responded, "Yes, and Hepburn was no Julie Andrews." I smiled, both at the student and to myself. To her, MFL was an old movie with Audrey Hepburn—using Marnie Nixon's voice—and Rex Harrison; to me, it will always be a Broadway experience with Julie Andrews and Harrison. Those great performances I saw as a boy have become enduring: Harold Hill is always Robert Preston, Maria von Trapp is always Mary Martin—not Andrews, by the way; besides Guinevere and Liza Doolittle, she's always Cinderella (from the original 1957 television broadcast)—Fiorello is always Tom Bosley, Don Quixote is always Richard Kiley, Pseudolus and Hysterium are always Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, J. Pierrepont Finch and Bud Frump are always Robert Morse and Charles Nelson Reilly, Fagin is always Clive Revill, Fanny Brice is always Barbra Streisand, Charity Hope Valentine is always Gwen Verdon; and, of course, Mrs. Lovett will always be Angela Lansbury. (I missed a few of the big ones: I didn't see West Side Story or Cabaret until the movies.)

Back in ’06, I watched Broadway: The Golden Age on PBS. It’s a 2003 documentary by Rick McKay in which he compiles many interviews, including archival footage, with the greats of Broadway theater going back to its . . . well, “Golden Age.” Some of the reminiscences of the stars' earliest introductions to theater and to Broadway and Times Square were very reminiscent of my own experiences at a similar age. When I used to come to New York City to visit one or another of my grandparents and before I ever went to a Broadway play, we'd go to Times Square. Both my parents were New Yorkers and their parents lived here when I was little, so we’d come to New York for visits. My mom’s dad liked Ruby Foo’s on West 52nd Street, and we also ate at Mamma Leone’s on West 48th, all in the Times Square area in those days. (Neither was especially good, but they were family-friendly and kind of a show themselves.) Just like the interviewees all said, it was a mesmerizing and indelible experience. The lights, the billboards, the theater marquees, the hokum (the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum!), the crowds—and that Camel sign with the smoke rings! (I always wondered how it did that.) It just wasn't quite Real. The Great White Way—you could tell why they called it that. In the '50s it hadn't gotten sleazy and dangerous yet, and it was like a bizarro Disneyland. The experience of seeing it for the first (and second and third) time at that age—I wasn’t 10 when I first went to Times Square with my parents or my grandparents—is hard to forget. In fact, it’s the kind of image that’s been immortalized many times, once, appropriately enough, in the “Times Square Ballet” from a Broadway musical from that legendary era, Comden and Green’s On the Town (1944). Frank Rich, a native Washingtonian like me (and about the same age, too), described what he called “that ecstatic baptism, that first glimpse of Broadway lights, of every Broadway theatergoer's youth” in an old review of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway:

For any child who ever fell in love with the Broadway musical, there was always that incredible moment of looking up to see the bright marquees of Times Square for the first time.

The moment occurs as Mr. Robbins's show ends. The three World War II sailors of ''On the Town,'' winding down from their dizzy 24-hour pass through the pleasures of New York, New York, come upon a dazzling, crowded skyscape of twinkling signs heralding the smash musicals Mr. Robbins staged between 1944 and his withdrawal from Broadway in 1964. Some of the theaters (the Adelphi, the New Century) are gone now; some of the shows are forgotten. But the awe that seizes those innocent young sailors of 1944 overwhelms the jaded Broadway audience of 1989, too . . . .

Like many of the theater greats in McKay’s documentary, I saw my first theater in my home town. Washington happened to be a minor stop on the pre-Broadway circuit—not New Haven or Philly, but we got some try-outs—and a major stop on the post-Broadway tour. Before the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, Broadway shows played at the National, originally built in 1834 (the current building dates to 1885). (Ford's Theatre, which operates today as a booking house, was just a museum and historic site in my childhood; it didn't operate as a theater for over 100 years after Lincoln's assassination.) We also had some other theater, including visits by the D'Oyly Carte company and the American Savoyards (as I admitted, I loved G&S in those days) and we went to summer stock shows just like the ones the actors described in The Golden Age. I even saw Mary Martin and John Raitt do Annie Get Your Gun at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis one summer. (We almost always went there at least once during the summer back in the '50s. I still remember being astonished at a production of The Wizard of Oz there when, after a tornado generated by the techies, the lights came back up—and there was Dorothy's house on stage, on top of the Wicked Witch, her legs sticking out from under one side! It was impossible! How did that house get there? It was magic!) Then I saw my first shows on Broadway when I was about 10.

I was lucky enough to catch the end of what McKay called the Golden Age. I say that not so much to brag, but out of amazement that I saw some of it before it disappeared. The interviewees in the documentary all named some of the performances they saw that stayed with them or influenced their own later work. Almost all of them named Laurette Taylor’s 1945 turn as Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie, then they went on to list other seminal performances: Ethel Waters in Mamba's Daughters (1939); Marlon Brando in Truckline Café (1946), Candida (1946), and Streetcar (1947); Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding (1950); Kim Stanley in Bus Stop (1955) and A Far Country (1961); Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird (1959); and James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1968). Most of those were well before my time (except GWH), but I had a list of my own: the best individual performances I’d seen. Jones’s Jack Jefferson was on it; so was Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which I saw at the National where it premièred in 1962), Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity (1966), Stacy Keach in Indians (which I saw at Arena in D.C. where it began in 1969), Alec McCowen in Hadrian VII (1969), Ben Vereen in Pippin (1972), Virginia Capers in Raisin (1973), Jim Dale in Scapino! (1974), Henry Fonda in Clarence Darrow (1974), Anthony Hopkins in Equus (1974), Donald Sinden in London Assurance (1974), Meryl Streep in A Memory of Two Mondays/27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1976), Cronyn and Tandy together in The Gin Game (1977), and Pat Carroll in Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein (1979). (I don’t keep the list anymore—it was only in my head anyway—but I’ve seen two or three recent performances that I’d add if I did.) In The Golden Age, when Tony Roberts, I believe, described the time he saw James Earl Jones in GWH, he was describing my own experience at that show. (I also saw GWH at the Arena, where it originated, before it transferred to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre—now the Neil Simon.) I was flabbergasted.

I also had favorite actors whose stage work I just liked a lot, even if they didn’t fit on my List of Greats. I first saw Jerry Orbach in Carnival! (1961) with Anna Maria Alberghetti and he became a special favorite of mine. (Later, when I trained to become an actor, I often used the songs he sang in his shows in my voice classes.) Also in that cast was another favorite of mine: Kaye Ballard, who sang the maddest love song on any Broadway stage: “Always Always You.” Her character was a magician’s assistant and she sang of her devotion to him while in a box into which Marco the Magnificent was thrusting swords! An image like that tends to stick with you. Other favorites included Kay Medford, Stubby Kaye, and Howard da Silva—I tended to go for the character actors, it seems. They all had personalities that shone through in all their appearances and there are lines I can still hear them saying, like Kay Medford: “Don’t worry about the coat. Three mink stoles you’ll have when the train pulls out.” (That’s from 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie in which she played Albert Peterson’s mother, Mae. She was lying across railroad tracks at the time.)

I’ve seen some good and even great revivals, and the later actors offered terrific performances which I enjoyed, but like that MFL upstate, the originals I saw when I was little are permanently engraved in my memory. In a recent column, Times reviewer Charles Isherwood wrote, “You cherish some performances so strongly that you may not want to let any other memories get in the way,” but that hasn’t been my problem. I welcome new interpretations that may stand alongside my old memories—but those oldies will always remain the bellwether, though not a barricade. In 2004, I saw the revival of Camelot presented by Arena Stage. This production was more than creditable overall—there were even some neat casting and costuming coups—but I had the misfortune of having seen the real, true original in ’60 with Andrews, Burton, Goulet, and McDowall. Nothing can ever really compare to that no matter who does it, especially since I was still a kid—that impression of the big, Broadway show, with all those stars and that story (I had loved The Once and Future King), is absolutely ineradicable. I can't hear those songs without hearing the original voices. The same’s always so for MFL, Sound of Music, Music Man, and all the Golden Oldies that I got to see. (Cyril Ritchard is the voice I hear for Captain Hook, too, but I only saw the Mary Martin Peter Pan on TV when I was almost 14.) I also saw many plays in which the whole cast formed a remarkable ensemble (Hair, Moonchildren), and others in which the stand-out artists were the playwright (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Six Degrees of Separation) or the director (The Wiz, The Black Rider); I remember those vividly, but never kept even a mental list of them.

During the week of 16 August this year, PBS broadcast the current, Tony Award‑winning revival of South Pacific on Live From Lincoln Center. Needless to say, I made a point of catching it. (I’d never seen this classic musical on stage until 2003 when I saw a production at Arena’s Fichandler Stage.) Now, I can't be very critical about those classic musicals—I love them too much from my childhood. They're like theatrical comfort food to me—I hardly see any faults. During an intermission interview with the daughters of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Alda, the evening’s host, admitted, “I’ve seen this production three times. I blubber every time, as soon as the orchestra starts . . . the overture.” Well, me too! As soon as the musicians sound their first note, I become just “as corny as Kansas in August.” There’s no help for me. Then in a conversation with director Bartlett Sherr and Lincoln Center Theatre artistic director Andre Gregory, Alda also remarked, “As beautiful as this is on the screen, to be in the room with them” is better. I know that’s true, but watching this show alone in my living room allowed me to indulge my almost uncontrollable impulse to sing along—something the Arena expressly admonished us not to do there, "no matter how hard you find it to resist”! This is one of the scores I learned from my dad’s cast albums (not from the 1958 film, which I didn’t see until some time later), so I was surprised to see that I still remembered most of the lyrics. Oh, I can’t carry the tunes anymore, especially the women’s songs—unlike when I was a boy soprano and could actually sing—but there I sat, croaking along with the women’s parts, the men’s parts, the leading roles, the character roles, the solos, the duets, the ensemble numbers. It made no difference—I was a one-man backers’ audition!

I often feel that some musicals are nearly perfect for what they are. I think South Pacific fits that description. Nothing seems artificial, the plot and book all fits without seeming forced or contrived, the dialogue is the right texture for the material (Fiddler is sentimental and poignant, How To is brassy and slangy), the songs all come out of the story and advance the drama one way or another, the lyrics are all suited both to the music and the moment. Everything just belongs. MFL was one of those, and WSS. Naturally, the Golden Oldies were, too. That’s why they’re classics. Of course, SoPac isn't just a classic musical, it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (which also won a Pulitzer), his memoir of Navy service in the New Hebrides during World War II, the play and its music show humans in conflict, not just war but other, inner tensions. One of these is prejudice and bigotry, a malady from which even the play’s heroine, Nellie Forbush, suffers. When I taught a 9th-grade English class one year and we read Raisin in the Sun, I wanted to talk some about the underlying theme, racism, and the Langston Hughes lines that gave the play its title: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” I brought to class a recording of “You’ve Got To Be Taught”; I figured my 15-year-old students wouldn’t be likely to have heard it before. They hadn’t, and the discussion, as much as I could coax 9th-graders to have one, was one of the best I had in that class. The idea that prejudice is learned not congenital was revelatory. That was in the late ‘80s. SoPac still had something to say almost 40 years after it premièred!

I started seeing non-musicals around high school (not including Shakespeare, a few productions of whose plays I saw as a child). The high school I went to before I went to Europe did the usual kind of school theater, but it was the beginning of my introduction to serious drama. We did Billy Budd and O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, which I suppose was pretty adventurous for a prep school in the early ‘60s. Off-Broadway didn't come until college—the 1969 Negro Ensemble Company production of Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men at the St. Marks Playhouse in the East Village was my first Off-Broadway drama. (That was my first non-musical OB experience. Ten years earlier, my family went to the Orpheum Theatre on 2nd Avenue to see Little Mary Sunshine, Rick Besoyan’s delightful send-up of old-time operettas.) I’ve mentioned before that the university theater at Washington and Lee was an education for me (“Disappearing Theater,” 19 July), starting with Godot and moving on to Marat/Sade, America Hurrah, Pinter, Ionesco, Boris Vian, Euripides, and of course more Shakespeare. I still loved the old musicals—and the new ones; I saw Hair first in London then again in New York in 1969—but I stopped being wholly devoted to the musical once I got impelled into the wider world of theater. The wonderful thing about theater is that it keeps evolving and growing. That’s true of any art, of course, but theater is the one I know best and love most. I love seeing new ideas of what theater is or can be, experiments with the form. Even if they don’t work, they open up new paths. I didn’t take to Performance Art, or the Happening before that, but I was excited to see what they left for theater artists to take up, adopt, and adapt.

I suppose I’ve gone the long way around my point, but for me, it all began with the musical. If David Kamp has seen a true phenomenon and there are 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old boys and girls out there who are waiting outside the theater entrances for the doors to open on Rent, or American Idiot, or Hair, or Lion King, and they can’t wait till the next musical play opens, whether it’s Spider-Man, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or Unchain My Heart—well, I couldn’t be happier. The love of musical theater can lead to a more encompassing love of theater, and nothing could be better than that short of world peace! After all, that’s how it started for me because . . . I was a Broadway Baby.

17 September 2010

Top Secret America

When Washington Post writers Dana Priest and William Arkin published their three-part series on the U.S. intelligence-gathering complex (“Top Secret America,” 19-21 July), I happened to be in Washington visiting my mother. I read the articles with great interest, not just because the investigation covers a vital part of our country’s security—that would certainly be enough to interest most Americans—but because I had some little experience with that world. ROT readers will know, if they’ve read a few of my earlier articles, that I spent my Army service as a Military Intelligence officer and that I was stationed in West Berlin in the early 1970s as a counterintelligence agent. (See “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July 2009; and “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009. There’s also passing mention of this episode in “Spook Museum,” 25 March 2010.) Now, let me state up front that I was engaged in intelligence at just about the lowest level there is, in a very limited corner of the field, for a very short time over 35 years ago. Nonetheless, I saw some of the same problems, albeit in microcosm, that Priest, national intelligence reporter, and Arkin, national security reporter, uncovered in their two-year investigation. I even spoke to my Berlin Station colleagues about what I thought I was observing, but there wasn’t much we could do. First, the situation had existed (and proliferated) for a very long time and was pretty well entrenched and, second, we were all just lieutenants and no one would pay much attention to our observations, or even appreciate hearing them. So, aside from the habitual griping of soldiers that’s part of the culture, this will be the first time I’ve voiced my observations and assessments.

Let me state at the outset that I’m not going to comment on either the Post reports or its investigation. I don’t have the access or sources to make a judgment, even if that was what I wanted to do. I’ll say that I have little doubt that the reports are fundamentally accurate and that the consequences are serious. But I’m not in a position to evaluate the work Priest and Arkin have done nor do I feel compelled to argue with them or support them here. I’m also not going to offer any solutions because I don’t have the expertise to do so. I found, however, that while I was reading the published articles in July, I flashed back on observations I’d made in the ‘70s that parallel or intersect what the Post journalists have written. Even though my experience was long ago and brief, I believe what I saw and felt was valid then and is still valid now. Put it this way: if li’l ol’ me saw these issues from my limited vantage point so long before the U.S. intelligence structure ballooned as Priest and Arkin demonstrate, then something inherent and systemic has probably been amiss for quite a while. I doubt Priest and Arkin need validation for their revelations, and surely not from me, but my experience does serve to ratify some of what they report from what you might call the ground level.

What I don’t have any experience with is the recent practice of contracting out intelligence work to private security firms. First of all, such companies didn’t exist to any degree in my Army days; second, the military and other government agencies like the FBI or the CIA wouldn’t have considered using non-sworn agents to perform their tasks because they wouldn’t have been considered trustworthy or secure. (As far as I can see, they’re still not, but the climate has changed—and so has the demand, I expect.) Within the military, there was still a draft until 1973, so there was always a ready supply of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen to fill the needs of most military duties, including intelligence and security. Many of us who weren’t actually drafted took reserve commissions in college or enlisted ahead of the Selective Service notification in order to gain some control of our military destinies, and this drew a large number of educated and intelligent young men (women, not being subject to the draft, weren’t compelled to sign up for the same reasons) into the service, making them eligible for higher-level duties such as intelligence. That’s how I ended up in Military Intelligence: I was an ROTC cadet in college because I knew I’d be draft bait as soon as I graduated. Many of my NCO and enlisted colleagues in Berlin had educations at least as good as my own, and several of them surpassed my mere bachelor’s degree. (One sergeant, our liaison with the Berlin police, had two master’s degrees and another, an agent in my section, was Phi Bet. These NCO’s, both of whom spoke German, were my subordinates.)

The closest to outside contractors I saw were the German legmen (that’s what they were called—because they did the legwork) who worked in our unit. They functioned as translators and interviewers for German-speaking sources and they were vetted as carefully (and as regularly) as U.S. personnel; furthermore, most had worked for MI since the occupation and knew more about our mission and responsibilities than any of us temporary agents who rotated in and out every 18-to-36 months. Of course, they were hardly mercenaries: I don’t imagine the job paid all that much—they were, after all, working for the Department of the Army, not Northrop Grumman or General Dynamics—and men of their abilities could certainly have found high-paying private-sector work in West Germany, by the ‘70s a very prosperous western democracy. Our legmen were working out of conviction and self-interest: Berlin Station’s sole purpose in the Cold War was to protect the West from hostile actions by the Warsaw Pact, and West Germany and West Berlin had more to lose in the event of hostilities than the U.S. did. Still, the legmen, who were as trustworthy and responsible as any colleagues I served with—not to mention knowledgeable and informative—were not entrusted with Top Secret material or the most sensitive information with which Berlin Station worked.

Of the other main points reported by Priest and Arkin (and subsequently discussed by others as on PBS’s NewsHour), however, I had a glimpse back in the dark days of the Cold War in my little corner of the intelligence world, my peephole on Top Secret America.

Even though the intelligence apparatus of the United States has swelled since the 9/11 attacks—not counting the almost 2,000 private companies the Washington Post’s report identifies, there are now over 1,200 government agencies working in some aspect of intelligence, according to Priest and Arkin—the history of the intelligence network in the U.S. is one of proliferation and organizational sprawl. Part of my intel schooling included a survey history of the field, and the very fact that Military Intelligence Branch, the division of the Army in which I was commissioned, had only just become a separate branch of the Army is suggestive of how the field was already growing. (Intelligence had previously been a duty, but not a permanent assignment. My father, for instance, had been detailed to the Counterintelligence Corps—known as the CIC, MI’s predecessor—in Germany after VE Day—but he was still an artillery officer. I, on the other hand, was a Military Intel officer and wore MI brass for my whole tour of active duty.)

That’s how it was from the earliest days of the U.S. military: until the 1940s, intel work was a part-time assignment for people whose skills and expertise were needed. During World War II, the most sophisticated military operation in history up till then, the need for people with special training and knowledge, especially of the languages spoken by the enemy and in the Axis-occupied countries, made it necessary to establish organizations to conduct espionage and counterintelligence. The CIC was formed by the Army for military intelligence and the civilian counterpart was the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. After the war, when the West was faced with a threat from our former ally the Soviet Union, which had occupied the eastern half of Europe when Germany surrendered, the OSS was reorganized as the Central Intelligence Agency (1947). The armed forces still maintained their own intelligence-gathering and security operations because they needed immediate access to information for use in the field. Even so, the Army didn’t establish a separate Military Intelligence Branch until 1967 (two years before I entered active duty). The Navy and Air Force equivalents are older, but both of them also originally handled criminal investigations as well as intelligence and security operations. (Criminal investigation in the Army is conducted by the CID, the detective division of the MP’s.) The newly-formed CIA was to be a clearing house, a collection point, for useful information gathered by the military agencies and the FBI (formed in 1908) as well as Foreign Service personnel and others working overseas so that it could be distributed efficiently to the service that needed it. Its original mission was not intelligence-gathering, but the Cold War pressures, the increase in U.S. interests beyond our own borders (where the FBI was not allowed to operate), and the effect of what is now known as “mission creep” soon turned the relatively benign task of the CIA into positive intelligence and security efforts—and the image of “The Company,” as it became known in popular lore in the ‘60s, was born.

(The now-famous NCIS—Naval Criminal Investigative Service—was originally known as the Naval Investigative Service from 1952 until ’92; it was initially part of the Office of Naval Intelligence, established in 1882. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was established in 1948—the year after the Air Force separated from the Army to become an independent service—and still handles both kinds of investigations and operations. Berlin not having a coastline, I never dealt with NIS, but since Tempelhof Airport was also an important USAFE base, I worked often with OSI agents.)

The CIA having moved into active intelligence work, a new compilation and administrative center was needed to fulfill the agency’s former mission. The National Security Agency, which was originally tasked with overseeing the safety of the country’s growing communications network—already vast (and vulnerable) even before the advent of the Internet and cell phones—was established in 1952 and quickly became the super-secret intelligence giant it is now. In 1961, Congress established the Defense Intelligence Agency to act as the overall administration for information gathered by other agencies, the precise mission for which the CIA had originally been formed. It wasn’t long before mission creep developed again, and DIA became the less-well-known sibling of the CIA and NSA. Finally (and I’m outlining this history pretty superficially), in the 21st century, immediately following the terror attacks on 11 September 2001 and growing out of the fear and sense of vulnerability generated by them, came the Department of Homeland Security, formed by Congress in 2002, and the cabinet-level Director of National Intelligence, appointed in 2005. DHS absorbed many of the law-enforcement agencies that had previously been distributed among other departments and immediately became an intelligence-gathering and security organization because it was the parent department of numerous intelligence and counterintelligence agencies. The ODNI was the new clearing house, supposedly the center for accumulating information amassed by the constituent agencies under its control. It’s not supposed to be out getting information itself—but, then, neither was the CIA, the NSA, or the DIA before it. DHS already has a reputation for acting as a sort of super-FBI; who knows if the ODNI, which Priest and Arkin affirm began in a small office of 11 employees and now occupies its own building housing about 1,500 personnel, will be able to resist the same mission creep and penis-envy that propelled its predecessors into competition with the existing intelligence-gathering agencies?

One symptom of Potomac Fever is the compulsion to have, in a bigger and better form, anything that your neighbor, competitor, or rival has. “You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have” all the toys, pronounced one insider. As a three-star general interviewed for the Post articles offered of personal security details, “’If [another general] has one, then I have to have one.’ It’s become a status symbol.” If she has a limo, I should have a longer and better-equipped limo. If he’s got an armored SUV, I should have a faster, more hardened armored SUV. If they’ve got an intelligence-gathering capability, I must have a larger, wider-ranging intelligence-gathering capability. As a contractor who builds secure, bug-proof rooms, another status symbol, put it, “They’ve got the penis-envy thing going.” When I was in MI, some of the officers I served with went to work for State Department Security after the Army. When that office was started, its responsibility was no more than the name implies—the safety and security of State Department personnel, a sort of Secret Service for U.S. diplomats and State Department officials. (The embassies themselves are famously protected by Marines.) Not anymore! My Army colleagues weren’t bodyguards; they were counterintel agents. (It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that officers from our sister unit, the positive intel MI station next door to Berlin Station, also got jobs at State Department Security—and they weren’t counterintel officers like my colleagues and me.)

There are different kinds of mission creep. In some instances, an existing collection agency takes on a wider area of concern in a kind of “coverage creep.” Little by little, the agency expands what it investigates, usually because at each turn, something develops beyond the original boundaries that the director deems important to the agency’s task. Often this happens without anyone really noticing until what was once a narrow operation has become something all-encompassing. Another form is “concept creep” (these are my own terms), where an agency redefines its responsibilities the way the original CIA and DIA did after they were established. While this can happen imperceptibly, it’s more likely to develop with malice of forethought because an ambitious agency director wants a larger role and sphere of influence. In either case, mission creep is a form of entropy, built into the system. I suspect it’s built into human nature—at least into the nature of homo gubernationis. If it was the case when I was engaged in my little corner of the intel biz, it can’t but be a greater force now, can it? And, of course, Priest and Arkin found that it’s operating as strongly as ever!

The expansion of the U.S. intelligence enterprise alone isn’t so much of a problem, of course. Mostly it would just mean more public employees creating more paperwork for other public employees to file away. Priest and Arkin explain that the paperwork has grown exponentially, of course, now amounting to some 50,000 reports a year—more than anyone can read much less absorb. The mushrooming of the intelligence bureaucracy, the authors point out, also means laying on hoards of new agents, operatives, and analysts, many right out of civilian schools and agency training. I know what that’s like, of course, since I arrived in Berlin after 18 months of Army schools (which followed immediately upon four years at a liberal arts college), but Berlin Station was small and new agents were surrounded by more experienced ones, including civilians who’d been there for years, some even since the Occupation; we were tutored and mentored and then supervised as we learned what the training programs couldn’t teach us. (My first unofficial mentor, the experienced agent who invited me to shadow her for several cases, was the station’s only female agent, an NCO who’d been at Berlin Station for several years and an active MI special agent for longer than that. My immediate superior, the SAIC of the section to which I was first assigned, was a captain at the end of his tour whose position I would eventually take over.)

Other problems occur, however, when all those agents and analysts focus on the same targets. Now, it may sometimes seem as if we’re surrounded by enemies and adversaries, but the truth is that our real enemies have always been relatively limited. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was pretty much Germany, Italy, and Japan; in the ‘50s through the ‘90s, it was the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the PRC, and some proxies like Cuba, North Vietnam, and North Korea. In the 21st century, our targets are spread around the globe, but they’re still limited: the nations in and near which we have troops in combat: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan; adversaries like North Korea and Iran: and stateless Islamist militants like Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their clones. Of course, we still keep an eye on the PRC and Cuba and trouble spots like Somalia and Yemen, but for the most part, our list of objectives (not counting market rivals, of course) is still short.

So what happens when those hundreds of agencies and hundreds of thousands of intel workers (almost a million just with TS clearances, according to Priest and Arkin’s tally) focus their efforts on that short list? Duplication of effort—exactly what the Post report reveals. Of course, not all overlap is bad. Think of a military defense position where the commander places his riflemen and machine guns so that their fields of fire overlap. This prevents gaps in the coverage which would leave parts of the position unprotected. It works the same in intel ops: a little duplication allows one agency to cover the oversights of another, to pick of the occasional dropped ball so that our defense grid doesn’t have holes in it. Further, as Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, said: “Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers.” It’s like two medical specialists examining the same patient, even looking at the same organs and cavities. They’re looking for different purposes because they need different information. Even just among the armed services, the Navy, Army, and Air Force all need different kinds of intel about the same target, sometimes even from the same source, because they each use it differently. As I noted earlier, I was in Berlin with an Army intel unit while just across town at Tempelhof A.F.B. was an OSI detachment doing pretty much the same work we were doing—and some of what we did certainly overlapped because part of both our missions was to protect the U.S. forces in Berlin; but our general missions were to provide information that was useful in preparing our services to protect NATO’s eastern front from an attack by Warsaw Pact forces. My unit and our sister Army unit next door were focused on ground forces and their needs; OSI was looking for information pertinent to air combat and defense against a Soviet air attack. Of course we covered the same territory—we’d have been fools if we didn’t.

The United States intelligence community is huge, there’s no doubt of that. We’re a big country with far-flung interests and, consequently, exposure. The job is just too complex, with too many specialized aspects, for a single agency to cover all the aspects of intelligence-gathering and security. Some duplication comes from the work of narrow-based agencies with specific tasks and areas of responsibility, such as BATF, the Treasury Department, the Secret Service, DEA, ICE, TSA, and even the U.S. Postal Inspection Services. Each of these agencies, just to name a few, has a narrowly defined mission which may nevertheless dovetail with more general intelligence organizations like the military services or the FBI, but the special expertise and knowledge of their agents make them necessary—though the danger that these agencies may expand their efforts into less limited fields is always present.

The problem with duplication of effort, of course, comes when the redundancy is real, especially when it’s persistent and widespread. The Post investigation found that this was abundant—and from my own narrow experience I can attest to the fact that it certainly was 35 years ago. The wasteful kind of redundancy has several causes, and I don’t have the expertise to quantify them in terms of which are the most responsible for duplicated effort. I can list the causes I observed, however, in no order of seriousness. First is non-communication—one agency not talking to another. We know this is still a serious problem because it was the topic of debate in Congress and the press right after 9/11: the different agencies charged with watching suspected terrorists who might be targeting the U.S. homeland didn’t share information. (It happened again in the case of the would-be Detroit underwear bomber.) If agencies don’t tell each other what they’re working on and what they’ve learned, it’s obviously going to lead to agencies’ investigating the same target and digging out the same information. I saw it happen more than once in Berlin; it was habitual.

When you’re dealing with intel ops, most of what you do is highly classified. People who work with Secret and Top Secret information—and believe me, that was our stock-in-trade—tend to be protective. We tended not to share information with others unless they needed to know it. That makes sense, of course, given what we did, but the difficulty comes in determining who needs to know what. It’s easier and safer to share with fewer rather than more outsiders. This inevitably leads to non-communication. Now, some organizations are more closed-mouthed than others, and circumstances also vary their openness. With our sister unit, the positive intel unit that was our opposite number, so to say, we shared quite a lot pretty freely. After all, they weren’t only another Army intel unit, but we were both units of 66th MI Group—like two platoons of the same company. (It was kind of funny, in a comedy-of-the-absurd sense, because we were an overt unit—brass name plate by the door, published contact phone number—but our counterpart was covert. When we exchanged information, an agent from one unit met an agent from the other in the basement where there was a gate made of an iron grid between the two offices and we spoke or passed documents through the metal slats.)

Not everyone got the same degree of openness, of course, but we were freer than the CIA by a long shot. They did not play well with others. First of all, they used higher classifications than we did for the same information, which restricted access to anything they developed much more tightly than the same kind of information if we’d developed it. I know of at least a couple of instances when we provided them with reports from investigations we’d conducted and later I saw that they’d reclassified the same documents at least one level higher without making any changes. Apparently, the very fact that the CIA had laid their hands on the papers meant they were now more sensitive than they had been previously. (To be fair, the CIA wasn’t supposed to be in Berlin—it was part of the Occupation Agreement which also restricted the U.S. to a brigade of forces—so their presence was clandestine. That would explain why a document they had generated in Berlin might need to be classified more highly than the information itself might demand, since they weren’t supposed to be there to write any reports; but they treated documents we’d written—that I’d written myself—as if their very fingerprints warranted an increase in classification.) But beyond their higher classification, The Company was just less forthcoming as a practice than other intel agencies. (They were more than willing to take, of course.)

What the CIA engaged in was the tip of another iceberg that foiled info-sharing: overclassification. When I arrived in Berlin, there was already a DOD program underway to reduce overclassification. It was the second such effort of which I was aware, another one having been instituted while I was still back in the States. New regs were issued to keep unit commanders like mine from stamping everything TS because it was easier and seemed safer, no matter what was in the papers. No matter what the new regs for classification were, though, they were always given empty compliance—the form was observed but not the content—and everyone went on the way we had before. It’s not that there weren’t rules governing the level of classification a given document should get; it’s just that each hand through which a document passed raised the level a notch, just to be safe, and something that started out as unclassified would end up TS by the time it was filed away. The higher the classification, of course, the less accessible the reports would be for anyone else who might want to use the information in them. Restricted access was another form of non-communication: ‘We’d like to tell you, but you’re not cleared for this info.’

Overclassification, the Post report emphasizes, can be used to “protect ineffective projects.” It can also be used to protect people and units from embarrassment. That’s patently contrary to regulations—classification is a security measure, not a damage-control tactic—but it provides an impetus for overusing the TS stamp. The rule of thumb for classification is that a document should not be classified higher than the highest rating of any element in it. So if the highest classification for info in a report is Secret, the new document shouldn’t be rated higher than Secret. (Only rarely does the cumulative effect of compiled info justify raising the classification of a document.) That’s why the CIA’s practice of raising the classification of info we passed along was arbitrary and probably inappropriate.

I once started an investigation that turned out to center on the Deputy Provost Marshal of Berlin Brigade, the equivalent of the deputy chief of police. After I identified the subject and saw that the case was about a violation of Army regs and not security, I recommended that the case be turned over to the Provost Marshal’s Office (military police HQ) for action. (It was coincidental that the subject of the investigation was a high-ranking MP officer; the PMO was responsible for those kinds of violations.) I wrote up my findings and sent out the report marked “For Official Use Only”—the status of most non-classified info. When the PM found out that I’d sent it FOUO, however, he was furious. I’d sent potentially embarrassing information about a senior officer through Brigade distribution in an unclassified form. I pointed out that regulations had dictated that the info be unclassified and that classification wasn’t authorized to prevent embarrassment—and my CO affirmed not only that I had done what he’d instructed, but that I had been right under the regs not to classify the report. But you can see how hard it was for someone to abide by the restrictions. Abuse, as Priest and Arkin assert, leads to massive overclassification.

On top of the common classifications—Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret—which every organization uses, each agency, even sometimes offices or teams within an agency, have Special Access Programs which further restrict information to specially designated people, walling off operations and projects from colleagues in the next room or even at the next desk. The Post specifies some of these SAP’s create serious tensions because an officer might be working on one which even his superior can’t know about. I never saw any of that at my level, but we were often constrained from discussing ops with our fellow agents from another section. I had special clearances so far above TS I didn’t know what many of them meant. My clearances had so many acronyms and initials, I couldn’t remember them all and in some cases, the acronym itself was classified! That kind of super-secrecy, however necessary it may be, can’t help but generate non-communication and, thus, duplication of effort and redundancy.

A further repercussion of all this concealment and the “need to know” restrictions is that some ops that should have ended are still running. “Like a zombie,” one of the Post sources described such an operation, “it keeps on living.” When I became OIC of one of Berlin Station’s sections, I inherited several zombie cases that had been dormant and unproductive for months or even years. After reviewing my zombie cases and determining that none held any real current interest, I closed them all. I could do that, of course, because Berlin Station was small and I could just walk up to the Ops Office and say, “Close these cases,” and the OO’d say, “Good idea,” and it was done. You can imagine, however, in today’s huge agencies how much unnecessary effort ops that were supposed to have been terminated but weren’t can cost, not to mention the money and wasted human resources.

Another cause of non-communication is straight-out agency rivalry. My experience in Berlin suggested that the CIA didn’t share information because it just didn’t want to. The rest of us just weren’t good enough to play in their sandbox. It was a little like the sentiment expressed by comedian Chevy Chase in the early days of Saturday Night Live: ‘We’re the CIA . . . and you’re not!’ Other organizations behaved the same way—and all of them could do so if unchecked. Sometimes this attitude is prompted by the desire to retain the credit for an operation for your own agency, sometimes to keep another agency from encroaching on your territory, and sometimes it occurs because funding appropriations and budget share depend on demonstrating how much work your agency does and how many operations you have running. Furthermore, some funding is withdrawn in the coming fiscal year if an agency doesn’t spend all it received in the previous cycle. No agency or department head wants to give up funds or authority by relinquishing ops or personnel. "Sometimes,” said a former counsel to the DNI, “there was an unfortunate attitude of bring your knives, your guns, your fists and be fully prepared to defend your turf." The system, in other words, can generate a sense of turf warfare and the agency heads know how to game the system to guard their territory. The New York Times reports that former DNI Dennis Blair complained that the CIA did “end runs around his office to advance its agenda” and the Post confirms that The Company had raised the classification of some information so that ODNI staff couldn’t see it.

The simplest reason for the lack of communication and info-sharing, though often the hardest to combat, is the lack of coordination between agencies—something the 9/11 Commission especially singled out for remedy. It’s not necessarily venality or rivalry that causes this, it’s just the lack of communication protocols and standard procedures between one agency and another. That little scenario I described before, an agent from Berlin Station going down to the basement of our building and meeting an agent from next door at the gate, was our ad hoc inter-unit comm routine because no more formal method had ever been established—and we were sister units of the same military command. This difficulty has been exacerbated today by technology. We didn’t have many comm systems to use: paper, telephones, TWX’s, radios (mostly for field commo); everything was relatively simple and it was all compatible. Today, with the advent of cell phones, various forms of computer commo, and other sophisticated technology, an additional problem has blossomed that has made inter-agency communication hard and even sometimes impossible: incompatible tech. Agencies on different IT systems can’t share information because their systems can’t talk to one another. Priest and Arkin report that even the lowest level communication, such as e-mail, between one office and another is a victory.

Dana Priest asserted in an interview on PBS after the first article came out that the problems with redundancy, lack of communication, and lack of both budgetary and operational oversight developed—or increased substantially—when the intelligence bureaucracy exploded after 9/11. (The Post report identified more deficiencies in the system than I’ve addressed. As I said at the beginning, I’ve discussed only the ones whose embryonic antecedents I saw when I was working in this field.) Clearly, the immense expansion since the terrorist assault has provided many more opportunities for inefficiency of all kinds, but my experience suggests, at least, that the seeds for the current dysfunctions Priest and Arkin identify were present 35 years ago (and almost certainly much earlier). If I could see them at the lowest level of the intelligence system, they must have been visible to the men (there were few women in management positions then) who ran the institutions. If Priest and Arkin are right—and I can’t see many grounds to believe they’re not—the probable reason is that no one did anything about it when it was manageable. It didn’t just burst forth full blown like Athena from Zeus’s head; it started small somewhere and could have been squashed before it grew. Robert Gates, Secretary of State, and James Clapper, newly confirmed DNI, have both declared that they plan to confront these problems—as had Dennis Blair, Clapper’s predecessor. (At the same time, Clapper has rejected the Post’s conclusions as “breathless” and “shrill.”) Now, however, it’s no longer Athena, but Hydra. Good luck!

12 September 2010

Help! It's August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel

By Helen Kaye

[Helen has been a friend since I directed her in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan back in the ‘70s. Born in Britain, Helen lived in the States for many years before moving to Tel Aviv. We keep in touch regularly and she’s visited New York several times since she made her aliyah. She directs English-language plays in Israel and has written reviews and cultural features for the Jerusalem Post. Helen’s a grandmother, too, so activities and events for children are an interest of hers in both her private and professional lives. She sent me this round-up of children’s performances in and around Tel Aviv this summer and I’m sharing it with ROT readers. ~Rick]

"What are we going to do with the kids?" is a parental refrain country-wide in Israel from the second week in August.

School lets out on June 30 – high school even a bit earlier – so summer vacation in Israel lasts from July 1 to September 1. It's hot, very hot, with never a cooling shower to sluice down the sticky, smelly streets or provide a bit of cool relief to sweltering citizens. If our children revel in two months of freedom, their parents, especially if the children are small and require supervision, are less starry-eyed. Lots less starry-eyed.

True, for some there's a small reprieve.

Where children in the U.S. go to summer camp, children here can attend a kaytana, a made-up Hebrew word that usually denotes a day camp where the children enjoy day-long activities from 8 in the morning until around 4 in the afternoon, when they're collected by their parents, or their grandparents.

But all too soon comes that second week in August when even the most resilient kaytana closes its doors.

Now what?

Ah.

Israel is a very child-oriented country. Children here are mostly cherished – which is why there's such a huge kerfuffle over the government's decision to deport 400 children born in this country to illegal migrant workers.

Back to vacation.

August is host to a puppet festival, a children's theater festival, a dance festival with programs for children; and this year the Israel Opera has debuted an opera mini-season for children on the main stage. The IO presents hour-long children's versions of famous operas all year long in the foyer of the opera house, but this is the first time they've been on the main-stage. There's also Shrek, the Hebrew version of the successful Broadway musical.

Most of these programs are aimed at the younger set because any child above the age of 10 or so is usually very capable of amusing itself. It's not unusual to see children of 10-12 roaming Tel Aviv (which is where I live), late at night; by and large they are perfectly safe.

I'm not going to this year's puppet festival in Jerusalem because my grandson is still too young to deal with both the trip up to the capital, see a show and then return. It's at The Train Theater, so called because its home was, and still is, a railway carriage, and was founded by four originally minded young artists in 1981. The festival showcases the work of Israeli puppeteers and those from abroad. It takes place at the Train which is situated in the Liberty Bell Gardens and at various venues close by. The performances are mostly for the youngsters, but there are shows for youth and adults as well. The Train Theater's website is www.traintheater.co.il

The Suzanne Dallal Center (SD) in Tel Aviv is host to Magical Tales, a three-day festival of plays, puppetry and dance. This year it includes a musical version of The Wizard of Oz by veteran puppeteer Eric Smith and his long-term collaborator, the actor Yossi Graber.

Mr. Smith, who came to Israel from his native South Africa in 1967, established his puppet theater in 1972, and has taught his craft to generations of local puppeteers. His beautifully costumed, near life-size puppets have enchanted generations of kids. They sure enchanted my grandson and his mother. She said the show was wonderful.

SD, Israel's top dance center, is home base for the Orna Porat Children and Youth Theater, named for its founder. Already a star of local theater, Ms. Porat decided that children also deserved quality theater, and so in 1970 she established the Children and Youth Theater. Its audience is drawn from pre-school to high school, and while never drearily didactic, its repertoire carries a message.

At this year's Magical Tales OPCYT presents Something Wonderful Will Happen Here, a movement theater piece, and a dance theater version of Aladdin. I didn't see the first show, but Aladdin, as in the Disney film, carried the message 'be who you are.'

The Israel Opera, whose children's series in the relative intimacy of the foyer works beautifully, chose to transfer to the main stage The Magic Flute and Rossini's Cinderella, and neither made the transfer well. More or less swallowed up by the stage, hampered by unimaginative direction, and too distanced from their audience, both operas produced fidgeting from and boredom among the kids.

The one production that held its young audience spellbound was the premiere of Alice in Wonderland with libretto and script by David Zebba, an Israeli composer and conductor. Here no expense had been spared with the result that set and costumes were colorful, imaginative and witty. The direction was equally colorful, imaginative and witty. Small wonder that the children were captivated.

The second week in August I took my grandson to Shrek. It was given at the Mann Auditorium which is the home of the Israel Philharmonic and configured acoustically to orchestral playing. Nothing daunted, the Shrek producers had created an apron stage so that some of the action took place literally among the excited children.

Overall this Shrek lacked the snap and crackle of a Broadway production, but the kids, fortified by popcorn, pretzels and other goodies, loved it, my grandson among them. As we walked back out into the blistering afternoon, he said it was wonderful!!

At Magical Tales in the third week of August we walked to our shows through a gauntlet of vendors selling balloons, toys and the usual variety of glittery tchotchkes (A Yiddish portmanteau word for 'all kinds of forgettable trifles’), into the theater. As I mentioned, my grandson loved The Wizard of Oz, was polite about the tediously cute though beautifully costumed Aladdin and enthusiastic about poet Leah Goldberg's gentle A Tale of Three Nuts, another OPCYT show. This one is about the enduring value of kindness.

On Wednesday, September 1, my grandson starts school. Today we're going to a movie – there's lots of kid-friendly movies in August too – this one is Space Chimps II. It's his last August treat.

Whew! Farewell summer vacation – until next year!

[Helen has said she’ll try to send me more reports of things Israeli. (ROT may have a “foreign correspondent”!) I hope she can, because the performing arts in Israel is a fascinating mix of art, Mid-East culture, and politics. (Almost anything that happens in Israel or Palestine has or creates a political aspect.) Helen still reviews plays for JP and attends many of the cultural and theater events, including several festivals, that take place in Israel. Along with her directing, she has a great view of the performance culture in an intriguing part of the world.]

07 September 2010

Broadway Angel

By Kirk Woodward

[As my friend Kirk says, I’m “continually on the lookout for unusual aspects of the theatrical experience,” so when I heard that he and his wife had invested in a Broadway production, I asked if he’d consider writing about the experience of being a Broadway “angel.” Happily, he agreed and here’s the result: a description of what it’s like to be a small investor in a Broadway musical. This story even has a happy “ending” (it’s not really over, of course) because the show the Woodwards, veteran theater people but first-time angels, put their money into was Memphis, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (as well as a few other categories) at the ceremony on 13 June, justifying the Woodwards’—and everyone else’s—commitment to the production. As the song says, “There’s no business like show business”! ~Rick]

As everyone knows, putting on a Broadway show is incredibly expensive. No matter how you try to contain costs, a Broadway musical will need several million dollars just to get it open, and once it’s playing in New York, it will continue to need pots of money in order to continue to run. Those operating costs are called the “nut,” and anything over the nut, if there is anything, goes toward paying off the show’s investors, hence the observation of my friend Dan Landon, house manager for one of the Shubert theaters, that “One dollar over the nut – it’s a hit!”

That saying is definitely true about a show in terms of how long it runs – under ordinary circumstances, as long as a show makes its nut it can stay on the boards. There are exceptions to this principle. Sometimes, for example, a producer wants to close a show even though it’s making money, perhaps in order to free a theater for a new (and presumably more profitable) show. But in general, as long as you meet your operating expenses, you can keep your show open.

Just because a show runs, however, doesn’t mean its original investors will make their money back. They may not, and of course they know it, or they ought to – most Broadway shows don’t turn out to be profitable, sometimes even at the end of a long run. Jekyll and Hyde is said to have lost its investment – in other words, not paid its investors back anything – even though it ran on Broadway for four years.

Nevertheless people keep investing in Broadway shows, on the principle, to borrow a remark from the playwright George Axelrod (who said it about playwrights), that on Broadway you can’t make a living, but you can make a killing. (Axelrod reversed the order.) I’ve met people who invested in Same Time, Next Year, and more recently in Jersey Boys. They are rolling in kale. And the odds of succeeding on Broadway may be better than the odds of winning the lottery . . . but not all that much better.

Decades ago a producer might put up his or her own money to bankroll a Broadway musical. (As Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II once wrote in the New York Times, "A great many producers 30 or 40 years ago used to invest their own money in their own shows. They all died broke.") Those days are gone forever. Nowadays producers are either corporations – the Shuberts, Disney – or massive lists of, basically, “angels” – people who put up money for a show. When a musical wins a Tony and the producers, a herd of them, come up to the stage to accept the award, most of those people didn’t do anything about producing the show at all, except to produce their wallets at the appointed time.

I write these words as a Broadway investor – a very small-scale investor, and, as you’ll see, not a terribly sensible one, but still . . . . To be precise, I didn’t actually invest in a Broadway show. Instead, I invested in a group of investors. The show is Memphis. It’s a fictionalized version of the beginning of the popularity of rock ’n’ roll, with a major theme of relations between the races. Memphis had four productions before it came to Broadway, at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts; at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, California; at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California; and at the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington.

Obviously a show with so many productions had something to offer – many theaters won’t touch a play that’s not a premiere, but three theaters picked up this one, not counting Broadway. Another way to put the situation is that the show had “buzz,” which is the noise I heard in my ear when at a party I asked a friend who works for a ticket sales agency what shows were stirring up the most advance interest. “There’s Memphis,” he said without hesitation. “I hear it’s great.”

By coincidence, the next week another acquaintance of ours sent around an email asking if anyone was interested in investing in – you guessed it – Memphis. Serendipity! This was the first time my wife, Pat, and I had ever had a chance to invest in a Broadway show of any sort. We discussed the opportunity, and agreed to look at the materials for the show, which at that point was close to beginning previews in New York. The investor group, as I said, was actually a sub-investor, intending to buy a share in the show itself. We would buy, then, a piece of an investment. Our money would be used for an advertising reserve.

Among the many reasons I was interested in becoming a Broadway backer, two stand out. One, of course, was the possibility of making money. It would be lovely to have Broadway provide some disposable income. Another and, I suspect, more important reason was the feeling that we’d be participating in the Broadway world – in a Broadway adventure. For people like us who’ve worked in theater for years, being part of the Broadway community, even in a small way, is a powerful emotional lure.

Obviously due diligence requires careful research on the show, so obviously that’s not what I did. Well, I did to a certain extent – I went on the show’s website, for example, and listened to parts of the score, and I liked it. On the other hand, I didn’t read the script (I don’t remember if it was available), and I didn’t really consider the fact that Memphis had no “big names” or film stars in it. I don’t recommend my procedure to anyone as a best practice. My way of selecting a show to invest in didn’t differ that much from horse players who pick a winner based on its name, and perhaps a tip from the guy at the newsstand. Be warned.

Nevertheless I persuaded Pat that we should make the investment, and we sent in a certain amount of money we weren’t sure we had. Pat made it clear that the responsibility for this decision, about as financially sound an idea as investing in a treasure hunt, lay entirely on my shoulders. But the die was cast, and we sent in our check, joining a mighty throng – the musical’s poster lists thirty-seven producers, both individual and corporate, and that doesn’t even begin to include sub-contributors like us.

We began to receive encouraging emails from our investment coordinator, and finally – glory be – an invitation to both Opening Night and the subsequent cast party. We’ve both been to opening nights before, but never to a Broadway cast party. This was beginning to look good.

The show opened, after previews, at the Shubert Theater on October 19, 2009. We didn’t hire a limo to take us to opening night – we’d spent enough money on the show already – but we did get there early and wandered around, feeling very connected. The show was excellent and well received, as it should have been, considering how many seats must have been filled by investors like ourselves. At intermission I talked with a few people connected with the show, including its producers in Seattle. Nowadays, even though newspaper and TV reviews typically appear following opening night, those reviewers actually see a show at an earlier preview performance rather than at the official opening, so there was no worry about how this particular performance had gone. But it did go well.

Then off to the cast party, at the Hard Rock Café on 42nd Street. You undoubtedly have images of Broadway cast parties, with the breathless entrance of the person who’s snagged the first copy of the New York Times. Alas, there must have been eight hundred people at this cast party, all screaming at the tops of their lungs over a background of rock music, and that breathless entrance wouldn’t have been noticed if the person were carrying a stack of copies of the paper a mile high. That, my friends, is a lot of producers.

We milled around a while, trying not to be suffocated while we looked, fruitlessly, for the table assigned to our investment group, whose name we weren’t sure of anyway. Finally, hunting for breathing room, we located a clearing which happened to be near the press area, and saw the only celebrities we identified the entire evening – the entire lineup of Bon Jovi, whose keyboard player, David Bryan, had written the score (lyrics with Joe DiPietro). The band looked relaxed and happy, and they posed for numerous pictures. We watched this cheerful spectacle for a while, and then we went home.

The next morning we had the excitement of bringing in the New York Times from the lawn and reading our review – and damn it, it wasn’t good at all. We were, what’s the word for it, crushed. Also we felt a lot poorer than we had the night before, our wallets a great deal lighter. I look at several papers in the course of the day, and the other reviews I read were quite good. But the Times is terribly important to the success of a Broadway show, and all in all, October 20, 2009, was not a happy day. In addition, adding insult to injury, several days later my favorite magazine, The New Yorker, didn’t like the show much either.

Well, theater is a matter of continuing ups and downs. A few days later we got a package in the mail, containing the following: a Memphis souvenir worth displaying on the family room mantle; a poster of the show signed by the whole cast; and a letter explaining that, while the Times hadn’t liked the show much, most of the rest of the reviews were terrific, and that a well thought-out and creative advertising campaign (that’s where our money went, remember!) would eliminate the effect of the review in a short time, and the show seemed likely to have an excellent run.

That was almost exactly eight months ago as I write this account, and since that day I haven’t heard a word about how our money is doing, except that for income tax purposes I received a form of about eight pages, which I passed on to our preparer without my understanding a word of it, except that it definitely didn’t say we’d made any money yet.

But there was, of course, one more event worth mentioning. The Tony Awards were presented on Sunday night, June 13, 2010. The Times, true to its nature, had seemed to us to try its hardest to promote Fela for Best Musical, but there are limits even to the power of the Grey Lady. My wife and I were barely even paying attention to the Tony broadcast when the winner was announced. I heard a scream from the next room – that was Pat - and ran in to see on TV – yes – a crowd of producers on stage, yelling like soccer fans and bouncing up and down while their designated spokesperson reported how delighted they all were.

So were we. I was happy, of course, because since I was mostly responsible for our decision to invest in the first place, now we had official ratification that the decision had been a good one. I was also happy because both Pat and I have worked in theater for years, and now we had a Tony! Truly the Lord works in mysterious ways.

I suppose the last paragraph of this piece shouldn’t be written until, months or years or decades from now, we receive a final accounting on our investment. There will be a national tour of Memphis in 2011, I’ve read, and after a while the rights to the show will be made available to amateur groups, who should have quite a good time with it. But in a way, all that is just bookkeeping. We became Broadway investors! We helped a show reach Broadway and stay there, at least for a while! We invested in a show we were proud of! And we got a piece of a Tony Award, even if we’re the only ones who know about it. All in all, not a bad eight months. Theater can always surprise you.