It’s a few short skips up an alley to reach the Elks Theatre from a Rapid City Journal back door.
It’s taken a full half century for a former Journal cub reporter to see her name displayed there on the big screen.
The Elks will present “Official Secrets,” based on Marcia and Tom Mitchell’s 2008 book, “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War,” at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 as part of the Black Hills Film Festival.
Starring Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), Matt Smith (The Crown), Matthew Goode (The Imitation Game) and Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), the story depicts a whistleblower caught up in the intrigues of international diplomacy.
As might be expected, Marcia Mitchell currently finds herself in the full hubbub of international demand, moderating panel discussions in Minneapolis, fielding major interview requests and appearing at universities. The longtime Hill City author is back promoting books, explaining whistleblower laws, and relishing a quick return to the spotlight.
What she can offer is a glimpse into the minds of whistleblowers. People want to know how a battle of conscience can lead someone to break ranks and take down their organization, because conscience motivates a whistleblower.
Spies betray for blackmail, ideology, money or sex. Whistleblowers, rightly or wrongly, believe it was their leader who executed the true betrayal, abusing power, often to promote unacceptable ends.
Mitchell’s writing frequently describes paths leading to such culminating events. You could see it early in her narrative of the 1972 Rapid City flood appearing under the instantly recognizable headline: “Kind of like war isn’t it?”
Command of narrative writing elevated Mitchell’s work in the 1960s journalism era of inverted pyramids.
In the big blind alley of hopeful writers, it opened the path toward books and an international movie.
Can anybody write a press release?
The former Marcia Donnan of San Jose came to Rapid City when her husband took a job here as research meteorologist. At a meeting of the Black Hills Chamber Music Society, a society officer asked if anybody knew how to write a press release. Donnan’s companion pointed at her: She can.
It was a good release, said a Journal features editor, and longtime Journal editor James Kuehn soon called. Donnan, then a charming and stylish young mother with long ‘60s hair parted down the middle, had landed her first professional job.
Talented with a camera as well as narrative, Donnan began accumulating state and national awards. In 1969, Kuehn named her editor of the Journal Women's Department.
At the time, South Dakota was particularly rich in news. The Women’s Movement had arrived, Rapid’s flood commanded international headlines, Sen. George McGovern secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and the American Indian Movement was beginning its Wounded Knee standoff.
Writing awards prepared the way for a launch of Donnan’s first book, “Cosmetics From The Kitchen,” offering household alternatives to department store treasures. The topic was about as far from spy craft as it gets.
National wire services picked up the Journal’s book story — a rare lightning strike for a budding author.
Meanwhile, Donnan had left the paper to join the state’s Manpower Affairs Department, serving as special assistant secretary. In 1974 Gov. Dick Kneip appointed her labor secretary — the first woman to join a South Dakota governor's cabinet.
From there, she used her media and management experience to become a senior executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C.
Donnan’s second book, “Rain Dance to Research: The story of weather control,” coauthored with her husband, John, came out in 1977.
After four years at CPB, she moved west to become associate director of the American Film Institute, making connections with screenwriters and befriending stars who need only last names — Heston, Mitchum, Reagan and Lemmon.
But through it all, she retained her Hill City base — a stone house on 20 acres she and her mother had discovered while searching for antiques in the early 1970s.
A fourth book, “The Spy Who Seduced America,” 2002, began as an argument with Marcia’s late husband Tom Mitchell, a 17-year veteran of the FBI.
The book profiles Judith Coplon, a stylish post-war government girl in snug sweaters who was convicted of helping the Soviet Union. Coplon was an enchanting girl-next-door honors grad from Columbia University, and her trial enraptured national tabloid readers. Some believed the shy, idealistic girl had been wrongfully accused or misled by love.
She was guilty, Tom Mitchell told his wife while spinning the tale. She was framed, Marcia replied.
“We were both right,” Marcia said. Coplon was a Cold War spy, Marcia said, but the intelligence services couldn’t use real evidence without revealing secret sources, so they invented some.
You have free articles remaining.
The pursuit of Coplon’s story began with years of requests and denials involving the Freedom of Information Act. Essential documents were later found in a New York archive.
For 40 years Coplon had refused to share her tale. Coplon’s husband called Marcia on the telephone to ease the letdown.
“You wrote such a dear letter,” she recalled him saying, but no, not interested. They spoke for an hour. Then they met. Coplon eventually realized somebody would write the book, Marcia said. And if she spoke, her grandchildren would know the full story.
The writing was great fun, revealing secrets, meeting with former KGB agents, and taking trips to Russia. And it was good practice for book No. 5.
'What do you want of me?'
In 2003, Katharine Gun, a former British government translator, leaked documents on efforts by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush to unduly pressure lesser members of the United Nations Security Council into supporting Resolution 1441 — the justification for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The documents outlined invitations from the National Security Agency to GCHQ, its British counterpart, to join in illegal bugging of United Nations offices. Gun, outraged, sent the information to Martin Bright, a journalist with Britain’s The Observer. Gun was later charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, but the case fell apart as prosecutors declined to present evidence.
Katharine’s initial email reply to Marcia’s inquiry was direct: “What do you want of me?”
Whistleblowers never want to talk, Mitchell explained. Why would they? They stepped forward to do the right thing, and forces took over to ruin their lives.
The emails led to a connection, spawning a lasting friendship.
“She’s like a daughter to me,” Mitchell said.
The book came out in 2008, making a splash outside of the United States. It earned renewed attention eight years later.
The Chilcot report of July 2016 — an official British inquiry into the country’s role in the Iraq war — broadly vindicated Gun, concluding Blair and Bush conspired to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein.
The renewed attention pushed Mitchell’s book and Gun’s story forward onto the silver screen. Movie proposals had languished in fits and starts, but now it came together.
“Official Secrets” made it to Sundance last year, and it did well at the San Francisco Film Festival.
In the news
Whistleblower laws in the United States spell out specific procedures for drawing attention to potential wrongdoing and sparking investigations. They also impose safeguards for those who come forward.
The U.S. inspector general of intelligence has confirmed that the initial whistleblower who stepped forward with suggestions of wrongdoing involving funds for Ukraine followed the exact requirements of the law, Mitchell said. Witnessing the questionable events firsthand is not necessary to flag potential government wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, she said, “(President Donald) Trump has broken more than one whistleblower law.”
Trump’s reaction to the whistleblowers who brought forward their concerns about a possible quid pro quo involving Ukraine defense funds in exchange for political dirt undermines the process, she said.
Protection of whistle blowers is neither a conservative or liberal issue, she said, because bad things happen when the law isn’t respected.
“Wrongdoing can continue because people are afraid,” she said.
Or, the whistleblower may end up going to the press.
“That’s what has happened in the past.”
Mitchell, who is working with her daughter on a new book about women whistleblowers, “Spilling Secrets,” outlined the case of former NSA intelligence specialist Reality Winner, who was sentenced to five years for leaking documents on Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election.
“She went through the press because she thought she wouldn’t be heard.”