America's Newfound Love of Secrecy

Really good Washington Post article on secrecy:

But the notion that information is more credible because it’s secret is increasingly unfounded. In fact, secret information is often more suspect because it hasn’t been subjected to open debate. Those with their own agendas can game the system, over-classifying or stove-piping self-serving intelligence to shield it from scrutiny. Those who cherry-picked intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war could ignore anything that contradicted it. Even now, some members of Congress tell me that they avoid reading classified reports for fear that if they do, the edicts of secrecy will bar them from discussing vital public issues.

Real secrets—blueprints for nuclear weapons, specific troop movements, the identities of covert operatives in the field—deserve to be safeguarded. But when secrecy is abused, the result is a dangerous disdain that leads to officials exploiting secrecy for short-term advantage (think of the Valerie Plame affair or the White House leaking selected portions of National Intelligence Estimates to bolster flagging support for the Iraq war). Then disregard for the real need for secrecy spreads to the public. reveals the names of government witnesses in criminal cases. Other Web sites seek to out covert operatives or to post sensitive security documents online.

Back in 2002 I wrote about the relationship between secrecy and security.

Posted on June 27, 2007 at 6:58 AM25 Comments


Roy June 27, 2007 7:22 AM

Lately, most government work is done by contractors, and the trend is increasing at an increasing rate; worse, the contractors are not American companies with allegiance to the US, but rather multinational corporations with allegiance only to themselves. Corporations now have access to US and NATO military secrets, and have a real incentive to capitalize on their insider knowledge.

What would it take as an incentive for Communist China to award a lucrative contract to a US government contractor, expecially if the contactor’s access to secrets cost them nothing?

Compounding the problem is the indisriminate use of secrecy to hide everything from shady business practices to dirty politics to illlegal racketeering to outright treason, all under layers of blanket secrecy.

supersnail June 27, 2007 7:39 AM

Roy re: Communist China.

You are living in the past here:-
China is no longer communist (although it is extremly authoritarian).

If China wanted to damage the USA all they need to do is dump some of thier vast reserves of US dollars on the money market and watch the US economy go into meltdown. They would lose 40% of thier export market but at a growth rate of 10% they could recover that within 5 years.

guvn'r June 27, 2007 8:28 AM

@supersnail, China was never communist, just strong, authoritarian and independent, thus a worthy opponent for Senator Joe McCarthy and his ilk to vilify.

@Roy, your last para hits the nail on the head, secrecy is used to hide self-serving dirty tricks. Watergate was claimed to be a national security issue wasn’t it?

Eam June 27, 2007 8:28 AM

Supersnail: You don’t think suddenly losing 40% of their export market would slow their growth rate a bit?

Sez Me June 27, 2007 10:05 AM

If China is soooo great, why don’t they leave Taiwan and Tibet alone?

In any case, secrecy isn’t a simple cut and dry debate. It is abused on both ends. On one hand, it is obviously used to cover up many things. On the other hand, it is often a CYA measure because political opponents will use anything, and I do mean anything, that can be twisted or taken out of context to attack their opponents.

I can see both sides.

supersnail June 27, 2007 10:10 AM

Most of the current growth is internal, followed by european and asian markets.
Plus thier biggest economic problem at the moment is the economy is growing too fast for the infrastructure to keep up with.

Interestingly Japans biggest economic problem is that it sitting on a vast pile of dollars which it cant find use forl. China could avoid this problem …..

JackG't June 27, 2007 12:00 PM

It’s not easy to determine which members of the public care little about government secrecy and which ones care but conclude that there’s little a person can do about it.

Lowered expectations of personal privacy, in dealings with both the public sector and the private sector, render us less likely to require that the recipients of the information follow rules, guidelines, or laws as custodians of that information. How often do we try to review information that we’ve provided and assure ourselves as to what has been done with it? This softening of our expectations at the personal level tends to carry over into our expectations of government agencies in matters that are of public interest and not strictly personal.

There is significant public concern about too much secrecy, but it’s hard to wrest our elected officials’ ears away from those who are well-positioned to entice or intimidate. And more and more, elected officials seem to be concluding that they can do little about the secrecy.

bzelbob June 27, 2007 12:03 PM

Just read the article. Good, but I don’t think it goes far enough in stating that the PRIMARY reason for secrecy in government is not keeping vital information away from terrorists, it’s for keeping information away from the people so that the they will not be able to watchdog their own government. Essential in this is the notion that what causes a lot of this government corruption is that the government, at the federal level especially, is far too close to big corporations and have members who have multiple conflicts of interests on multiple levels.

Where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that the government gets to keep millions of secrets from the people? What would the founding fathers have thought about this? What would they have thought about the release of the CIA “family jewels”? My best guess is that they would have thought that we were insane to allow the government to use and abuse secrecy in the name of preserving liberty.

Sez Me June 27, 2007 12:10 PM

@Matthew Skala: “If the USA is soooo great, why don’t they leave Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan alone?”

I knew that lame brainless response would come from someone.

Iraq: Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands and paid families of suicide bombers. If the thought of him gassing Kurdish children doesn’t anger you, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Iran: Mahmoud “Wipe Israel Off the Map” Ahmaggedonejad isn’t exactly leaving others alone. Iran is a huge sponsor of terrorism, especially Hezbollah. If you think he’s just minding his own business, think again.

Afghanistan: Taliban. Need I say more? These woman beating theocrats provided harbor to al Queda. They were warned, and they continued. It’s their fault.

I never said anything about the USA being soooo wonderful. It’s definitely not a perfect country, but I’d sooner side with them than against tyrants and despots. It’s clear where your animosities lie. You don’t care who the middle eastern theocracies and tyrannies murder as long as you think they leave you alone.

We’re off topic. There was defense of communist china, and I responded. I also can see where some people would want to keep things secret because of the way they get beat up for no good reason.

ontopic June 27, 2007 12:21 PM

“That same excessive secrecy is reflected in the states. Sensitive to issues of privacy, Ohio refuses to release the names of more than 33,000 drivers who have been convicted of driving drunk five or more times. Last year, two Ohio college students were killed by a driver on his way to his 12th drunk-driving conviction. The casualties of such secrecy play out in state after state.”

I don’t see how secrecy has anything to do with this example. Can anyone clarify the author’s point?

kiwano June 27, 2007 12:27 PM

Sez Me: China doesn’t leave Tibet or Taiwan alone for reasons far closer to the UK not leaving Scotland or Northern Ireland alone than the reasons given by Matt Skala. The interest is in trying to maintain the integrity of territory that was Chinese before China’s move to communism caused problem with the inhabitants of this territory. Tibet, having a religious regime that worked well enough within the old Chinese empire, had something of a problem with with communism’s ideological opposition to religion, and Taiwan was largely an effort by Chinese capitalists to escape communism.

Of course, now these countries have gone and developed non-Chinese national identities, so an amicable Chinese reunification will probably prove difficult even if the Chinese government adopts policies that these societies could be comfortable with.

TF June 27, 2007 12:31 PM

@Sez Me

Talk about “lame brainless” responses…

Iraq: When Saddam was gassing the Kurds, he was an ALLY of the US. The US sold him the choppers they used to do the gassing.

Iran: If another country invaded Canada and Mexico, you would think the US would do what it could to get at the interests of that country.

Afghanistan: Taliban got into power with US help. They also offered to turn over Osama Bin Laden, but were turned down by the Bush Admin, who wanted to be seen as “doing something” after Sep 11.

And these points ARE on topic when talking about security. You have to look a couple steps ahead when you decide to back a murderous dictator like Saddam, or overthrow a democratic government — like US helped to do in Iran , or invade a country just so your voters will think you are doing something about terrorism. Doing something “strong” to address one immediate problem may not be the best move for future security.

Nobby Nuts June 27, 2007 1:10 PM

@Sez Me: And if the USA is sooo magnanimous, why don’t they invade (err, I mean liberate) Darfur, or intervene in the past in Rwanda or the present in Zimbabwe or some of the other countries around the world that don’t have anything of strategic importance to it, and haven’t acted against it? Oh yeah, just answered my own question.

Acting in self interest is understandable, perhaps, but please don’t pretend it’s being done for any other reason. That truly would be lame.

Anonymous June 27, 2007 1:17 PM

@Sez Me

Iraq — compared to Uganda, Rwanda, Boznia, etc., Saddam was very small potatoes. The US stayed out of those because there was no oil. The US only went after Saddam because Bush had a personal agenda and there’s oil there. The terrorist connection claim was phoney as a three dollar bill and they knew it.

Afgahnistan — The US didn’t seem to be so concerned about the Taliban et al or the plioght of the female population while it (the US) trained them to fight the USSR…

Iran & Iraq — the US and Isreal didn’t seem to have any problems with these countries when they supplied both sides with arms during the 8 year war…

Matthew Skala June 27, 2007 2:07 PM

I didn’t give any reasons, kiwano. You may have interpreted part of Sez Me’s response to me as being a quote from me.

The point I’d like to make is that China doesn’t leave Taiwan and Tibet alone, for reasons that China claims are compelling (such as “they started it!”) but that don’t convince the rest of the world. The USA, similarly, doesn’t leave Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan alone, for reasons that the USA claims are compelling (such as “they started it!”) but that don’t convince the rest of the world. Sez Me lists some of the USA’s claimed justifications, but I remain unconvinced that they hold any more water than China’s claimed justifications.

Dragging this back onto topic, the claimed reasons for the USA’s rush to make stuff secret, also hold about as much water.

This is a cheap shot, I know, but Sez Me writes:

“[The USA]’s definitely not a perfect country, but I’d sooner side with them than against tyrants and despots.”

Yes, you’ve made that clear.

Eric Norman June 27, 2007 6:07 PM

Has anyone noticed that whenever an information “leak” happens, especially in Washington, everyone wants to know who the leaker is and seems to assume that they’ve been naughty? That is, we need to find out who leaked this so that they can be punished.

Why is it that nobody seems to ask why the information needed to be exposed by a leak in the first place? Why iren’t they who wanted to keep it a secret the ones assumed to be naughty? It does seem like the default assumption about information is that it should be secret instead of transparent.

It’s a sickness that has grown in our culture.

Grahame June 28, 2007 1:38 AM

Actually, no one was really defending China, at least not early in the thread, just correcting a mis-categorization.

This is a standard management problem – keeping management intentions secret from the workers works for both good and bad, depending on the info, and many other things. Like choosing to spend or not to spend, you have to weigh the potential advantages against the known risks of acting.

And what happens in practice is that self-interest prevails. Presidents are no different to line management, except that they are supposed to answer to the country…

CinnamonBun June 28, 2007 5:38 AM

@Roy: do you really believe that just because a company’s based in the USA, they’ll be loyal to “the USA” (what does that actually mean, BTW? the government? the people? the American Way(tm)?), as opposed to their shareholders and/or their bottom line?

If yes, then I’m sorry, but you’re quite naive…

Anonymous June 28, 2007 7:30 AM

“…maintain the integrity of territory that was Chinese before China’s move to communism caused problem with the inhabitants of this territory. Tibet…”

Problem: China did not occupy Tibet immediately prior to its “move to communism”. The exact degree of Chinese influence in/control over Tibet during the 18th and 19th centuries is subject to vigorous debate, but from the Qing abdication in 1912, through Nationalist Chinese Republic, and on up until the Communist Chinese invasion in 1950 Tibet was completely free from China.

Jared June 28, 2007 9:20 AM

“It’s definitely not a perfect country, but I’d sooner side with them than against tyrants and despots”

Except that this country is fast becoming a nation of tyrants and despots. We have an idiot president who thinks he’s above the law and a VP who says he answers to nobody, not the courts, not the people, not Congress, not even his “boss”. The situation for us little people is such that the cops could snatch you off the street, throw you in prison forever, and torture you until you die and it would all be perfectly legal, just so long as they say the magic words: “He’s a terrorist”.

Not perfect? Understatement of the century. Vast secretive government and unaccountable power doesn’t make anyone safe, quite the contrary.

Jim June 28, 2007 2:04 PM

It’s been said that morality is a private and costly luxury. Secrecy may be more so.

bad Jim June 28, 2007 11:52 PM

The ultimate insiders in Washington who have access to all sorts of classified information may not be as well informed as those with access to a broader intellectual diet.

Consider Colin Powell’s address to the U.N. before the invasion of Iraq. Even though he rejected some of the most egregious falsehoods he’d been fed, he promulgated others that the reality-based community already knew were false. RV’s of death and aluminum tubes, indeed.

This was remarked earlier by someone who’d been at the pinnacle of power, I don’t remember who or when. If your primary source of information is the special stuff that the rest of us don’t get, you don’t wind up better informed than the folks who read everything else. This was before the web; if we’re to judge by the present crew, the people “in the know” are now outstandingly clueless.

Mike June 29, 2007 2:19 AM

Has anyone heard of the proposed North American Union? It is talked about on late night radio like coast to coast by Alex Jones. Maybe this is why we are allowing so many illegals to enter and stay in the US.

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