R. Kyle Alagood

Gadfly. Writer. Activist. Transparency Advocate. Proud Former Food Stamp & Medicaid Kid. Believer in Barbara Jordan's America. TBD.

What Secrets Should a Democracy Keep?

Last month, experts ranging from government officials engaged in the fight against terrorism to Ivy League historians assembled at The New School in New York to discuss what secrets a democracy should keep. That question – vexing to any nation that values both popular knowledge about government affairs and the advantages that some secrets bring – remained unanswered as the conference adjourned. The day’s success lay not in any particular resolution but in the lively debate and important questions that the conference, titled “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy,” provoked.

American secrecy is as old as American democracy, and even the Framers drafted the Constitution behind closed doors. However, throughout the 20th and into the 21st Century, the executive has grown in size, scope, and power. The Cold War and the advent of the modern intelligence apparatus — including the CIA and NSA, and covert operations — have entrenched secrecy. The 9/11 attacks led to the George W. Bush administration’s use of warrantless surveillance and interrogation through torture as counterterrorism strategy, while keeping the programs secret.

The struggle between the public’s right to know and the government’s need for secrecy did not begin with the Bush administration. Nor will it end with the current one. The reasoning is simple—the incentives for those who control information to keep it secret are often stronger than incentives to disclose it. The current administration has committed itself to openness and transparency—on President Obama’s second day in office, he issued two executive memoranda calling for executive departments and agencies to commit to “creating an unprecedented level of openness.” But actions taken to live up to this commitment have been inconsistent throughout executive branch. Even now, the press reports that President Obama will issue classified guidelines about which detainees in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere can be indefinitely detained without charge or trial.

The conference neither solved the problem of secret-keeping in democracy, nor did its participants reach a uniform conclusion. They did, however, agree on at least two things: Some secrets are best kept that way, and other secrets are needless. A few of the day’s highlights are illustrated below.

Peter Galison, a Harvard historian, said that 9/11 changed everything. He is critical of the overuse of classification by the government because the 9/11 attacks catalyzed a notion that everything in the United States is a terrorist target. If everything is a terrorist target, he suggested, then the government can claim that everything is a secret.

Nicholas Lemann and Eric Lichtblau discussed the role that media played in preserving and disclosing secrets after 9/11. According to Lemann, who is the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, journalists recognize only two categories of necessary secrets: individual privacy and national security. He said the profession tends to publish any material that is outside these two realms, though many journalists contest the notion that information the government labels national security is off limits or not publishable.

Litchblau, a New York Times reporter who broke the 2005 story about George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, asserted that after 9/11, the United States witnessed one of the severest limits on public information due to government concerns over national security. His notion exemplifies journalists’ reservations about accepting the government’s secrecy label. Litchblau pointed out that the media itself actually played a role in the increased secrecy of the post-9/11 era. Publication of his wiretapping story was delayed for more than a year because the government claimed that making the information public would harm national security. Whereas Lemann, in a previous panel, had suggested that journalists should publish any information they have access to that is not related to personal privacy or national security, Litchblau illustrated the trickiness of determining what information the public needs to know and what information might actually compromise national security if published.

“There can be good secrets,” proposed David D. Aufhauser, a former general counsel at the Treasury Department during the Bush administration. Aufhauser, who headed the National Security Council’s committee on terrorist financing and was a self-described “spy” on financial links to terrorism, was more sympathetic to the government’s use of classification and intelligence-gathering techniques. His sentiment toward classification, although it contested Lemann’s notion that journalism publish almost any information it can gather, is not unique. Galison also suggested that the public need not know everything about the government. The public should know, he said, that nuclear weapons exist, but they do not need to know how to make them.

“An informed public makes the difference between mob rule and democratic government,” wrote Rep. William L. Dawson in 1955. His thought might also sum up the theme for the “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy” conference. It is well-accepted that democracy implies openness, but the level of openness required for a free, functioning democracy is disputed. The conference continued the debate, but it made clear that the debate will persist far beyond the conference’s end.

Cross-posted from The Brennan Center.

R. Kyle • June 29, 2010

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