All the attention currently directed towards purloined presidential documents raises a larger question. Why are they secret in the first place and how is this determined? Few terms have been abused more than “top secret,” often for ulterior motives and obscure, unexplained reasons. Secrecy frequently gives unchecked power to faceless bureaucrats without any accountability. That kind of power is easily subject to abuse that is devoid of any consequences. Many people have been apprehended for violating secrecy, but has anyone ever been held to account for designating something secret improperly, withholding or distorting information, to the detriment of truthful deliberation? This security umbrella has enabled our intelligence institutions to become politicized, and weaponized into hitherto unthinkable abuses. Meanwhile most of the media that once might have raised loud objections and alarms about this have instead ignored, or more inexcusably, collaborated in suppressing the truth for ideological reasons. Secrecy excesses have provided much convenient cover and the whole subject now desperately needs some serious reconsideration.
Secrecy is what has enabled one administration after another to lie to us, make disastrous and costly mistakes, while concurrently spinning the narrative to evade responsibility. But often enough it blows up on them, and worse, terrible damage occurs that could have been avoided had there been full disclosure in the first place. Further, secrecy is fundamentally at odds with the notion of a free and open society. But that only works when there is a media that sets aside partisan considerations instead of participating in them.
Moreover, it is no “secret” that secrecy is something we are not particularly good at. Our government leaks at a greater rate than a pot full of holes, whether intentional or not. Washington is simply terrible at keeping secrets. The reality is that our officials are simply unable maintain much secrecy for long. It is also quite likely that our adversaries know more of our “secrets” than we do, given how porous our institutions are. This should also put to rest any notion about some nefarious hidden trove of information about aliens, assassinations or anything else consequential. It simply isn’t there or it certainly would have leaked. Otherwise, you would have to believe that every president since Harry Truman through Joe Biden were part of some great conspiracy suppressing the truth, or that Donald Trump would not have blown the lid off if anything were there.
Leaks involve intent on the part of someone to pass information out publicly. They are more embarrassing than damaging. What is far worse is when secrecy is maintained on false premises in order to protect the powerful, to cover up and lie on their behalf, prevent the revelation of avoidable mistakes, and distort or suppress the truth. Withholding information is more egregious than exposing it, even when ill-advised.
There is only one possible justification for government secrecy and that is national security. But that being case it can also be stretched to unjustifiably transform something trivial into something consequential enough to be secret, or to cover up ineptitude. The temptation for abuse is hard to avoid when something is inconvenient, embarrassing, violates accepted assumptions, etc. none of which can possibly justify secrecy. As with anything that is overdone it ultimately trivializes and diminishes what otherwise might be important.
There is obviously a need for secrecy in military affairs. It is also justified to a lesser extent, with diplomacy and intelligence services, but there is always a downside. The more something is secret the less it is open to scrutiny, alternative interpretation, alteration, or critical questioning that comes from open and free discussion. We have stumbled into disasters too often in recent times due to “faulty intelligence,” which usually means any serious questioning or consideration of any contrary evidence or alternative views. For that matter if diplomacy prior to World War I had been more open, the bumbling uncertainty that unleashed a terrible war and all the disasters which followed in the last century could have been avoided.
This has always been the great weakness of repressive regimes as information is unreliably skewed and eventually undermines the worst kind of state. That is why free societies have been able to triumph in the end, despite all their untidiness. The more things are out in the open the less chance there is of miscalculation, or worse, being fed lies to suppress some inconvenient truths and mislead the public. The more we emulate our adversaries the more likely we are to share their eventual fate. Experience has shown us that secrecy has too often been pointless or counterproductive.
Fortunately. perceptions have changed. When Ellsberg lifted the Pentagon Papers many of us reacted angrily at the time at what we perceived to be an act of disloyalty rather than to the substance of what was being revealed. But by the time of Snowden and Assange or the Iraq war things became more nuanced. It no longer is all that clear as to who the bad guys really are. However, the high level of institutional distrust the public currently maintains is also not healthy. This could easily be assuaged with much less secrecy, and more plain truth. The less politicians lie the better they will sleep at night and the more effective they will be during the day.
Now that the secrecy canard has come back to bite two presidents, we must wonder just how critically secret many of these documents really are. We really need new standards that provide a clear rationale and justification before anything is blacked out by secrecy. This should be stringent, minimal, and subject to review, both initially as well as subsequently. Secrecy of any kind is at odds with the tenets of a free society, frequently suppresses the truth, or makes things worse and ought to be sparsely applied. For history has clearly shown that the more things are out in the open and subject to scrutiny the less chance there is for avoidable mistakes. By now one thing should be very clear- the less secrecy the better.
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