What You Should Think About State Secrets

October 16, 2007

“Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

–Edward Teller

It has recently come to light that an inventory of corruption in Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime was kept from public scrutiny because it was classified as an American state secret. It seems rarely a month goes by that there is not some news of a bizarre application of official secrecy by White House officials. After all, what possible purpose could this assessment serve if it was not intended to inform decisions related to our nation’s Iraq policy?

The pattern of secrecy practiced by the current administration supports a common criticism of their methods. It would seem they believe national discussions of Iraq policy have no place in national decisions about Iraq policy. In fact, the word “Iraq” could be struck from the previous sentence without rendering it untrue. From requiring audience members at campaign events sign oaths of political loyalty to banning protests anywhere near a location the President might catch sight of them, this administration seems to have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude about political dissent.

Dragging such an attitude into the loftiest halls of power is directly at odds with the traditions, and functional mechanisms, of democracy itself. In instances where dissent rests on falsehoods and misunderstandings, confronting it improves the quality of public information and increases support for legitimate policies. In instances where dissent derives from insightful critique, acknowledging that critique and adapting policy to the truths it contains will produce better results. Either way, the quality of national leadership suffers to the degree the existence of dissent is denied.

Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once wrote of secrecy, “through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.” Countless follies have emerged from business managers applying Sun Tzu’s teachings without regard for the enormous differences between armies of slave-conscripts engaged in ancient warfare and workforces of free citizens engaged in economic productivity. I have no idea to what extent the Bush-Cheney team are students of Sun Tzu. Yet it would seem that they take this approach to secrecy into the realm of political debate.

A lesson learned too late, if it has been learned at all by White House insiders, is that there are real differences between methods that are effective in the short term and methods that produce sustainable success. At its simplest level this is an obvious lesson. Armed robbery is an effective way to get money. Yet it is no way to make a steady living. Destroying the reputations of political opponents is an effective way to win elections. Yet it is no substitute for leadership driven by good ideas along with clear communication that enables the public to understand the goodness of those ideas.

It should be no secret that authoritarian leadership rests uneasily on the backs of a population inclined to believe their homeland is governed by and for its people. As early as the transition from our second to our third President, this had been established. John Adams wielded the powers of his office in one blatant political maneuver after another. Thomas Jefferson was able to unseat the incumbent in no small part because of widespread concern that power had been abused.

A cynic might argue that there would have been a second term for our second President if only he had followed through on ambitions of a war against revolutionary France. A groundswell of public support appears to be a primal response to warfare. As it happened, more people felt threatened by authoritarian action menacing American civil liberties than French naval actions menacing American shipping. The end result was the empowerment of a liberal thinker who did much to expand the scope of the federal government, both institutionally and via the Louisiana Purchase.

A cynic might also argue that a state of perpetual warfare in Iraq provided a political form of job security. It seems an unreasonable assertion to argue that any President would wreak so much havoc for purely political reasons. No doubt the architects of existing Iraq policy were driven by a complex mixture of motives that varied from person to person. As hindsight now reveals even to them, mistakes were made in the planning and implementation of the initiative to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Yet it is not as if the foresight to avoid these mistakes was missing from the entire American population. Credible weapons inspection experts recognized that prewar Iraq had become largely compliant with UN mandates. Credible military experts recognized that a large occupying force would be required to maintain order in the aftermath of an invasion. A wide range of credible voices recognized that a jubilant reception and instant harmony would not greet an army of foreigners on Iraqi soil. It seems as if much more effort was made to undermine the credibility of public figures expressing such views than was made to deal with potential problems at the heart of their concerns.

Terrorists attacking America and/or our allies certainly are enemies of the state. Insurgents intent on killing American personnel may reasonably be considered enemies. However, there is nothing reasonable at all about regarding political critics or even rival politicians as enemies of the state. For the most part, keeping sources and methods of intelligence gathering secret will give us an advantage over our enemies. In appropriate contexts, keeping the deployment and capabilities of military assets secret can also provide such an advantage. By contrast, there is no advantage to be gained through distorting public debate about the merits of major national objectives by concealing crucial relevant information.

It is lamentable yet understandable that there will always be some fringe of hotheads intent on characterizing the party out of power as “the enemy.” A mind both volatile and simple does not easily grasp concepts like friendly competition or loyal opposition. What is harder to understand is how this dangerous mode of thought should come to shape the work product of the executive branch. Do they desire an end to public debate about national priorities? Do they believe suppressing discussion of potential problems will alter reality to insure no actual problems occur?

From expanding domestic surveillance to conducting extraordinary renditions to reshaping interrogation policies to so many other bold initiatives undertaken by this administration, the quality of public information has been seriously degraded by sweeping exercise of the power to classify information a state secret. Has our enemy so succeeded in terrorizing us that all these national discussions must be silenced for fear of forfeiting a strategic advantage? Is it really plausible that any campaign of terrorist attacks could deprive our society of more than our leaders willingly sacrifice to the War on Terror as an institution?

Clearly a matter like the extent of corruption in the present Iraqi government has a crucial role to play in the ongoing national debate about Iraq policy. It may be fair to argue that a comprehensive report of this nature should remain classified in part, since it may contain plenty of innuendo along with real evidence. Yet to keep the real evidence classified as a state secret too — that leaves no doubt this administration wishes to suppress informed and honest debate about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

It would be wrong to claim this pattern of behavior establishes George W. Bush as the real enemy of our nation. Yet it is not at all wrong to conclude that his administration regularly makes a mistake similar in form. Millions of loyal American dissenters should never be treated as enemies against which the need to gain advantage justifies exploiting the power of state secrecy.

Civic discourse is degraded to the degree participants sink to that level. Negative emotions can draw well-intentioned citizens into that trap, prompting even more politics of personal destruction. Yet, if you really think about it, demanding the best available information to inform public discussion of national priorities is the right response to this problem of pathologically secretive governance.