Pssst! Wanna Know a Secret?

Secrecy has been a facet of
government and international affairs since government and international affairs
were invented.  Sumerian diplomats were
already negotiating secret treaties in the early third millennium B.C., hard on
the heels of the birth of civilization itself.
The classical Greeks sent coded messages, and the Roman Senate
occasionally met in closed session to keep sensitive information from the
public.  None of this is surprising.  Any state, from ancient Ur to modern America, can be expected to seize whatever advantage it
believes inherent in keeping secret from other states certain military and
diplomatic information.  In war and peace
the side that knows more, particularly more about the other guy, has a distinct
advantage.

And so it remained for almost five thousand years –
secrecy as a basic military and diplomatic weapon – and the uses and extent of
government secrecy at the end of the nineteenth century had not changed
appreciably since the days of the pharaohs.
The twentieth century, however, witnessed an emergence from this
stagnation, and the uses of secrecy – or classification, as it is now called –
have multiplied dramatically.  Not only
have the old hallowed grounds of classification been expanded, but upon the
traditional foundation of national security entire new edifices of secrecy have
been erected.  And in the vanguard of
these developments is the United States, ironically a country known for its freedom of
expression.

The age-old goal of keeping  military
codes,  operational plans  and
force  dispositions secret is  still
important,  though altered somewhat
by technological developments.   Codes
and plans can  be secured,  if a careful eye is kept out for  clever
teen-agers  with  personal
computers,  but the  advent  of
satellite reconnaissance
allows  a  state
to keep  the  location
of  its military  forces secret only from its own
citizens.  As a kind of compensation for
this loss,  though, the requirements of
military secrecy  have  expanded to cover the technology  and
even the basic research  behind
the tools of the military.  Business,
already concerned about keeping its own proprietary information secret, has
responded enthusiastically, and increasingly contracts with the government contain
“commercial-in-confidence” clauses, rendering the entire transaction
opaque to the public.  This preserves the
technological secrets from competitors and enemies, but of course it also
allows industry and government to hide any malfeasance or incompetence.  And such secrecy is hardly good for overall
progress, since the scientific community depends upon the free flow of information
to function properly.  One ironic result
of this passion for technological secrecy is the occasional reluctance to actually
use advanced weaponry out of fear of revealing secrets.  America, for example, refused to use its cruise missiles
against a Libyan chemical plant in 1986, fearing that one might fall unexploded
into enemy hands.  One is reminded of
British and German reluctance in WW I to send out their incredibly expensive
fleets because they might lose ships.

But all these developments are a logical extension of the
ancient desire to keep certain information out of foreign hands.  It is in the relatively modern arena of
keeping information out of the hands of ones own citizens that the United States in particular has demonstrated considerable
innovation.  What might be called
“political” secrecy is as old as kingship, but its use by the
American government and military has made it as much a part of the political
system as patronage and reelection.  To
elected officials and the bureaucracy classification is a sort of Holy Grail,
absolving all who use it of the political sin of responsibility.  Who can discover your mistakes and
malfeasance when what you do is classified secret?  Who can impugn your motives when your refusal
to discuss certain affairs is based on the pure patriotic grounds of national
security?  In 1983 12 year old Todd
Patterson discovered he was being watched by the FBI for writing to foreign
missions; learning that the activity was innocent, the agency agreed to close
the file.  They did not, and in 1987
Patterson finally obtained  a copy  of
his  FBI file, only to discover it
was censored to the point of illegibility.
The explanation given with a straight face by the FBI: national
security.

In the last several decades classification, which had
formerly been an essentially passive device, covering incompetence and outright
criminality (still a vital function in the defense industry), has evolved into
a generally accepted active political weapon.
National security based secrecy can now be used to further private
political agendas; not even the Congress knew the content of most of the National
Security Directives emanating from the Reagan White House.  Or consider a twist by the Bush
administration: reluctant to reveal the identities of the business leaders he
was making deals with, VP Cheney refused to release the visitors logs, claiming
that that these alleged advisors could not “speak freely” unless
anonymous, an argument commonly used to close meetings to the public.  Further, a careful program of classifying and
leaking can also be used to attack other branches of government and the media and
as a bonus, justify further secrecy.  These
tactics were clearly in play when the Bush White House outed CIA agent Valerie
Plame in order to embarrass her and her husband.  And remember back to Oliver North, who showed
us all how secrecy can be used to protect you even after you have been caught
blatantly violating the law. 

Those in power may well have the interests of the
American people at least partially in view, however.  At least I can see no purpose other than
public entertainment in the relatively recent emergence of what might be
labeled “comic” secrecy.  An
early example of this was evident in the Iran-Contra hearings, when the
participants insisted on referring to the states involved as Countries A, B, C,
etc., despite the fact that every human being watching knew their true
identities.  Or an early shuttle launch,
the utterly secret payload of which was being described in detail on television
before it was even in orbit.  And of
course there is the first Stealth aircraft, an especially good instance of
“comic” secrecy; while the government and  military were denying the very existence of
the plane, kids were building fairly accurate models of it.  The cost of the Stealth program was classified,  probably because if the Soviets knew how  much each plane cost, they would have realized
they had nothing to fear.  Even now the
military is withholding information on events and projects, some of them a half
century old, that are already known to the public and/or involve now obsolete
technology.  It’s like a sickness.

WikiLeaks has certainly underscored just how seriously
those in authority take their secrecy.  No
vital information was revealed, no lives were lost and America’s interests were not materially harmed, but Julian Assange
is viewed as the greatest threat to our security since the Japanese.  Actually, what was harmed was our diplomatic
face, when all the nasty and petty things said in private were revealed,
embarrassing important people everywhere, even though every diplomat knows such
remarks are constantly being made.  And
big business, ever an enthusiastic partner in creating greater opaqueness, is
doing its part, as Amazon, Bank of America, PayPal and others severed all ties
with WikiLeaks.

Well, we in Americahave certainly come a long way since the days of the Founding
Fathers, when almost all government business was rather foolishly conducted in
full public view, thus endangering our national security.  Would we have had to fight all  those invading British troops if the
Declaration of Independence had been properly classified?  Would Nathan Hale have had to regret that he
had only one life to give to his country if his country had provided him with plausible
deniability?  Could we have been spared two
hundred years of social turmoil and the weakening of our security if the Bill
of Rights had been available only on a “need to know” basis?

America has made great strides in the past decades, but the
road to national security is a long one.
If this great nation is to remain strong and free, we must be ever
vigilant, for inAmerica the price of freedom is secret.

 

 

 

 

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