D.C. Confidential

D.C. Confidential

National Review, December 1998

IN 1997, THE Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, chaired by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, concluded that the government classifies way too many documents – millions every year – while failing to distinguish among different sorts of documents and protect secrets of real importance. What’s more, the Commission argued, secrecy is inherently antithetical to open debate in a flourishing democracy, and the perception of a government bloated with secrets erodes public trust.

Moynihan continues in this vein in Secrecy: The American Experience,making the case that the government’s habits of secrecy no longer serve the national interest, if ever they did. It’s an argument the senator is bound to win, although not necessarily because he is right. To say whether secrecy on a large scale is still necessary without knowing what secrets we are talking about is impossible, and if the keeping of these secrets is truly vital to national security, anyone in a position to rebut the senator’s arguments will, one hopes, remain silent.

This methodological quibble aside, Moynihan has provided us with an interesting history of secrecy in the United States, and a provocative meditation on the patterns and implications of secrecy in government. Elaborating upon Max Weber’s observations about bureaucracy, Moynihan argues that secrecy’s functional purpose – keeping critical information from an enemy – has become secondary to its institutional and ritualistic aspects, and that it is used to distinguish insiders from outsiders. Moreover, he observes, secrecy in foreign policy gives rise to the same sorts of excesses that excessive regulation does in the domestic sphere.

Moynihan might have stopped there, leaving behind an impressive a prioricase against secrecy. Instead, he attempts to ground his case in historical arguments, and while his narratives are fascinating, his logic and conclusions are tenuous.

Moynihan identifies secrecy as the thread connecting the “most disastrous” events of the Cold War, but he fails to show that secrecy was responsible for these events, or, for that matter, that they were disastrous. He begins with the so-called Venona Project, the recently disclosed files containing messages sent by Soviet agents in the United States to their handlers in Moscow between 1940 and 1948. Intercepted and decoded by the US Army, their contents were kept secret to prevent the Soviets from realizing that their code had been broken. The Venona intercepts proved beyond dispute that strategically placed Americans were providing the Soviet Union with critically sensitive information about national security matters ranging from diplomatic talking points to the details of the Manhattan Project. Soviet agents were identified in the State Department, the FBI and the nuclear research and production complex at Los Alamos. Yet the Venona Project was so secret that even President Truman was unaware of its existence.

There can be no justification for allowing the Commander-in-Chief to remain ignorant of the extent of Soviet espionage on American soil, and Moynihan could have allowed his argument to rest there. But he presses on, blaming the turmoil of the McCarthy era on the Army’s failure to unveil the files. Exposing the cables, he imagines, would have neutered Senator McCarthy by illustrating the limited extent of the Soviet menace, while simultaneously slapping sense into those who saw in the Cold War only a right-wing plot to repress radical reform. This, he suggests, would have spared the country years of idiocy from Soviet apologists and fellow-travellers in American academia.

But why on earth would he think this? Common sense suggests that the disclosure of the files would have sparked hysteria on the Right, confirming its blackest suspicions. And the Left repeatedly showed itself to be preternaturally immune to evidence about the Soviet Union: The files would have been merely another piece of evidence to ignore.

Another “disastrous” consequence of secrecy, argues Moynihan, was the debt accumulated during the Reagan-era arms buildup. He charges that US intelligence services relied so heavily on flawed methods of data collection and analysis that they were unable to predict what was obvious to anyone with eyes – that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Presidents Carter and Reagan, he claims, formulated their defense strategies in response to estimates of Soviet strength untested by public criticism. As a result, writes Richard Gid Powers in the introduction to the book, “America, facing an adversary gasping out its last breaths, [spent] itself into debilitating debt … “

It is difficult to agree with Moynihan’s assertion that the policies leading to the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union were a disaster, whatever the merits of the intelligence upon which they were predicated. And in fact, while it is often said that the CIA failed to predict the Soviet Union’s collapse, the evidence is mixed: Economists commissioned by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 1991, for example, found that the CIA had “regularly reported the steady decline in the Soviet growth rate and called attention to the deep and structural problems that pointed to continual decline.” The pressure to match the US in defense spending was an added burden on the Soviet economy, and almost certainly hastened the empire’s collapse. “Secrecy is for losers,” writes Moynihan, but if so, why does he use as his key example the century’s most spectacular foreign-policy victory?

But these non-sequiturs should not deter the reader. Senator Moynihan’s abstract arguments for greater openness in government are in themselves strong enough to carry the book. In the end, it is hard to argue with the observation that the “consent of the governed” is meaningful only if the governed know what the government is doing.

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