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Book Review

The perils of keeping secrets

Secrecy: The American Experience, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998, 262 pp.

Steven Aftergood

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the chairman of a recent Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy that provided a searching critique of the government's system of national security classification. His new book is an extended historical meditation on the damage done by the secrecy system. It explores how "in the name of national security, secrecy has put that very security in harm's way." For Moynihan, "it all begins in 1917."

"Much of the structure of secrecy now in place in the U.S. government took shape in just under eleven weeks in the spring of 1917, while the Espionage Act was debated and signed into law." Over time, new institutions were created to investigate foreign conspiracy, to counter domestic subversion, and to root out disloyalty, all within a context of steadily increasing official secrecy.

"Eighty years later, at the close of the century, these institutions continue in place. To many they now seem permanent, perhaps even preordained; few consider that they were once new." It is perhaps the primary virtue of this book that it helps the reader to see that these institutions were not only once new, but that they emerged from a particular historical setting whose relevance to today's political environment has all but vanished.

Moynihan shows how internal subversion first became a live issue during World War I, when President Wilson warned of the "incredible" phenomenon of U.S. citizens, "born under other flags" (that is, of German and Irish origin), enlisted by Imperial Germany, "who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life." This threat engendered a system of government regulations "designed to ensure the loyalty of those within the government bureaucracy and the security of government secrets." Once established, this system of regulation would grow by accretion, as other forms of regulation have been known to do, and would be further magnified by the momentous political conflicts of our century, particularly the extended confrontation with Communism.

Moynihan's historical survey pays particular attention to the issue of Soviet espionage during the Manhattan Project, which was soon documented by U.S. Army intelligence personnel in the so-called "VENONA" program that decrypted coded Soviet transmissions. VENONA provided compelling evidence about the existence and magnitude of Soviet espionage against the United States and, among other things, presented an unassailable case against Julius Rosenberg, who was executed as a spy with his wife Ethel in 1951 amid international protests and widespread doubts about their guilt. Yet this crucial evidence was withheld from disclosure, and the Rosenberg controversy was permitted to fester for decades.

Similarly, "belief in the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss (the sometime State Department official accused of being a Soviet spy) became a defining issue in American life" and roiled U.S. political culture with lasting effects. But the VENONA evidence regarding Hiss was also withheld from the public for no valid security reason; the Soviets had already been alerted to the existence of the VENONA program by the late 1940s. What's more, Moynihan infers from recently declassified records that President Truman himself was denied knowledge of the program. (In fact, certain VENONA information was provided to Truman.)

"Here we have government secrecy in its essence," Moynihan writes. The bureaucratic impulse toward secrecy became so powerful that it was allowed to negate the value of the information it was protecting. Instead of achieving a clear-sighted understanding of the reality and (rather limited) extent of Soviet espionage, the United States had to endure a culture war led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, which cast a pall on U.S. politics and actually obscured the nature of the Soviet threat.

Moynihan traces the malign effects of secrecy through the Pentagon Papers case, the Iran-Contra affair, and other critical episodes up through the perceived failure of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union. "As the secrecy system took hold, it prevented American government from accurately assessing the enemy and then dealing rationally with them," he summarizes. Moynihan concludes that it is time to "dismantle government secrecy" and to replace it with a "culture of openness." Openness is not only less prone to the habitual errors of secret decisionmaking, but is also the only appropriate response to the ever-increasing global transparency of the Information Age.

But here the acuity that Moynihan brings to his historical analysis starts to fade, and we are given little indication of how to get from here, our present culture of secrecy, to there, the desired culture of openness. First, there is some confusion about where exactly we are. Moynihan writes that "the Cold War has bequeathed to us a vast secrecy system that shows no sign of receding." But there are a number of significant indications to the contrary. Most remarkably, there has been a huge reduction in the backlog of classified Cold War records of historical value. Thanks to President Clinton's 1995 executive order on declassification, an astonishing 400 million pages of records have been declassified in the past two years. This is an unprecedented volume of declassification activity and a respectable 20 percent or so reduction in the total backlog. New declassification programs have been initiated in the most secretive corners of the national security bureaucracy, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. Despite some foot-dragging and internal resistance, there has been unprecedented declassification activity in these agencies.

Meanwhile, at the Department of Energy (DOE,) a broad-ranging Fundamental Classification Policy Review resulted in the recent declassification of some 70 categories of information previously restricted under the Atomic Energy Act. Since former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary undertook her "openness initiative" in 1993, DOE has declassified far more information than during the previous five decades combined. The controversial O'Leary, who effected a limited but genuine change in DOE's "culture of secrecy," is not even mentioned in Moynihan's account.

Remarkably, most of this effort to reduce secrecy in the executive branch has been initiated by the executive branch itself, with some external pressure from public interest advocacy groups. More remarkable still, much of it has been opposed by the legislative branch. If we are to move to a culture of openness, more analytic work will be needed to identify the various sources of resistance so that they can be countered or accommodated. The bureaucratic sources of opposition, classically identified by Max Weber and cited by Moynihan, are clear enough. Every organization tends to control the information it releases to outsiders.

But why, for example, did majorities in both the House and the Senate in 1997 oppose the declassification of the total intelligence budget? Why did Congress pass legislation in 1998 to suspend the president's enormously productive automatic declassification program for at least several months? Why was legislation to expedite the declassification of documents concerning human rights violations in Central America blocked in the Senate? It appears that there is a strain of conservative thought now dominating Congress that views openness with suspicion and that stubbornly resist it.

This calls into question Moynihan's one concrete proposal, which is to pass a law to define and limit secrecy. In the best of circumstances, a legislative solution may be excessively optimistic. The Atomic Energy Act has long mandated "continuous" review for declassification, for example, but that did not prevent the buildup of hundreds of millions of pages of records awaiting review. In the current political climate, Congress might easily do more to promote secrecy than to restrain it.

Senator Moynihan is a man of ideas in a Congress not noted for its intellectual prowess. One must be grateful for any political thinker whose vision extends beyond the current budget cycle, and especially for one of proven perspicacity. As a Titan himself, Moynihan understandably takes an Olympian view of secrecy policy. His protagonists are presidents, the chairmen of congressional committees, and the odd New York Times editorial writer. But from this perspective, he misses the most interesting and potentially fruitful aspects of secrecy reform, which are occurring on a humbler plane.

His book alludes in passing to several important declassification actions: A 1961 CIA Inspector General report on the Bay of Pigs invasion was "made public in 1997." The total intelligence budget "was made known" for the first time ever in 1997. "It was determined" to release the VENONA decryptions. What the passive voice conceals in each of these cases is a long-term campaign led by public interest groups (a different one in each case) against a recalcitrant government agency that intensely resisted the requested disclosure. Each involved litigation or, in the case of the CIA report, the threat of litigation. Amazingly, each was successful.

These public interest group efforts deserve more attention than Moynihan grants. The point is not to give credit where credit is due, though that would be nice. The point is rather to identify the forces for change and, in a policy area littered with failed proposals, to appreciate what works. If there is to be a transition to a culture of openness, these kinds of efforts are likely to lead the way. They are already doing so.


Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.