The Cult of Secrecy

The Cult of Secrecy

Mini Teaser: Senator Moynihan has expanded his appendix to the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy report into an elegant, quotable, scholarly, and timely book.

by Author(s): Allen Weinstein

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 262 pp., $22.50.

The most recent public service that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has performed for his country was his able stewardship of the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. The commission's valuable 1997 report, "Secrecy: A Brief Account of the American Experience", contains the most sensible recommendations offered in recent years for reversing the U.S. national security "culture of secrecy", an outmoded eighty-year inheritance of two world wars and the Cold War. Moynihan's critique has special credibility because of his background as a fiercely anti-communist cold warrior during his years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and in the Senate.

Throughout the Nixon-Ford-Carter decade of détente-oriented policies toward the Soviet Union, Moynihan called for waging a more aggressive "war of ideas" against our chief adversary. In the Reagan-Bush years, the senator was notable for his unabashed hawkishness toward the Soviets. This made Moynihan's recent work as chairman of the Secrecy Commission an adversarial event of consequence for opponents of greater "openness"--past and current American intelligence community figures--who are vehement in their complaints about Moynihan's proposals for reducing excessive government secrecy.

Now Senator Moynihan has expanded his appendix to the commission's report into an elegant, quotable, scholarly, and timely book. Secrecy: The American Experience should be required reading for all those, in or out of government, who profess serious concern for the national interest. Historian Richard Gid Powers' extended introductory essay both frames the issues and sets the stage for Moynihan's eloquent exposition of the dangers and errors wrought by excessive governmental secrecy. Moynihan builds skillfully on the insights (which he cites) of Edward Shils' early Cold War landmark, The Torment of Secrecy, and especially on Max Weber's analysis of how government bureaucracies metastasize in their self-protectiveness: "As Weber has shown, a culture of bureaucracy will always tend to foster a culture of secrecy."

With praise having been offered, I should declare an interest. Moynihan and Powers both cite and comment favorably on my research, as they do on a number of other recent scholars of twentieth-century national security issues. Since neither man has yet read my forthcoming book on Soviet espionage in America during the thirties and the war years, however, it is worth noting that what my co-author Alexander Vassiliev and I found in Soviet intelligence archives further confirms two of Secrecy's major conclusions: that a number of U.S. government officials engaged in spying of a highly damaging nature on behalf of the Soviet Union during this period, and that the Soviet espionage networks had been largely dismantled in 1945 after the defections of Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley. Thus the "Second Red Scare" that followed--with the politically corrosive efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy, and others--was belated and fundamentally injurious to American national security.

Moynihan outlines crisply and with a wealth of anecdotes the evolution of government secrecy from the U.S. entrance into World War I through today's post-Cold War dilemmas. He devotes chapters to the secrecy process as it developed in World War II, with special attention given to the impact of atomic weapons research on producing a fully articulated "culture of secrecy"; to internal security issues of the Truman-Eisenhower years; the Vietnam War; Watergate; and the Iran-Contra controversy of the Reagan era. Moynihan quotes approvingly the conclusion of Glenn T. Seaborg, Atomic Energy Commission chairman from 1961 to 1971, in a 1994 Science article titled "Secrecy Runs Amok", that "security classification of information became in the 1980s an arbitrary, capricious, and frivolous process, almost devoid of objective criteria." Before leaving the AEC , Moynihan notes, Seaborg had his private diary and journal "cleared virtually without deletion." Several years later, however, after retrieving his journal from the Department of Energy's classifiers for a writing task, Seaborg found that--although cleared previously--now "passage after passage had been redacted, much of it explicitly public information . . . some of it purely personal (like his account of going trick-or-treating with his children on Halloween)."

A more serious example of counterproductive obsession with secrecy involved the fact that, although President of the United States, "Truman was never told of the Venona decryption", a decision made by high-ranking army generals. Because of this, Moynihan speculates, Truman questioned the reality of much Soviet spying during the war years since "all [he] ever 'learned' about Communist espionage" came not from solid U.S. intelligence data but from his Republican adversaries' investigations and speeches.

Secrecy addresses throughout the central question raised first in its introduction: "How, then, did the United States of America stumble into the shadows of a secrecy system that still produces more than six million classified documents a year and that pokes and prods some three million individuals to certify their worthiness to be trusted with papers stamped Confidential, Secret and Top Secret?" Moynihan is a particularly exuberant polemicist in describing two ironic, unintended consequences of secrecy's pervasiveness on U.S. national security issues, especially during the Cold War era: the bureaucratic classifiers' often inaccurate analysis of basic facts and trends, and, in the American public-at-large, the terrible damage that unnecessary secrecy wrought by encouraging widespread belief in a Walpurgisnacht of conspiracy theories.

Moynihan shows in some detail how, most egregiously, the CIA--abetted by various influential special government reports--dramatically overestimated both the economic and military strength of the Soviet Union for decades. These assessments by the intelligence bureaucracies resulted in a number of fundamental U.S. policies toward our chief Cold War adversary being based upon erroneous calculations of the latter's actual situation and future prospects. A public airing and debate over these findings might have resulted in a more objective base on which to make policy; but during the Cold War period, as Moynihan notes, "with the vast expansion in bureaucratization came a remarkable routinization of secrecy." Closer to home, Moynihan points out that U.S. support for the Bay of Pigs invasion proceeded without any attention by its planners to a major public opinion survey, which described the widespread popular support on the island then enjoyed by Fidel Castro and his recently empowered revolutionary government. Unfortunately, in this instance as in others, "open sources simply had no standing."

As for the notable spread of conspiracy mania, Moynihan identifies a range of these in arguing that excessive concern for governmental secrecy has reinforced a "paranoid style"--not simply among the usual suspects, ideologues of the extreme Left and Right, but among ordinary Americans. Fully three-quarters now blame agencies of the U.S. government for alleged involvement in John F. Kennedy's assassination, while an even greater number, according to a 1997 CNN-Time poll cited by the author, "believe that their government is hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms."
In his final chapter, "A Culture of Openness", Moynihan restates his commission's basic and sensible recommendations for reducing unnecessary secrecy throughout Washington's departments and agencies, proposals that now await legislative consideration by the next Congress. ''We are not going to put an end to secrecy", the senator concludes, "nor should we. It is at times legitimate and necessary. But a culture of secrecy . . . need not remain the norm in American government as regards national security."

Many experienced intelligence community professionals see no need for the reforms that Moynihan advocates, however, and have criticized the commission's report accordingly. But at a recent gathering attended by this reviewer and several of these individuals, the complaints expressed by some were more angry than analytic and involved more curses than commentary. If nothing else, the extent of the bipartisan support enjoyed by the report of the commission (one of whose members was Senator Jesse Helms!) should encourage more constructive criticism from government classifiers than foolish and self-defeating efforts to demonize Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Fortunately, whatever actions Congress might take or decline to take with regard to the Moynihan commission's proposals, the age of instant global mass media and the Internet has overtaken efforts at self-perpetuation by the executive branch's millions of vestigial informational censors, our domestic Canutes trying desperately but unsuccessfully to hold back the tide of data that inundates us in this Information Age. What it points up is that information is not the same thing as intelligence, which is another word for knowledge in a specific setting. And that, despite the common confusion on the point, is no secret at all.

Allen Weinstein is president of The Center for Democracy. His new book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era., with co-author Alexander Vassiliev, will be published by Random House in January. 

Essay Types: Book Review