Governmental Secrecy: Shield for Tyranny, Incompetence, and Corruption

Guest Blogged by Stephen H. Unger

An essential pillar of democracy is openness. There is no way that people can meaningfully participate in government, even if only by voting for representatives, if they do not have access to accurate information related to government operations. This was well understood by the founders of the US and embedded in the Bill of Rights. Conversely, a salient characteristic of undemocratic systems of all types, such as Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany is a high degree of governmental secrecy.

The standard excuse for the suppression of governmental information is national security. In practice, it is improperly used in most situations, i.e., there is no legitimate reason for keeping secret the great majority of information classified secret by the government. Secrecy is used to conceal abuse of power, illegality, corruption, incompetence, and waste. A common instance of misuse of secrecy is when government officials make statements to reporters on controversial matters under the condition that they not be identified in the published stories. Below, I discuss how secrecy is being misused in the US. But first, consider when secrecy does make sense.

Justifiable Secrecy

There are situations where secrecy is clearly appropriate. These are cases where revealing the information is likely to have significant negative effects, and unlikely to confer significant legitimate benefits. Examples are:

  • Sealed bids for a government contract.
  • Passwords or other information required to access personal records of individuals.
  • Identities of secret agents.
  • Details of weapons systems and military operations plans .
  • Bargaining positions and strategy pertaining to ongoing or anticipated international treaty negotiations.Sometimes there are both positive and negative consequences of exposure of information. For example, people required to testify as witnesses to accidents or crimes, might be compelled to reveal private information relevant to their credibility. Or information essential to revealing incompetence or corruption in the development of a new weapons system might also be useful to an enemy in devising means for countering that system. In such cases, decisions must be made as to priorities.

National Security Secrets

At first, it may seem obvious that scientific and engineering developments that might have significant military applications, ought to be kept secret, so as to prevent actual or potential enemy countries from exploiting them for the same ends. But a closer look suggests that, even in the military world, secrecy is often counterproductive. If important new ideas with possible military applications are shrouded in secrecy to hide them from foreign scientists and engineers, then they will be less likely to come to the attention of Americans who might be able to utilize them. The detrimental effect is often increased since, if the US is in the lead with respect to some particular technology, Americans are more likely to be able to use “secret” information in that area than would their rivals in other countries. So restricting the dissemination of such information may hinder the US more than its opponents [Unger].

An example of an absurd invocation of military secrecy is the 1984 case in which a civilian navy intelligence analyst received a two year prison sentence for selling US satellite photos of a Soviet aircraft carrier to the British publication, Jane’s Fighting Ships [Wikipedia]. There was no suggestion that espionage was involved.

Perhaps even more absurd, and certainly more serious, is a 2011 instance in which the Department of Defense first classified the criteria for holding detainees at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, then released the information in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the ACLU, and then, in an effort to put the genie back into the bottle, demanded that the document be treated again as secret [ACLU]!

An important example of a “national security” secret is the federal budgets for intelligence agencies of all types. We are talking here of tens of billions of dollars annually. The budgets for such entities as the CIA, NSA, the National Counterterrrorism Center, and many more, are shrouded in secrecy. In 2010, the annual total was revealed to exceed 80 billion dollars [Dilanian]. Keeping agency budgets secret helps cover up incompetence, abuse of power, and corruption.

Perhaps related to the growth of intelligence budgets is the fact that a major portion of US intelligence is now carried out by private contractors [Shorrock]. In 2007 it was stated that 70% of the classified intelligence budget was spent on private contractors and that about 60% of CIA employees were private contractors. Apart from providing opportunities for big league waste and corruption, the use of private companies in the operations carried out by intelligence agencies, which includes interrogation of prisoners, and analysis of information, raises serious civil liberties concerns [Murphy].

Misuses of Secrecy

Following is a sampling of instances where national security was used a a pretext for concealing bad governmental behavior.

A set of photographs showing shocking abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan is being suppressed by the Obama administration on the ground that releasing it might stimulate retaliation against Americans[Romero]. This act of censorship clearly is related to the presidential decision not to prosecute, or even to investigate, the higher-ups of the preceding administration who were responsible for this despicable behavior. The implicit argument here is that revealing an atrocity is more harmful than committing it.

A former FBI agent who was active for about eight years in anti-terrorist activities, including service as an interrogator, wrote a book exposing the government’s torture program, which he considered immoral and ineffectual. The CIA acted to prohibit publication of large parts of the book, despite the fact that the great bulk of that material was already in the public domain, and there seemed to be little likelihood that any of the book’s material actually qualified for legitimate secrecy status [Greenwald-1].

Another use of secrecy related to torture is the argument made to deny access to the courts to people who were kidnapped by US government agents and sent to countries where they were tortured. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that the victims of such treatment (termed extraordinary rendition) could not seek redress in the courts because the resulting litigation would expose state secrets[NYT]. It is important that, in these cases, the government did not simply ask that certain very security-sensitive evidence be suppressed, but rather that the cases be summarily dismissed. And the courts (at least the Supreme Court) have acquiesced.

A similar use of the “state secrets” argument was to block law suits by Muslims (two Americans and an Egyptian) claiming they were singled out as targets of a sweeping FBI surveillance program [Gerstein].

The Obama administration is keeping secret how it is interpreting certain features of the Patriot Act to collect information about Americans [Nakashima]. It denied a request by two senators to explain.

About a decade ago, a CIA agent and his family became ill as a consequence of being assigned to housing in a mold-contaminated building, part of a military facility he was assigned to investigate. When the CIA denied responsibility, he brought suit in federal court. The Justice Department invoked the “State Secrets Privilege” and the judge summarily dismissed the case and ordered the agent and his family not to discuss it [Savage].

A request for documents pertaining to the proposed wording of a treaty on intellectual property rights was recently denied by the Executive Office of the President on the grounds that the information is classified in the interest of national security [Love]. The information is available to numerous foreign governments and to lobbyists for various industries.

One of the most bizarre secrecy incidents is one where, during the cold war, the US government apparently felt compelled to outdo the masters of secrecy, the Soviet Union. In 1976, the distinguished Soviet physicist, L. I. Rudakov, toured the US, speaking at several government facilities including the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He presented his latest ideas on electron beam fusion (a topic pertinent to hydrogen bombs). After each of his talks, the host laboratories were instructed by Washington not to discuss what he had told them [Metz]. We can only speculate about the rationale for this strange action to protect Soviet secrets, as the guidelines for governmental decisions dealing with secrecy are themselves generally secret.

The traditional way that important information unjustifiably classified as secret is brought out into the open is via the action of conscientious government employees, often called whistle-blowers. In line with the trend toward increased government secrecy, the current administration has been vigorously working to identify and criminally prosecute government whistle-blowers [Greenwald-2].

Staggering Numbers

Since the end of WW II the use of secrecy by the US government has proliferated at a wild rate. In 1970, a distinguished DoD committee chaired by Frederick Seitz and including Edward Teller produced a report on secrecy that recommended measures be taken to reduce the amount of classified material by 90% [Seitz]. It apparently had little effect. Nor did a 1997 report by a Senate committee chaired by Patrick Moynihan, which also deplored excessive secrecy [Moynihan].

The number of classification decisions made in 2001 was a whopping 8.7 million. This number increased to about 54.9 million in 2009, and then increased by about 40% to roughly 76.8 million (a record) in 2010. About 2.4 million people are cleared to see classified material, and, of these, about 854,000 are cleared for top-secrets. The government’s Information Security Oversight Office estimated that security classification activities cost the executive branch over $10.17 billion in 2010, and cost industry an additional $1.25 billion [German].

One important driving force propelling the explosive growth of secrecy is that it is much easier to criticize the release of a particular piece of information than it is to show that classifying it secret is harmful. So, from the point of view of the bureaucrat, the “safest” decision is to classify. Similarly, there is minimal motivation to declassify “secrets”, even when the passage of time has eliminated any need for secrecy (assuming it ever existed).

Another factor is that politicians and bureaucrats have learned how to use secrecy to promote many objectives having nothing to do with national security. Control of the release of information is a valuable political tool. It can be very useful for biasing the outcome of a policy debate, quashing a law suit, making a political ally look good, or making an opponent look bad, concealing a blunder, hiding wasteful expenditures, and covering up corruption.

The Future of Governmental Secrecy

It would be nice to be able to point to progress with respect to curbing governmental secrecy. Sadly, this just can’t be done. All indications are that it is growing like a malignant cancer. Secrecy in the US is facilitating, and is facilitated by, the permanent state of war and the continual erosion of civil liberties. The two major parties are equally responsible, tho the Democrats pretend otherwise [Strassel]. It is interesting that the same government that is concealing more and more of its activities from the public, is also, to a growing degree, snooping on the private affairs of the citizenry, stripping away traditional rights of privacy.


ACLU, “Government Seeks Return of Improperly Classified Document Given to ACLU”, July 14, 2011

Steven Aftergood, “Annual Secrecy Costs Now Exceed $10 Billion”, Secrecy News, May 4th, 2011

Ken Dilanian, “Overall U.S. intelligence budget tops $80 billion”, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2010

Mike German and Jay Stanley, “Drastic Measures Required: Congress Needs to Overhaul U.S. Secrecy Laws and Increase Oversight of the Secret Security Establishment”, The American Civil Liberties Union, July 2011

Josh Gerstein, “Obama admin asserts state secrets privilege to dismiss Muslims’ suit”, Politico, August 01, 2011

Glenn Greenwald-1, “Secrecy, leaks, and the real criminals”Salon, Aug 26, 2011

Glenn Greenwald-2, “Jane Mayer on the Obama war on whistle-blowers”, Salon, May 16, 2011

James Love, “Obama Administration Rules Texts of New IPR Agreement are State Secrets”, Huffington Post, March 12, 2009

William D. Metz, “Thermonuclear Fusion: U.S. Puts Wraps on Latest Soviet Work”, Science Magazine, VOL. 194, P. 166, 8 October 1976

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy”, Senate Document 105-2, 1997

Laura W. Murphy, “Intelligence Community’s Enormous Use Of Private Contractors Raises Civil Liberties Concerns, Says ACLU”, ACLU Release, July 20, 2010

Ellen Nakashima, “Administration rebuffs Wyden, Udall on surveillance query”, The Washington Post,July 27, 2011

NYT, “State Secrets Privilege”, The New York Times, May 24, 2011

Anthony D. Romero, “Obama Administration Reverses Promise To Release Torture Photos”, ACLU Release, May 13, 2009

Charlie Savage, “Ex-C.I.A. Agent Goes Public With Story of Mistreatment on the Job”, New York Times, February 10, 2011

Frederick Seitz, “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy”, Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, July 1, 1970

Tim Shorrock, “The corporate takeover of U.S. intelligence”, Salon, Jun 1, 2007

Kim Strassel, “Obama’s Empty Transparency Rhetoric”, The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2011

Stephen H. Unger, “You Can’t Have It Both Ways”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August/September 1983

Wikipedia, “Samuel Loring Morison”, Wikipedia

Stephen H. Unger is Professor Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Columbia University. He blogs at Ends and Means. Comments are invited and can be sent to unger [at]

2 responses to “Governmental Secrecy: Shield for Tyranny, Incompetence, and Corruption

  1. too many private interest groups are involved ,they can just buy secrecy

  2. Ricardo Ali Fernandez

    Thanks for this article. The executive branch trying to police itself does not work. My slightly fictionalized autobiography “La Taza Azul” is a plea for the ruling body to stop the abusive application of the “state-secret privilege” and related abuses.

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