Leaks can cause harm, but we need to understand that so much secrecy actually damages the country. Secrecy leads to claims of conspiracy. If we have classified information about the Roswell incident, an almost inevitable result will be assertions about UFOs and aliens. If everything is not disclosed about the investigation into JFK’s death, conspiratorial claims about the assassination proliferate. You might think you are above that kind of thing, but what was your response when you found out that Jared Kushner, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, had a secret meeting with the Russians? Doesn’t at least part of you think something nefarious was going on?
And once information has been kept from the public, simply disclosing it does not cure the conspiracy problem. If the government claims that every bit of stuff about Roswell has been disclosed, many will not trust that pronouncement. If they hid something once, why should I trust that they are not hiding something now? Secrecy leads to a distrust of government, and the country is harmed when the government is not trusted. The recent disclosure by the government of information about unidentified aerial phenomena will be an interesting test. Will all those UFO and alien theorists disappear, pack up their hairspray, and disappear from the History Channel?
Government secrecy, in a subtle and insidious way, also tends to corrupt the holder of the secrets. The official with a secret feels powerful. The secret becomes a form of currency, a coin that can be held for ego purposes—I know more than you do—even if that information should be exchanged or that coin spent to enhance the prestige of the leaker or to gain an advantage in an internal government dispute.
Secret information presents another danger. Because access to the information is limited, it cannot be analyzed by all those who might have useful insights about it. Our country has had notable intelligence lapses. Our intelligence agencies, for example, were not aware of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union or of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah. We cannot know–but it is possible–that the analyses would have been different if more of the classified information had been available to academics, businessmen, NGO representatives, and others who knew or had studied Russia and Iran. Senator Patrick Moynihan may have been right in his belief that the demise of the Soviet Union would have been forecast if the intelligence agencies had kept less information to themselves. Moynihan also maintained that the United States significantly overspent on military budgets because excessive secrecy allowed intelligence agencies to overestimate Soviet military strength.
There is a related danger. Policy makers who have already decided on a course of action can pick and choose classified information to disclose to support their predetermined path. With other information remaining secret that might undercut the chosen course, the proposed policy cannot be properly examined or challenged. In other words, Hello, Iraq War.
Another aspect of human nature also comes into play. We humans assume that information that is secret must be especially valuable. Why else would it be secret? Where secrecy predominates, what is not secret is too easily disregarded or dismissed.
And, of course, we can never really trust a leak. Not only does the leaker have some sort of motive for disclosing the particular information and for not disclosing something more, there is a natural inclination to make his own additions to the leaked material. Or at least this is a normal impulse if Seneca is right when he said, “Nobody will keep the thing he hears to himself, and nobody will repeat just what he hears and no more.” We hear about leaks with the complainer wanting us to assume that the disclosure has endangered the country. We should challenge that assumption. The dangers should not be accepted merely because someone in government asserts it. And even though making some government information public can be harmful, we should never lose sight of the fact that secrecy harms our nation. We should start from the position that a culture of secrecy is un-American.