Leaks of classified information can cause harm, but we also need to understand that too much secrecy can damage the country. Secrecy leads to claims of conspiracy that cause distrust of the government. If everything is not disclosed about the investigation into JFK’s death, conspiratorial claims about the assassination proliferate.
And once information has been kept from the public, simply disclosing it does not cure the conspiratorial problem. If the government claims that every bit of stuff about the Roswell incident has now been disclosed, many will not trust that pronouncement. If officials 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.
In a subtle and insidious way government secrecy 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 or prestige purposes—I know more than you do—even if information should be exchanged.
Hiding 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 had more of the classified information been available to academics, businessmen, NGO representatives, and others who knew or had studied Russia and Iran. Sen. Patrick Moynihan believed that the demise of the Soviet Union could 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 being withheld as secret, 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 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 as unimportant.
And, of course, we can never really trust a leak. First, the leaker has some sort of motive for disclosing only this particular information and nothing more. Moreover, there is a natural inclination to make his own additions to the leaked material. Seneca, noting this aspect of human behavior, 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 when the complainer wants 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 says so. And even though making some government information public can be harmful, we should never lose sight of the fact that secrecy regularly harms our nation. We should start from the position that a culture of secrecy is un-American.
Democracy, the functioning of our economy, and the proper operation of our government depend upon open information. Government secrecy, while sometimes necessary, conflicts with that, and we should be having regular conversations about how our secrecy system works and how well it serves us. We should be asking: Who determines what is secret? How is secrecy determined? What are the procedures for determining when the need for secrecy is no longer necessary, and how well do those procedures work? How often are documents declassified? Under what conditions? How often does the unauthorized disclosure of what the government claims should be secret harm our national security?