One of the most persistent challenges of U.S. national security policy is balancing the short-term benefits of secrecy with the long-term benefits of openness. Government agencies responsible for dealing with national security threats will often be more effective if they are allowed to keep certain details about their activities secret. But openness is not just a cherished American value; it is a core element of American strength. Government officials who ignore this fact and insist on secrecy whenever it seems convenient will serve their agencies and their country poorly.
In Democracy in the Dark, Frederick Schwarz, Jr., has produced a thoughtful, authoritative account of this problem, focusing on the troubling consequences of excessive secrecy. In the mid-1970s, Schwarz, a veteran lawyer, served as the chief counsel to the Church Committee, a Senate body that examined U.S. intelligence activities and revealed significant abuses, laying the foundation for major reforms, including expanded congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies. Schwarz addresses his topic with a thorough and evenhanded approach, and his work is a must-read for anyone interested in a detailed treatment of this subject.
Schwarz strengthens his analysis by acknowledging at the outset that there can be legitimate reasons for keeping certain information secret from the public. Americans today do not expect the Obama administration to reveal the details of troop movements in Afghanistan any more than early Americans expected George Washington to disclose his strategy for the Battle of Yorktown. The challenge is to figure out where to draw the line between genuinely important secrets and information that would be unwise or improper to withhold from the public. As Schwarz makes clear, U.S. policymakers and intelligence officials have too often drawn that line in the wrong place, unjustifiably concealing information that the public has a need and a right to know. “Too much is kept secret not to protect America,” he writes, “but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans.”
THE PERILS OF SECRET LAW
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