Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life
by Ted Gup
Doubleday. 336 pp. $24.95
The head of the National Clandestine Service, a branch of the CIA that coordinates the agency’s human-intelligence work, is a man named Jose. The Washington press corps knows that name, and also knows the man’s surname. But the surname is a secret, and the CIA is at pains to remind journalists that it may not be published. The surname has yet to be mentioned in any reputable American newspaper or on any television program.
This seems most peculiar. Jose’s predecessors at the job made no efforts to keep their names secret. But what is truly bizarre is the fact that anybody in the whole wide world can ascertain the surname on the Internet. A Google search for keywords like “Jose” and “clandestine” will quickly provide this information and a lot more about the man.
I learned all of the above from Nation of Secrets, which tells the story at length in a chapter titled: “Case Study: He Who Must Not Be Named.” At the end of the chapter, the author, Ted Gup, a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve, also declines to provide Jose’s surname. (He says he has “no interest in squaring off with the Justice Department.”) In any case, his point in telling the story is simply to persuade his readers that we have too many secrets out there.
Americans are deeply divided about the need for secrecy these days. What might be called the official view is that terrifying new threats to national security require us to limit access to more and more sensitive information. But there is plenty of support for an alternative perspective, which holds this secrecy to be largely unnecessary or ineffectual, and in any case incompatible with the values and mores of an open society.
As the subtitle of Nation of Secrets heavily hints, the “anti-secrecy” logic makes sense to Gup. Earlier in his career, he was for many years an investigative reporter for the Washington Post and Time, and in his new book he makes it clear that he is still quite expert at digging up startling data. Nor are the secrets he is bemoaning confined to national security. Gup believes that secrecy is getting out of hand, and corroding democratic values, in many other realms of American life as well.
He has a chapter on journalistic secrecy, for example, which registers dismay at the extent to which the media themselves withhold information from the public. Another chapter dwells on the propensity of colleges to keep students in the dark about major matters that concern them. Other chapters deal with “the culture of corporate secrecy” and with secrets in the judicial context, especially the tendency of judges to seal the settlements reached by adversaries in court.
But the heart of Gup’s case has to do with official practices in Washington, D.C. Here his main point is that the classifying of documents as the main means of achieving secrecy is out of control. Elaborating this proposition, he hits the reader with a barrage of arresting facts and statistics.
Virtually all classification of the nation’s secrets is initiated in one of five federal agencies: the Defense Department, the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, and the National Reconnaissance Office. Something like 4,000 government employees at these agencies are empowered to rule that a document must be kept secret, and to specify the degree of secrecy required.
In fiscal year 2005, they collectively created 262,592 secrets. Some 80 percent of them were classified “secret” or “top secret.” By official definition, “secret” material is material whose exposure might cause a “serious threat” to national security. The corresponding language for “top secret” is “exceptionally grave danger to the national security.”
But this is just the beginning of the process. The figures in the previous paragraph refer only to “original classification.” Federal regulations provide that if a classified secret is alluded to in another document, then that document too must be classified. It turns out that this “derivative classification” pumps up the totals exponentially. In 2005, the number of derivative classifications totaled 14,206,778. At the Pentagon, roughly a thousand officials have the authority to make original classifications, but 1.8 million officials, spread over many different agencies, can do the deed derivatively.
And even that is not the end of it. Gup complains that the familiar old classification system is increasingly augmented by a vast array of informal designations. Documents get stamped “Sensitive Internal Use,” or “Non-Public Information,” or “Limited Distribution,” and other phrases signifying that the material is not to be distributed. It appears that the Department of Energy has 15 different designations for documents that are not classified but are nevertheless off-limits to the public and the press.
Gup identifies the explosion of “sensitive but unclassified” documents, the so-called SBU’s, as a new threat to open government. He says that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of government employees and private contractors can now, arbitrarily and with complete immunity, label documents “sensitive” and thereby restrict their circulation.
The expansion of these practices obviously owes a great deal to post-9/11 terrorist threats, which left Americans everywhere concerned about their vulnerability. In the new environment, bridges, tunnels, subways, Super Bowls, power plants, reservoirs, airports, pipelines, and many more sites were suddenly identifiable as potential targets. All over America, engineering blue-prints suddenly became classified documents.
But as Gup points out, something else has also been driving the secrecy trend, which had been rising sharply even before the Twin Towers were hit. The rise was especially notable in fiscal year 2000, in which the total number of newly classified documents rose from 8 million to nearly 23 million. Gup believes that the country’s growing reliance on e-mail had a lot to do with that increase. When officials in the Pentagon or CIA communicated by phone, there was nothing to classify. But when they communicate via e-mail, a document is created, and if the document incorporates any classified information, then the entire exchange will be classified.
What is one to make of this avalanche of secrets?
As is often the case with investigative reporters, Gup seems to do better at developing facts than at explicating their meaning. He thus runs into several problems. One is with the secrecy-privacy nexus.
When discussing electronic intercepts by the U.S. government of the conversations of criminals and terrorists, Gup frets about the implications for the privacy of innocent people. But it is hard to take him seriously as an advocate of privacy. In assailing the colleges for providing less information to students, Gup seems oblivious of the fact that much of the information in question—e.g., about rapes and other crimes on campus—is being withheld because of the accused students’ privacy rights. In criticizing judges who encourage out-of-court settlements, he ignores the fact that one reason litigants like them is the privacy they afford. Opposing these settlements, Gup never delineates the appropriate boundary between secrecy and the public’s right to be informed.
Similarly, when Gup turns to national security, nowhere in the book does he explore how to distinguish between secrecy that is logical and legitimate in the wake of 9/11 and secrecy that is futile and dangerous. His inability to deal with this basic division becomes clear in a passage about the role of the press.
The media’s proper role is “to stand as a sentinel,” Gup writes, so that government officials will at all points know that their actions are going to be reported. He then adds that there will of course be exceptions: cases in which the press accepts the government’s appeal to hold off on reporting certain stories. And when should the press hold off? Gup’s cop-out answer: when the government’s request would not compromise “commonly held standards of decency and law.” In other words, secrecy is okay when right-thinking people agree that it is okay.
Meanwhile, there is no reason to accept Gup’s awesome statistics as evidence that secrecy is out of control. The United States is a superpower with interests and commitments all over the globe. It is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and faces adversaries who have struck its homeland and have pledged to do so again. It would be strange indeed if the number of restricted documents were not staggering. It would also be strange if, among that staggering number, there were not instances of abuse.
Gup argues not only that there are too many secrets, but that they threaten the people’s freedom—that secrecy has put American democracy in peril. This proposition, unconvincing to begin with, is escalated by Gup to an even wilder assertion: that the Bush administration used 9/11-based secrecy as an excuse for a power grab. He says it “deftly parlayed public fears and insecurities into support for its expanded secrecy and concomitant widening of executive authority.”
To be sure, Gup is by no means the first to level this charge; the New York Times already said as much in 2005, warning that the Patriot Act “provides license for federal agents to spy on innocent people and suppress dissent.” Gup goes in a somewhat different direction, ominously asserting that “It does not take long for excessive secrecy to infantilize a population.” One yearns to see the research undergirding that statement.
It is perhaps understandable that an author determined to prove that secrecy has become ubiquitous, and that it threatens our basic freedoms, would end up resisting some obvious considerations. One is that in many different contexts, secrecy is close to synonymous with privacy. Another is that secrecy, in many other different contexts, really is essential to security.