Bomb Power and the Roots of Government Secrecy

In his provocative new book “Bomb Power” (Penguin Press, 2010) historian Garry Wills argues that the rise of the National Security State and the ongoing expansion of presidential authority, including the spread of government secrecy, are rooted in the development of the atomic bomb in World War II.

“At the bottom of it all has been the Bomb,” writes Prof. Wills.  “All this grew out of the Manhattan Project, out of its product, and even more out of its process.  The project’s secret work, secretly funded at the behest of the President, was a model for the covert activities and overt authority of the government we now experience.”

The thesis of the book is not always clear or consistent.  Most often, the author refers to the secret creation of the bomb as a “model” or a precedent that would later be exploited in other contexts.  But sometimes the bomb project is seen as an integral part of other seemingly unrelated expressions of presidential authority and “the seed of all the growing powers that followed.”  And sometimes, for Prof. Wills, there is nothing else besides the bomb:  “Executive power has basically been, since World II, Bomb Power” (p. 4).

The failure to clearly distinguish or demonstrate the bomb’s asserted role — whether it is the model, the origin or the driving influence behind the growth of executive power — limits the force of the book’s argument.  If the bomb project was merely a model for organizing government activity (“the Manhattan Project showed modern Presidents the way”), then it should in principle be subject to replacement by other models.  But if it is now inextricably intertwined with the whole machinery of government, then government might be beyond the possibility of reform unless and until the bomb itself can be eliminated.

Prof. Wills, the author of many award-winning books, writes fluently and engagingly on a wide range of topics.  But in “Bomb Power,” his history is occasionally garbled.

In a chronology of the development of the National Security State, he says that covert action was authorized and defined in 1947 in the National Security Act, “despite misgivings expressed by Dean Acheson and others,” and that the 1947 Act also required regular notification to congressional intelligence committees (pp. 82-84).  But the original National Security Act was famously silent on covert action, only assigning to CIA “such other functions and duties… as the President… may direct.”  The statutory definition of covert action that Prof. Wills quotes was not enacted into law until 1991.  Likewise, notification to Congress of intelligence operations abroad was not required by law until the Hughes-Ryan Act in 1974.

But what is most disturbing of all is the author’s casual, world-weary dismissal of the possibility of change, and especially of efforts to rein in government secrecy.  “The hope of decreasing the mountains of secrecy is vanishing or gone,” he declares flatly (p. 138).  “Consider all of the classified material [now in existence],” he told National Public Radio earlier this week.  “To declassify that is immensely time consuming and expensive.  So, it’s not going to happen.”

This is a lazy and destructive message and, I think, a false one.

Though it is hard to reconcile with Prof. Wills’ theory of inexorably expanding executive power, the President of the United States last month issued an order imposing significant new limits on national security secrecy.  Stating that “No information may remain classified indefinitely,” President Obama set maximum classification lifetimes for all records, including intelligence records.  He directed that a backlog of 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification will not only be declassified but will also be made publicly available within four years.  He established a new internal review process, with public reporting requirements, to eliminate obsolete classification practices in every classifying agency at the front end of the process.  Perhaps these and numerous other related steps will all fail. But nothing in Prof. Wills’ argument dictates that outcome, and “Bomb Power” does no one any favors by fostering public cynicism and declaring defeat before the battle is over.