National security secrecy, which remains a source of conflict and consternation, inspires a steady flow of books and journal articles. As in other policy-related fields, much of this literature is tendentious, derivative or dull. Some of it is insightful, original or usefully provocative.
Most works naturally occupy a middle ground including both virtues and defects. Two highly original works on secrecy in recent years — Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Secrecy: The American Experience and Garry Wills’ Bomb Power — also have significant conceptual flaws and factual errors. That is to say, it is hard to write a good book about secrecy.
With that in mind, here are some notable recent additions to the literature.
** Secrecy in the Sunshine Era: The Promise and Failure of U.S. Open Government Laws by Jason Ross Arnold (University Press of Kansas, 542 pages, 2014).
This is a study of the impact of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act. It presents a survey of how these open government laws were implemented through successive administrations and how they were sometimes circumvented.
“The sunshine laws of the 1970s substantially revised the way information flowed through the American political system,” writes Arnold. “It is hard to deny that the new legal framework placed serious constraints on executive branch officials.”
Nevertheless, “excessive secrecy still reigned in the sunshine era,” he concludes. “All administrations did what they could… to twist around the statutes when they deemed it necessary. All diverged from their own pro-transparency rhetoric and rules.”
** A Proposal to Reduce Government Overclassification of Information Related to National Security by Herbert Lin, Journal of National Security Law & Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2014.
This article focuses on the perennial problem of overclassification and proposes a solution. It would seek to alter the incentives that currently favor (over)classification by establishing new incentives to reduce classification.
“Classification should not be a free good,” Lin writes. He defines a classification cost metric that would reflect the relative importance of different classified documents, and that would make it possible to “budget” for classification.
Through the application of appropriate incentives, “Those who actually make decisions about classification should benefit from reductions in the amount of classified information produced.”
The author anticipates several objections to his idea, and offers responses to them.
** Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare by Scott Horton (Nation Books, 272 pages, 2015).
Sometimes secrecy is not simply an annoying artifact of national security bureaucracy, but is itself a weapon in the struggle for power. The use of secrecy in this way is corrosive and has now become disabling to American democracy, according to author Scott Horton.
While most national security attention is focused on threats from abroad, Horton says “the more serious threats to American democracy are internal. They stem from a steady transfer of democratic decision making and authority away from the people and to unelected elites. This has occurred both with respect to the disproportionate grasp of power by wealthy super elites, and by the rise of national security elites who increasingly take the key decisions about national security matters without involving the people in any meaningfully democratic process.”
“More effectively than before, they use secrecy not only to cover up their past mistakes but also to wrest from the public decisions about the future that properly belong to the people.”