Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy

02.05.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In testimony this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair declared unequivocally that Al Qaeda would attempt to attack the United States within the next six months.  “The priority is certain, I would say,” he told the Committee.

This recalls nothing so much as the startling August 6, 2001 item in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) that was entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” (pdf).

But the 2001 warning to President Bush was classified at the highest possible level and remained secret for years thereafter, until it was finally dislodged at the insistence of the 9/11 Commission.  In contrast, DNI Blair’s comparable statement was openly presented and was about as public as it could be.

Why should that be so?  Clearly the political circumstances for the two warnings are different, as are the venues in which they were delivered.  But it is also true that the parameters of official secrecy are subject to change.  Yesterday’s top secret might not even qualify as today’s front-page news.

The boundaries of official secrecy will be examined at a conference at the New School in New York City on February 24-26 on “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy.”

“There is no question that the free access to knowledge and information are the bedrock of all democratic societies, yet no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential and what must remain secret,” according to the conference overview. “The tension among these competing ends is ever present and continuously raises questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safeguard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it?”

I will be speaking on February 26 on “National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change.”