National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change

12.06.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

On December 3, I participated in an interesting, somewhat testy discussion about Wikileaks on the show Democracy Now along with Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, who is a passionate defender of the project.  The ultimate victory of Wikileaks (or something like it) is guaranteed, Mr. Greenwald suggested, so any criticism of it is basically irrelevant.

“We can debate WikiLeaks all we want,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because the technology that exists is inevitably going to subvert these institutions’ secrecy regimes. It’s too easy to take massive amounts of secret [material] and dump it on the internet….  And I think that what we’re talking about is inevitable, whether people like Steven Aftergood or Joe Lieberman or others like it or not.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  It is true that Wikileaks offers the most direct public access to the diplomatic cables and other records that it has published, most of which could not be obtained any time soon through normal channels.  But instead of subverting secrecy regimes, Wikileaks appears to be strengthening them, as new restrictions on information sharing are added and security measures are tightened.  (Technology can be used to bolster secrecy as well as subvert it.)

In fact, Wikileaks may deliberately be attempting, in a quasi-Marxist way, to subvert secrecy by provoking governments to strengthen it.  But please try this in your own country first.

It was ordinary political advocacy, not leaks, that produced reversals of longstanding U.S. government secrecy policies this year on nuclear stockpile secrecy and intelligence budget secrecy.  It was also political advocacy, not leaks, that led to the declassification of more than a billion pages of classified records since 1995.  Obviously, much more remains to be done, and the tools available to transparency advocates are not as powerful as one would wish.  Leaks that serve the public interest have their honored place;  more would be welcome.  Advocacy may fail, and often does.  Nothing is inevitable, as far as I know.  But so far it is still politics, not the subversion or repudiation of politics, that has produced the greater impact on U.S. secrecy policy.  (The calculation may well be different in other countries.)

The susceptibility of secrecy policy to political action was discussed in a paper I wrote on “National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change” (pdf). It will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2010 issue of the journal Social Research that is devoted to the topic of “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy.”