THE SECRECY: THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
By Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Yale University Press
320 pp., $22.50
Once again, we can be grateful to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan for encouraging us to step back and look at one of the deeper issues confronting our nation. The senator is one of those exceptional individuals who deals with the myriad day-to-day issues that confront public figures, but still finds time to study dangerous trends below the surface. The excessive secrecy in our society is certainly one of those.
Many others have railed against undue secrecy in specific instances where some clear harm was being done. What Moynihan has achieved is an explanation of how secrecy has come to be a culture of its own in our government. He traces this culture back to World War I.
In the period between the outbreak of that war in 1914 and our entry into it in 1917, the country developed a near hysteria about potential sabotage by Germans. During that time, the FBI placed my own great-grandfather, who was born in Austria, under surveillance during a visit to Niagara Falls. Supposedly, the FBI was worried about his sabotaging power-generating facilities there.
It was the Espionage Act of 1917 that first legislated against sabotage, including disclosing the nation's secrets. Moynihan astutely describes how our bureaucracies quickly learned that having information that others want is a source of power. The senator enlivens his book with fascinating historical examples of how the thirst for secrecy is seemingly insatiable.
The second thrust of this book is to describe how secrecy has injured our nation. The senator uses a store of historical examples, clearly showing again and again our failure to forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union. He quotes an article of mine from 1991 to confirm that we failed.
He then goes on to attribute that failure to the fact that our intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union were not open and, therefore, not subjected to the scrutiny of experts outside the government.
In my view, there is another reason as well. While we understood that the Soviet Union's economy was faltering, we could not extrapolate that to political revolution because we were wedded to the image of a Soviet Union in which leaders could demand unlimited sacrifices from the people.
More public exposure of the intelligence community's evaluation of the Soviet Union could only have helped. Yet, the Central Intelligence Agency did consult a number of leading academic experts, and neither they nor the public literature warned about the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. The senator's quest for more openness in government could help us avoid many pitfalls, but it will not get us around quite as many as he suggests.
The third thrust of the book is what to do about the present situation. The description of the problem will itself be a big help in finding possible solutions. The book's principal recommendations are those of a congressionally mandated study Moynihan organized in 1997:
Establish more rigorous standards for classification.
Design a system for declassification with a limit of 10 years, other than in exceptional circumstances.
Form a national declassification center to oversee declassification efforts.
There is more, however, that could be attempted, short of going to total openness, which the senator comes close to recommending.
The book makes two important points we should absorb. One is that, although bureaucrats are not willing to accept it, the useful life of most secrets is quite brief. I would liked to have seen the book recommend that the 10-year limit be lowered to five, and that some impartial party be given the authority to review and reverse decisions of bureaucrats to retain secrets longer. This cannot be a declassification center dedicated to declassification, but a permanent presidentially appointed panel attuned to both the need for and danger of secrecy.
The book also notes that 60 percent of all classification actions are within the CIA. There is good reason for many of these in a field where our own people and foreign nationals risk their lives. It is unconscionable not to protect their identities as fully as possible. Moynihan suggests several times that we do not need many, if any, spies today. Theoretically, human spying has great advantages. What he must be saying is that in practice he does not think we are likely to achieve those advantages in a post-cold-war world. The senator needs to open that issue with his peers on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Beyond that, the CIA's culture of secrecy is deeply embedded. I would have liked the senator, with his broad background in intelligence, to have addressed how to diminish it. If this is where 60 percent of the problem lies, it deserves attention.
Secrecy deserves more public attention, too, and this book is the best starting point for understanding this phenomenon of our society.
* Adm. Stansfield Turner was director of Central Intelligence from 1977 to 1981.