As we think about the issue of truth and truth telling in the context of government secrecy, we encounter another interesting connection: that between transparency and security. We associate transparency or openness with trust. Secrecy, the opposite of transparency, is more complicated. Government agencies insist secrecy is essential to protect the American people from our nation’s enemies, yet the more secretive our servants become, the more insecure we feel. Only enemies need to keep secrets from us, and our enemies have initials like NSA, CIA, and FBI.
In light of this disagreement about the purposes of secrecy, let’s see why people who insist on truth telling get into trouble, why those in power regard with apprehension anyone determined to crack secret agencies open. Let’s see why people who insist on secrecy – to protect us, they claim! – wind up being vulnerable.
Let’s start with a ubiquitous example that illustrates how openness and security are related: software systems and computer networks. Theft of private information from retailers like Target tells us that security in this area does not come automatically. What is the best way to achieve it? Consider these thoughts about the way we count votes during an election.
Right around election day, in November 2012, someone who had thought about issues of computer security published comments on the software we use to record and count votes. A couple of analysts said the software they assessed is terrible. It is poorly constructed and easy to tamper with. Therefore you can’t have confidence in the results it gives you. One analyst said that the only way to make the software trustworthy is to make it open source. So long as it is proprietary, current problems with software security, and doubtful vote counts, will persist.
At first that doesn’t seem exactly right. Why would making software open source make it more secure? After all, open source is accessible to everyone. Developers can put all kinds of bad things into open source code if they like. Then you realize that openness does not degrade security because an open system is self-correcting. Only closed systems are subject to the security problems we have seen with vote counting software.
To take another example, no one has said Linux is insecure because it is open source. No one has ever praised Microsoft’s software systems as especially secure because they are proprietary. In these cases, openness enhances security. The developers who created Linux had good reasons to build security into their product from the start. Otherwise people simply would not use it. Microsoft’s developers, given the company’s position in the market, did not have much reason to improve their product’s security until customers began to complain about it. Even then, it took years to see improvements. Even after all that, which software do you trust more: Microsoft or Linux?
If we apply this thinking to foreign affairs, we have to ask why it would not apply to national security. Why do we think that transparency compromises security in this field? If we were to conduct foreign policy as an open source affair, we would have better security as a result, not worse.
When countries create policy, and interact on the basis of those policies, transparency creates trust, and opacity creates distrust. People who distrust you become your enemies, whereas people who trust you become your friends. The more enemies you have, the more insecure you become. The more friends you have, the more you can rest secure. A reasonable foreign policy will cultivate friends and minimize enemies. Friendly relations with other countries enhances confidence, security, and safety.
If you’re an old foreign policy realist, you say “Not so fast. We don’t have friends, only interests.” Old school thinking says that everyone is a potential adversary. Rivalry and enmity come with competition, and the wide world is nothing if not an arena for competitive activity. Let’s be realistic about the use of our power, realists say, let’s understand the reasons for our success. Success comes with secrecy, because knowledge is power. When we hold key knowledge close, we will always have an advantage.
That thinking gives you software systems subject to corruption and theft, vote counting systems susceptible to fraud, and aggressive wars hatched in secret. That kind of thinking gives you assassinations, false flag attacks, coups, and propaganda. If people can’t see inside, all manner of corruption ensues. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if actual corruption exists. If people can’t see inside, they can’t tell whether corruption exists or not. Given past behavior of power holders, people can assume safely that it does exist. Power holders do not receive benefit of the doubt here.
We come to the hardest nut in this matter of security: intelligence. The Central Intelligence Agency says it cannot disclose any information that would reveal intelligence sources and methods. That covers just about everything. With this argument, it keeps its budget secret, as well as everything else it does. Note, though, that our agencies attribute intelligence failures like 9/11 to an excess of secrecy. Whether or not you believe 9/11 occurred because of nineteen Saudi Arabians with box cutters, or for some other reason, less secrecy could have prevented it. Openness would have exposed the plot in time. Transparant systems are self-correcting.
Interestingly, cloaking arguments that advocate secrecy now apply to practically everything the government does. If you ask government for information about its activities, it has multiple reasons not to reveal the truth. It adapts arguments about the need for secrecy to any situation.
Now ask yourself why government would do that. A skeptic would say that it keeps information secret because it has something to hide. That is one reason for concealing information. No matter what the motive, when a servant keeps information secret from the master, the result is always the same: loss of trust. Government officials who hide information do so for multifarious reasons. Those motives create suspicion, whether the secrets hide actual corruption or not.
Ask yourself also whether keeping secrets makes nations and people more or less secure. This question has two forms. First is whether government’s opacity in foreign and domestic affairs makes us feel more safe, or less so. If we have only perceptions of security, then the availability of information wouldn’t seem to matter so much. In that case, actual safety ebbs and flows depending on current circumstances, fortune, ephemeral plans and all the twists of history. Second is whether government secrecy actually assures greater safety for the people government claims to protect. Here history’s judgment unequivocally comes down for transparency. Secrecy hides corruption, folly, crimes, dishonesty, cruelty, treachery and incompetence, with nothing from outside to correct these ills. Secrecy is the hidden worm that brings down the edifice.
So if you distrust the claims of government when it keeps secrets, your skepticism is well placed. If people call you unpatriotic or worse as a result, ignore the charge. You have a lot of smart software engineers, and historians, on your side.