Back when victory in the Cold War was still a prospect, thirty years ago, analysts had some fixed ideas about why the conflict endured. Analysts also held small hope the standoff would ever end, at least not while they had anything to say about it. One explanation for the its enduring nature was the arms race, along with the fear and edginess those large arsenals caused. Another reason was the continued occupation of Eastern Europe, which the West saw as the original cause of the conflict. A third idea was that when two great powers face each other like that, neither one will back down, for reasons of status, pride, and self-protection.
Ronald Reagan proposed an explanation of his own, one that showed his understanding of the way people and groups interact when they come into conflict. He said we could never trust the Soviet Union – as an adversary or as an ally for peace – while its government maintained a closed society. How can you have confidence in what they say, he asked, if they do everything in secret? Reagan indicated that was true not only for the Soviets’ dealings internationally: the Communist party kept everything secret from its own citizens as well.
Not so long after Reagan’s observation, Mikhail Gorbachev promoted glasnost – openness – as the leading edge of his initiatives for change. He apparently agreed with Reagan: no one could trust the Communist Party or the Soviet Union without openness, or transparency as we now call it. No adversaries, or potential friends, within or without the Soviet Union would make peace with its leaders, unless the leaders could create some degree of trust. Gorbachev and Reagan both grasped that trust begets goodwill. Goodwill begets peace because it helps leaders recognize where their interests coincide. Distrust fosters conflict because it is the deepest form of alienation. You can try to cooperate with someone you distrust, but the relationship does not last.
In matters of secrecy and trustworthiness, if not yet in brutality, the United States government in the twenty-first century resembles the Soviet government during the Cold War. Governments – which include intelligence agencies, internal security forces, military organizations, and regulatory bodies – have always guarded information carefully for various reasons. The United States government, however, has moved strongly away from openness and toward secrecy since 9/11. Evidence for this change is everywhere, most recently in the government’s atrocious war on whistleblowers. Consequences of this change, where secrecy fosters suspicion and conflict, appear everywhere as well. Consider for instance the reactions of allied leaders who discovered the National Security Agency has been spying on them. Anger congeals into distrust in a case like that.
A clear development since 2001 has been a move toward ambitious, even gigantic military and intelligence operations that require secrecy, to protect government’s freedom to conduct those operations. That imperative applies abroad and at home, to warfare, torture and imprisonment, intelligence gathering and analysis, diplomacy, domestic surveillance, propaganda, threat assessment, homeland security and basic law enforcement. Practically every function of the national security state presupposes that public authorities are the sole source of information about what the state has done, is doing, or is about to do. We have no independent way to determine whether or not those authorities are honest. Therefore we have no way to know whether or not they have committed crimes.
The 9/11 attacks, themselves creatures of the national security state, destroy our democracy even now. They do so by making our government a closed organization, largely with our consent. As a result, government has alienated itself from the people it is supposed to serve. It treats citizens as enemies – people to be feared, monitored, manipulated, and controlled. In that situation, citizens skeptical of power and claims to authority naturally come to fear their government. Alienation and fear lead to obstinacy, and eventually to resistance. That is just what we find in the relationship between citizens and government in our country. We cannot trust our government when most of its acts occur in secret, when it lies to cover its crimes, and when it acts in multiple ways to conceal its motives. Secret organizations with power cannot coexist in peace with democratic institutions, or with citizens who insist upon freedom. They must be at war.
The Cold War ended when Gorbachev cracked open the Communist Party’s hidden ways of power, just enough to give people some hope for honesty and happiness. An empire fell, Gorbachev lost his job, but the trust he kindled between himself and Reagan proved just enough to end a forty-five year conflict. What will happen in the antagonistic relationship between citizens and government in our country? We cannot wait two generations – half a century – to learn the answer, for tyranny once established, does not readily give way.
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 so-called protectors become, the more insecure we feel. Friends do not need to keep secrets, only enemies, and our enemies have initials like NSA, CIA, and FBI.
In light of this basic disagreement about the purposes of secrecy, let’s see why those in power regard with apprehension anyone determined to tell the truth, to reveal what must stay hidden if powerful institutions are to stay that way. Why do we think that transparency compromises security in foreign policy? If we were to conduct foreign policy openly, we would have better security as a result, not worse. By contrast, people who insist on secrecy wind up making their nations vulnerable and weak. Why? Because secrecy makes other countries distrust you, and the paths from distrust to fear, and from fear to enmity, are extraordinarily short.
People say that information is power, but the true source of power lies in transparency. That is because transparency creates trust, which is really just another form of love. No amount of coercion can ever overcome that. People who distrust you eventually hate you, 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. An open, reasonable foreign policy cultivates friends and minimizes enemies. Friendly relations with other countries, no matter how different they are, enhances confidence, good will, security, and safety.
A traditional realist might say, “Slow down. 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, 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 officials who practice torture and fraud, aggressive wars hatched in secret, and a reputation for treachery so vivid no one would ever think to help you, let alone follow you, out of anything but fear. 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. Transparent systems are self-correcting.
Increasingly, arguments that advocate secrecy apply to almost everything government does. If you request information from the feds about their activities, they have multiple reasons not to reveal the truth. They adapt arguments about the need for secrecy to any situation. Ask yourself why government would do that. A skeptic would say that it keeps information secret because it has plenty to hide. That is one reason for concealing information. No matter what the motive, when servants keep information secret from their masters, the result is always the same: loss of trust. Government officials, who are supposed to be servants, information for multifarious reasons. Those motives create suspicion, whether the secrets hide actual corruption or not.
Once again, ask yourself 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 an ample history of folly committed by powerful people on your side.