No Comment — October 7, 2011, 2:12 pm

Secrecy: Making America Dumber and Less Democratic?

On Wednesday, Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times:

Speaking hours after the world learned that a C.I.A. drone strike had killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, President Obama could still not say the words “drone” or “C.I.A.” That’s classified.

Instead, in an appearance at a Virginia military base just before midday Friday, the president said that Mr. Awlaki, the American cleric who had joined Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, “was killed” and that this “significant milestone” was “a tribute to our intelligence community.” The president’s careful language was the latest reflection of a growing phenomenon: information that is public but classified.

The passage demonstrates well how classification undercuts meaningful public discussion of vital national-security issues. The CIA’s drone war in Pakistan and Yemen is being talked about around the world; in Pakistan, details about strikes are reported more promptly and deeply than in the United States. Only in the U.S. is the public subjected to stilted, bizarrely passive statements from officials about matters that are common knowledge. The reason: here, the CIA drone program is “covert action.” Officially acknowledging its existence could be grounds for a criminal prosecution.

To take another example, this past weekend the Washington Post disclosed that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), notorious most recently for its series of opinions purporting to authorize torture and warrantless surveillance, had issued a secret memorandum telling President Obama he had the authority, under the right circumstances, to authorize the extrajudicial killing of al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. The existence of the memo became known several days after al-Awlaki was killed in the strike that President Obama couldn’t bring himself to describe accurately. Obama, recall, entered office pledging that his government wouldn’t craft legal policy in secret, and burnished this pledge by publishing a slew of unctuous OLC memoranda dealing with torture and warrantless surveillance, among other issues. So what do we make of the al-Awlaki memo? With him dead, all rationale for withholding it evaporated, but the document, which lays the legal foundations for a military program of growing significance, remains inexplicably secret — leaving policy experts to guess at the Administration’s principles from the bits and pieces leaked by its surrogates.

One final example: the plight of career foreign-service officer Peter Van Buren, who found himself subjected to intense interrogation by federal agents after writing a blog post that linked to a site where State Department cables released by WikiLeaks had been published. It was a new extension of the U.S. government’s wacky policy of denying its employees the right to see and read documents that everyone else in the world can see and read (including the enemies from whom the papers were apparently to be kept secret). The strategy represents a perfect inversion of the purpose of secrecy policies: now only U.S. government officials — the very people who might be called upon to explain or defend sensitive documents — are forbidden to read them. The idea that being uninformed better arms diplomats for public diplomacy is truly novel.

These incidents all point to cascading problems with zealous and increasingly irrational classification policies. The claim that they keep the country safe is wearing thin. The alternative explanation is more compelling: they exist to build the power and exclusivity of America’s unelected national-security elites. And they serve to keep the public ignorant, to shield indefensible and poorly conceived policies from public discussion, and to prevent oversight by Congress and independent rulings by the courts.

New York University’s Brennan Center has just published a report making a series of modest suggestions for counteracting overclassification:

  • Periodic audits by the Inspector General of relevant agencies to identify classification mistakes

  • Modest rewards to “whistleblowers” who report classification abuses

  • Possible suspension or loss of classification rights for civil servants found to seriously abuse the classification process.

The report’s co-author, Elizabeth Goitein, told me she was optimistic that the Obama Administration would take at least some steps to limit the proliferation of classified information. But she recognized that broader secrecy reform remains unlikely, especially since most judges and members of Congress tend to accept executive-branch claims of secrecy without question. Goitein specifically challenged the Justice Department’s decision to keep the al-Awlaki memorandum secret:

The withholding of the legal basis for targeting al-Awlaki is inappropriate for two reasons. First, the world already knows that the U.S. killed al-Awlaki; how could it possibly harm national security to disclose why the Justice Department believes the killing was legal? Second, unless rejected by the President or superseded by a court ruling, OLC’s legal interpretations are binding on the executive branch. Undisclosed OLC opinions are therefore a kind of “secret law,” something that has no place in a democracy.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • Carmen Damocles

    Not sure about the influence of the political arena, but culture-wise, I believe Americans have had relatively bad lifestyles, leading them to become weaker, both bodily and mentally. A cost of reckless prosperity, maybe.



May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:


Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today