When secrets are kept to preserve information vital to national security, the interests of a democracy are served. When secrets are kept to avoid embarrassing a senior official who’s done something stupid, we are not able to learn from our mistakes, and the whole country is made a bit dumber. And when secrets are kept in order to conceal a serious crime, the act of keeping secrets is itself essentially criminal, and confidence in the system of state secrecy is shattered. Over the last eight years, the first, legitimate sort of state secret has rarely been in evidence. Secrets are kept to avoid embarrassment and increasingly to prevent discovery of the most serious crimes, including torture and murder of innocents. The New York Times puts it this way:
There are times when governments fight to keep documents secret to protect sensitive intelligence or other vital national security interests. And there are times when they are just trying to cover up incompetence, misbehavior or lawbreaking.
Last week, when a British court released secret intelligence material relating to the torture allegations of a former Guantánamo prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, it was clear that the second motive had been in play when both the Bush and the Obama administrations and some high-ranking British officials tried to prevent the disclosure. Mr. Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident, is a victim of President George W. Bush’s extraordinary rendition program, under which foreigners were kidnapped and flown to other countries for interrogation and torture. He was subjected to physical and psychological abuse in Pakistan, Morocco and a C.I.A.-run prison outside Kabul before being sent to Guantánamo. His seven-year ordeal ended when he was freed last February.
We are far from knowing all the secrets of the Binyam Mohamed case, and misleading statements are still being disseminated from official sources to cover them up. The case of Shaker Aamer, still mysteriously locked up in Guantánamo, is almost certainly tied closely to them. When the light ultimately shines through, as it surely will, we are likely to gain a better understanding of the perverse crimes committed in the guise of national security. But taking full stock of these crimes and acting on what we learn is what democracy is all about.