Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy

In testimony this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair declared unequivocally that Al Qaeda would attempt to attack the United States within the next six months.  “The priority is certain, I would say,” he told the Committee.

This recalls nothing so much as the startling August 6, 2001 item in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) that was entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” (pdf).

But the 2001 warning to President Bush was classified at the highest possible level and remained secret for years thereafter, until it was finally dislodged at the insistence of the 9/11 Commission.  In contrast, DNI Blair’s comparable statement was openly presented and was about as public as it could be.

Why should that be so?  Clearly the political circumstances for the two warnings are different, as are the venues in which they were delivered.  But it is also true that the parameters of official secrecy are subject to change.  Yesterday’s top secret might not even qualify as today’s front-page news.

The boundaries of official secrecy will be examined at a conference at the New School in New York City on February 24-26 on “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy.”

“There is no question that the free access to knowledge and information are the bedrock of all democratic societies, yet no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential and what must remain secret,” according to the conference overview. “The tension among these competing ends is ever present and continuously raises questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safeguard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it?”

I will be speaking on February 26 on “National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change.”

No Responses to “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy”

  1. John February 5, 2010 at 4:18 PM #


    My reading of the Blair exchange at SSCI was that Feinstein had posed a question with a timeframe, DNI answered along the lines of acknowledging that mounting such an attack is undoubtedly AQ’s top priority, and that everybody rushed to judge that there is concrete intelligence of an AQ attack on the US in the next 3-6 months.

    Without further information, this is definitely not the equivalent of the Aug 6, 2001 PDB!

    This was Mazzetti and rat pack journalism. And it contributes to public confusion and hysteria. There is no reason we should contribute to this, in fact we should call them on it. The transaction is akin to Ashcroft raising the color code to higher levels based on Zubaydah talking about bridges and shopping centers.

  2. Steven Aftergood February 5, 2010 at 4:21 PM #

    Thanks, I agree that Blair’s statement and the PDB are not equivalent. But I also think they have a family resemblance (i.e., both included an urgent statement of warning, but with no precise date, place, or means of execution).

    I think Blair is to blame for any resulting confusion rather than Mazzetti, et al. Feinstein clearly asked about the likelihood of an attack, not about AQ’s “priorities,” and all of the IC officials responded in terms of certainty. Whether their statements are accurate or reliable is another question.

    Here is the relevant excerpt from the transcript:

    FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador.

    To begin the questions, I’d like to ask a very specific question of each one of you, if you would answer it. The question is, what is the likelihood of another terrorist attempted attack on the U.S. homeland in the next three to six months, high or low?

    Director Blair?

    BLAIR: An attempted attack, the priority is certain, I would say.

    FEINSTEIN: Mr. Panetta?

    PANETTA: I would agree with that.

    FEINSTEIN: Mr. Mueller?

    MUELLER: Agree.

    FEINSTEIN: General Burgess?

    BURGESS: Yes, ma’am. Agree.

    FEINSTEIN: Mr. Dinger?

    DINGER: Yes.

    FEINSTEIN: All right. I think that tells us something very clearly.

  3. Robert February 5, 2010 at 4:26 PM #

    Hello Mr Aftergood, I always enjoy your newsletter and your critiques regarding information. I saw your notice regarding the upcoming conference in New York, Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy and I took a look at the background of the speakers. It’s packed with academics and a few people who obviously lean to the left. There isn’t even a pretense of balance. The conference needs speakers who have had experience with real decisions about secrecy and democracy.

    The question that the conference poses is serious and timely and deserves comments from both sides of the issue, if the conference wants credibility it has to entertain opposing viewpoints.

    I would stilll enjoy hearing you speak. Good luck and enjoy yourself.

  4. Steven Aftergood February 5, 2010 at 4:29 PM #

    Thanks, I understand your point. I probably would have structured the conference differently if I were in charge.

    If you have a continuing interest in the subject, I would recommend a forthcoming book called “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law” by Gabriel Schoenfeld.

    The author is a political conservative but — forgive the “but” — he is also a thoughtful and scrupulous writer. I’m halfway through a review copy of the book, and it’s excellent. It should be published within a few months.