National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change

On December 3, I participated in an interesting, somewhat testy discussion about Wikileaks on the show Democracy Now along with Glenn Greenwald of, who is a passionate defender of the project.  The ultimate victory of Wikileaks (or something like it) is guaranteed, Mr. Greenwald suggested, so any criticism of it is basically irrelevant.

“We can debate WikiLeaks all we want,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because the technology that exists is inevitably going to subvert these institutions’ secrecy regimes. It’s too easy to take massive amounts of secret [material] and dump it on the internet….  And I think that what we’re talking about is inevitable, whether people like Steven Aftergood or Joe Lieberman or others like it or not.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  It is true that Wikileaks offers the most direct public access to the diplomatic cables and other records that it has published, most of which could not be obtained any time soon through normal channels.  But instead of subverting secrecy regimes, Wikileaks appears to be strengthening them, as new restrictions on information sharing are added and security measures are tightened.  (Technology can be used to bolster secrecy as well as subvert it.)

In fact, Wikileaks may deliberately be attempting, in a quasi-Marxist way, to subvert secrecy by provoking governments to strengthen it.  But please try this in your own country first.

It was ordinary political advocacy, not leaks, that produced reversals of longstanding U.S. government secrecy policies this year on nuclear stockpile secrecy and intelligence budget secrecy.  It was also political advocacy, not leaks, that led to the declassification of more than a billion pages of classified records since 1995.  Obviously, much more remains to be done, and the tools available to transparency advocates are not as powerful as one would wish.  Leaks that serve the public interest have their honored place;  more would be welcome.  Advocacy may fail, and often does.  Nothing is inevitable, as far as I know.  But so far it is still politics, not the subversion or repudiation of politics, that has produced the greater impact on U.S. secrecy policy.  (The calculation may well be different in other countries.)

The susceptibility of secrecy policy to political action was discussed in a paper I wrote on “National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change” (pdf). It will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2010 issue of the journal Social Research that is devoted to the topic of “Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy.”

No Responses to “National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change”

  1. C Ronk December 6, 2010 at 1:02 PM #


    I heard the interview, and I hear what you’re saying, but I could not help but agree with Greenwald when he said this:

    “The problem is that I just don’t think that [Aftergood's] perspective is, A, realistic or, B, sufficiently urgent. I don’t think it’s realistic that the Congress of the United States, now dominated by the Republican Party in the House of Representatives and an extremely conservative Democratic Party in the Senate and led by an administration, the Obama administration, that has actually increased secrecy weapons, including the state secrecy privilege and other forms of immunity designed to shield high-level executive power wrongdoing and lawbreaking from all forms of accountability or judicial review, I think it’s incredibly unrealistic to take an optimistic view that that political system, dominated by those factions, is somehow on the verge of starting to bring about meaningful increases in transparency.”

    I think any disagreement between those on yours and Greenwald’s side of this debate really comes down to this consideration of whether the formal political system is adequate toward the ends that open government advocates are trying to achieve. But I do not think that makes what Wikileaks has done any less political because its actions have occurred outside of approved or formal channels of political action.

  2. George Smith December 6, 2010 at 1:16 PM #

    One of many statements, some of them stupid, leap out of the interview. Steve did not excerpt any of them although perhaps he should have.


    And one of the reasons for that is because people like Steven Aftergood have volunteered themselves and thrust themselves into the spotlight to stand up and say, “I’m a transparency advocate, but I think that what WikiLeaks is doing in so many instances is terrible.”

    Here he makes the accusation that the “repressive reaction” to WikiLeaks is in some part a consequence of what Aftergood has had to say on the matter.

    Sorry, the repressive reactions have been entirely without his help. In fact, from my view point wheels were turning in this direction long before Steve’s recent posts on the matter. And his profile in the media, during the initial week of the release, was pretty much minimal compared to everyone else, including Glenn Greenwald, who was chosen to discuss the matter.

    In any case he surely knows that with or without Steven Aftergood, the government reaction to WikiLeaks stood to reason to be extreme.

    So he makes an unnuanced argument. But we know that he’s capable of making one when he so chooses.

    This just wasn’t one of those times.

    It seemed most important to try and rag on Steven Aftergood as a proxy or stand-in for all the stuff in the US government he despises. Since the government didn’t have someone he could speak directly to in the interview.

  3. fred December 6, 2010 at 1:52 PM #

    Thus spake SA:
    “But instead of subverting secrecy regimes, Wikileaks appears to be strengthening them, as new restrictions on information sharing are added and security measures are tightened. (Technology can be used to bolster secrecy as well as subvert it.)”



  4. Theron December 6, 2010 at 10:29 PM #

    While I always find your comments illustrative and educational, I do disagree with your analysis of wikileaks.I don’t think the leaks were done to increase security..but they DO show the lengths the power elites go to maintain control…or to avoid embarrassement in this case. The leaks illustrate to what lengths the USA has spread its empire..and the mindset of American exceptioinalsm that still drive this quest for power.

    The lengths that the USA is going to “prohibit” downloading reveal more about the state of mind here…fear and paranoia..than anything else.
    The leaks remind us that decisions are made by humans for rather banal reasons and judgements…not by far sighted seers with wisdom. These are the people making decisions leading to the deaths and impoverishment of millions…and they send gossip and catty remarks. That the worldwide power structure fears the revelations and is cracking down only means that resistance can no longer be open and honest and must resort to the clandistine methods used in totalitarian countries. In this country, given the mindlessness of the mass media and the entertainment industry called “news,” it raises questions about an educated electorate. And in reality, what do these cables and documents reveal: that American diplomats are human, that they have been doing what everybody knew they were doing…but now we have proof that they are human all-to-human…and venal. No big news there. The reaction also tells us that our so-called democratic leaders are democratic only until they are pushed and revealed in their new clothes….then the elites of both parties look to attack the truth teller. The joke is that the entertainment industry news and the commodification of all things has deadened most Americans from caring for more than fifteen minutes.

  5. John Fleck December 8, 2010 at 3:37 PM #

    As a journalist who regularly battles government’s culture of secrecy, large and small, there is an empirical existence proof that demonstrates quite easily that Greenwald is wrong.

    The technology that enables such leaking has been around a long time, yet much government information remains out of public view. There are a gobzillion routine and not routine government documents routinely withheld at all levels of government. Those that are leaked create a stir, as in this case. But most documents *aren’t* leaked, and we still have to fight for that information, case by case, event by event, public question by public question.