National Security May 2014

We Need More Secrecy

Why government transparency can be the enemy of liberty
Johnny Selman

In October 2002, one of the worst terror attacks of the post-9/11 era killed 202 people and wounded 240 more at two nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali. Eighty-eight Australians were killed, making up the largest national group among the victims.

Australia understandably wanted the perpetrators brought to justice. Yet persistent questions lingered regarding whether the Indonesian government was fully committed to the investigation. President Megawati Sukarnoputri dithered, eager to placate all sides: angry Australians and Americans, yes, but also powerful local Islamist factions that had been cultivated by her authoritarian predecessor, Mohammad Suharto.

In recent months, the press has reported that documents released by Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor, show that Australia’s intelligence agency had deeply penetrated Indonesian communications and data networks. It was already known that Australia had intercepted phone calls between senior Indonesian politicians. Now it seems that Australia was, with technical assistance from the U.S., monitoring just about everything going on in Indonesia.

A democratic state too gentlemanly to learn all it can about threats is a state that has betrayed its most-fundamental responsibilities.

Is it shocking that the Australian government wished to know as much as possible about its poor, populous, and unstable neighbor? Since achieving independence at the end of World War II, Indonesia has experienced two convulsive revolutions: one in the mid-1960s, the other in the late ’90s. The country has been bloodied by violent separatist and radical-extremist movements. Indonesian terrorists of various stripes have repeatedly targeted foreigners, especially Australians. For instance, a car bomb was detonated outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, killing nine and wounding 150. In 2009, three Australians were killed in coordinated hotel bombings in Jakarta. Throughout the rampage—which continues today—Australian and U.S. security forces have often had reason to question both the commitment and the capability of their Indonesian counterparts.

Yet, inescapably, Australia and the United States have had to rely on those same Indonesian counterparts for help. Only the Indonesians can follow suspects; only the Indonesians can question friends and relatives. Except in a few spectacular cases—such as the arrest of one Bali bomber by Pakistani authorities in Abbottabad in 2011—the Indonesians are the ones who must carry out arrests, conduct trials, and impose punishments. What kind of job were the Indonesians doing? Were they following every clue? Were they tracking only low-level participants, while protecting more-senior and better-connected extremist figures?

Answering such questions is why states maintain intelligence agencies. Awkwardly, however, the very same imperatives that drive states to collect information also require them to deny doing so. These denials matter even when they are not believed. The Indonesian authorities may well have suspected that the Australians were surveilling their networks. They may have accepted that reality—or even tacitly welcomed it, since it improved their own counterterrorism efforts and reassured Australia and the U.S. But if acknowledged, the surveillance would have triggered negative reactions among nationalist Indonesians, constraining the Indonesian government’s cooperation with the Western powers. Which is exactly what has happened, thanks to Edward Snowden.

Brazilian protesters rally on behalf of Edward Snowden. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

We all, or almost all, want the benefits of improved national security. From 1993 to 2001, the United States and its friends were hit again and again by terrorist attacks of increasing sophistication: from the first World Trade Center attack, to the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, to the embassy bombings in East Africa, to the bombing of the USS Cole, to the attacks of 9/11. Since 2001, terrorism has hardly ceased. But terrorists have experienced ever greater difficulty reaching into the U.S. and other advanced countries. In the words of a 2013 report from Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, the terrorist threat on the Continent “continues to evolve from one posed by structured groups and networks to smaller EU-based groups and solo terrorists.” In Europe as in the United States, terrorists who talk to each other have become exceedingly vulnerable. And a solo terrorist is generally a much less effective terrorist.

As we have become safer, we have, in that very human way, increasingly begrudged the means of our safety. The intellectual and political pendulum has swung against national-security agencies—indeed, against the basic requirements of an effective executive branch, which are the same today as when Alexander Hamilton outlined them in “Federalist No. 70” in 1788: “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” Self-described reformers insist that the present-day U.S. government suffers from too much of these four elements. Since the 1970s, they have achieved great success in shifting government to be less decisive, less active, less secretive, and less able to move quickly—and not only in the domain of national security.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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