Time to Rethink the Implicit Secrecy Bargain

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The culture of secrecy has fascinated observers and participants for decades. It is always deplored as a fundamental rejection of American values: citizens need reliable information in order to exercise their rights, and lawmakers cannot use the cloak of secrecy to hide their own sins. But somehow, the secrecy apparatus resists all efforts to shrink it. Presidents come and go, but secret-keepers burrow deep into the government.
 
There is a tension, a contradiction of sorts, in how Americans feel about what Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably called the "secrecy bureaucracy." Common sense suggests that certain things ought to be kept secret, and a little bit of an informal compact has been formed between the governors and the governed. We tolerate the right not to know so long as we're kept safe and secure.
 
And yet secrecy is clearly one of the most powerful drivers of government policy and, indeed, one of the forces that nourishes mistrust of government institutions. It is sustained by America's intense political polarization. Secrets are like uranium; they can be dormant and harmless. Doorstops. But when deliberately politicized, secrets become weaponizable, radiating toxicity that degrades, generally, the political efficacy of those who oppose the policies that the secrets are meant to protect. Who can dispute the fact that the enormous growth of the intelligence community post 9/11 was both a consequence of a policy change and itself an expediter of the policy that changed it?

The intelligence agencies and contractors are smart. They know how to spread the wealth around, to make sure that plenty of congressional districts have jobs and facilities. They know how to wield what you might call the 'race card' of this debate -- "we can't talk about it. it's secret. Only the Gang of 8 can know about it." The IC and contractors know that the oversight committees are too busy to get up to speed on each SIGINT cell, each cyber intrusion detection team, each fusion center geospatial analysis function that's created.
 
Transparency is a complicated remedy with plenty of side effects. Journalists approach secrets like cash in a windfall carnival booth. We snatch one out of the air and stuff it in our pockets and quickly redeem it.  We expose secrets in order to hold powerful interests accountable. We balance the potential harm to national security with the all-powerful right to know. But then we move on and try to find the next secret to disclose. We leave the revealed secret to activists, ideological entrepreneurs, and policymakers.

That's what makes "Top Secret America" different. It IS context. One of the funny things about James Clapper's quote about how only God knows all of the special access programs is that it is indisputably true. Anyone who's voiced concern about SAPs will get the same answer from policy makers, from members of Congress, from operators in the field. Quick: do you think that the House Armed Services Committee knows each and every special access program that controls information flowing out of the government's counterterrorism special missions units? 

The intelligence community is furiously fighting back. They've produced a long document responding to some of the criticism. Many of the responses are technically correct but respond to charges that the intelligence community isn't being asked to answer. The Post story does not claim that there ought not to be ANY duplication of analytical effort; it merely points out that WITH all the duplication of effort, the Christmas Day bomb plot wasn't stopped. (The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found 16 chances for said plot to be disrupted -- 16 missed opportunities.) The story questions the wisdom of the DNI -- it does not say the DNI has done nothing. 

Primarily, the Post series is questioning whether the government is fulfilling its side of this implicit secrecy bargain between the governing and the governed. The first article is a broad overview of the question; tomorrow, Priest and Arkin will delve into the world of contractors, particularly the growth of entire communities of SIGINT analytical cells near Ft. Meade, as well as the large and insatiable demand for cyber security expertise.

It is good that the IC is on the defensive. Our secrecy bargain is in everyone's interest; if it's not working, if the system is being gamed for illegal activities or for profit, then there's a problem. Unfortunately, the enormous power of the status quo and the political penalties that accompany criticism of the intelligence community have hidden the magnitude of the question from the American public. No longer. Let the debate begin.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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