Do Loose Lips Save Ships?

There might be a middle path between Michael Hayden and Edward Snowden.


What if there is a middle path between Michael Hayden and Edward Snowden? What if secrecy and transparency can be balanced in a way that allows democracies to protect themselves but also minimizes abuses by the national security state? And what if these two competing principles can even complement each other?

All of this is the premise of Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security (Oxford University Press, 2014) by Michael P. Colaresi, a professor of political science at Michigan State University. He argues that the key to balancing security and transparency is retroactive oversight. Because the adverse security impact of releasing information decreases over time, retroactive oversight does not unduly harm security. But it does give national security officials an incentive to act wisely in the moment, since they know their actions will someday be scrutinized. This process increases public trust in government, which can, in turn, strengthen a country's security.

Colaresi comes to these conclusions through expansive empirical research. He has created what he says is the first catalog of oversight institutions in the world's democracies, and of their effect on security, from 1972 to 2006. This allows him to map the growth of oversight institutions in the West—with more oversight meaning more transparency—and the lagging accountability of governments in Africa and Asia.

Standing legislative committees—such as the U.S. Senate and House panels on Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs—are a key vehicle for the kind of retroactive oversight that Colaresi advocates. So are a free press and freedom-of-information laws. (Colaresi notes that the first freedom-of-information law was created in Sweden in 1766 as a product of a feud between two political factions. It wasn't perfect, however: It protected only printed speech, exempted a key body, and was rescinded six years later.)

Colaresi acknowledges that secrecy is a crucial tool of foreign policy, citing the success of classified operations such as the Manhattan Project, the cracking of the Japanese naval code in World War II, and the development of the U-2 spy plane during the Cold War. On the other hand, he points to examples where he says excessive secrecy actually hurt national security. For instance, he writes that during the run-up to World War I, "France became paralyzed by distrust and skepticism of potential abuses" stemming from the Dreyfus Affair—the government's cover-up of a wrongful espionage conviction. Political operatives and military personnel believed they could abuse their power behind closed doors—and the revelation of the truth weakened the French government during the years before Germany's invasion. A strong system of retroactive oversight might have changed the incentives of French officials and allowed the country to avoid this entire mess.

After September 11, Colaresi explains, the United States weakened its declassification laws, at a time when oversight was increasing in other countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. Today, according to Colaresi, our system of oversight is "above-average but moderate and imperfect."

It remains to be seen if Colaresi's ideas about retroactive oversight can be practically applied to modern warfare, where the battle against groups like al-Qaida and ISIS seems to have no end in sight. When is retroactive oversight in a never-ending war actually permitted? While the White House can (and should, according to Colaresi) reveal details of tactical operations such as Osama bin Laden's assassination, longer-term practices might remain secret years after they were implemented—to the point where retroactive oversight ends up being too little, too late.

Colaresi does not solve the national-secrecy dilemma in the short term. But his book does inject a level of needed nuance into a highly ideological debate.