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Secrecy and US National Security

Is it time to review US government secrecy policies? The proper functioning of democracy requires open, informed debate about any issue concerning the electorate. Recent news reports of whistleblowers1 and government attacks on journalists2 raise questions of balance in these policies.


The public has a need to know when secrecy is used to conceal crimes or to distort the terms of debate to obtain approval for actions that the public might not otherwise support. For example, is the US and the world better off today because of secret decisions made in Washington to destroy democracy in Iran in 1953,3 Guatemala in 1954,4 Brazil in 1964,5 or Chile in 1973,6 to name only four cases with irrefutable documentation?


In 2003 the US led a "Coalition of the Willing" to destroy the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) of Saddam Hussein.7 Public support for that operation was obtained using intelligence documentation that was later described as "deliberately misleading" by then Secretary of State Colin Powell.8 Prior to that admission, at least four prominent television personalities in the US and the UK were fired for asking too many questions about the veracity of those reports.9


This is not a recent phenomenon. The entire US war in Vietnam might have been avoided if the US media had insisted on covering the 1956 Vietnamese elections. Instead, they provided massive coverage of Senator Joe McCarthy accusing the Democrats of "twenty years of treason", culminating in losing China to Communism. He also accused President Eisenhower of harboring Communists in his administration.10 In that environment, it could have been difficult for Eisenhower to win reelection in November of 1956 if the Communist Ho Chi Minh had gotten 80 percent of the popular vote in Vietnamese elections, as predicted.11 These examples illustrate the problems created when the electorate is not adequate informed about the functioning of government.


The US public has a legitimate interest in authorizing their government to keep secret certain types of information. We don't want weapons design details spread too broadly. We don't want potential adversaries obtaining plans for military contingencies or eminent military operations. We don't want organized crime figures obtaining details of ongoing investigations.


These are serious questions that are rarely asked. We need more public hearings like those led by Senator Church in 197512 or the Moynihan Commission in 1994-95.13 We also need serious research into these questions by scholars and independent researchers doing work that cannot be classified to keep it from the public. Wikiversity provides a platform for collaborative research like this.14 We need people to do the research and others to publicize it using venues not controlled by powerful interests intent on perpetuating the status quo.



Spencer Graves

Sep 10, 2013

Copyright 2013 under the Creative Commons Attribution, Share-Alike license.


1Wikipedia, "WikiLeaks" and "Edward Snowden", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiLeaks" and "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden".

2Wikipedia, "2013 Department of Justice investigations of reporters", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Department_of_Justice_investigations_of_reporters".

3Wikipedia, "1953 Iranian coup d'état", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Iranian_coup_d'%C3%A9tat", accessed September 8, 2011.

4Wikipedia, "1954 Guatemalan coup d'état", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1954_Guatemalan_coup_d'%C3%A9tat".

5Wikipedia, "1964 Brazilian coup d'état", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Brazilian_coup_d'%C3%A9tat".

6Wikipedia, "1973 Chilean coup d'état", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_Chilean_coup_d'%C3%A9tat".

7Wikipedia, "2003 invasion of Iraq", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_invasion_of_Iraq", and "Iraq War", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_War".

8Meet the Press, May 16, 2004, "http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4992558/#.Uiz7_MYiqaY ".

9Wikipedia, "Phil Donahue", "Hutton Inquiry" and "David Kelly (weapons expert)", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Donahue", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutton_Inquiry", and "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Kelly_(weapons_expert)", accessed August 30, 2013.

10Wikipedia, "Joseph McCarthy", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_McCarthy", accessed September 10, 2013.

11Dwight D. Eisenhower (1963) The White House Years: Mandate for Change 1953-1956 (Doubleday, ch. 14. Chaos in Indochina).

12Wikipedia, "Church Committee", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Committee ".

13Wikipedia, "Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy", "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moynihan_Commission_on_Government_Secrecy".

14Wikiversity is sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, which also sponsors Wikipedia. Wikipedia does not support original research, but Wikiversity does. They share rules that foster respectful collaboration that contributes to quality products. In particular, the Wikiversity category on "Evolution of conflict" focuses specifically on these kinds of issues; "https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Category:Evolution_of_conflict ".    

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