Secrecy: The American Experience? By Senator Daniel P. MoynihanAccording to a survey performed for the Defense Department in 1996, it was found that the majority of U.S. citizens believe that the government withholds too much information by classifying it as a secret. In this book, ?Secrecy: The American Experience?, Senator Daniel P. Moynihan reinforces that view.
This is a distinctive book with numerous weaknesses, some errors, and one great strength. The weakness is that the book shows controversial arguments rather than a policy analysis. Moynihan has a particular view he wants to advance, and he is not interested in considering alternate explanations or exploring evidence that is contradictory with his view. Moynihan marks the start of modern secrecy with the Espionage Act. Most of the distinctive features of twentieth-century secrecy are rooted in the program to build the atomic bomb, including vast secret budgets and cover stories.
I particularly enjoyed the book in that it told the truth of past events. I did not like that the book was written from only Moynihan’s point of view and did not discuss other opinions. I enjoyed the book because it is nonfiction and reveals the truth of secrecy in America. Most importantly I found it interesting that this book was written by Senator Moynihan rather than by an ordinary person who would make many assumptions in order to write a book about secrecy. This US senator from New York analyzes the roots of America’s obsession with government secrecy and pleads for it’s dismantling. This book is not primarily an insider’s account of the Government in action. It is, more ambitiously, a historical assessment of the ?culture of secrecy,? particularly in the area of foreign policy.
Moynihan cites the CIA’s failure to forecast the end of the Soviet Union as yet another deviation caused by secrecy. In his view, the CIA simply failed at its most important task. It is possible that all of those who argue to the contrary are mistaken, but Moynihan does not explain why or even acknowledge that there is a debate. In any case, the relevance of this controversy to government secrecy is weak; since CIA estimates of the Soviet Union economy are among the least secretive items it produced.
Secrecy is heavily weighted toward the past. More than half the book is devoted to the period before 1950. Here too there are problems. Moynihan believes he has proved that President Harry Truman was never told about the secret army program known as Venona, which successfully decrypted Soviet communications and provided documentary evidence of Soviet espionage against the United States. There is circumstantial evidence that Truman was not informed about Venona, but Moynihan has not proved the negative. In 1996, the number of new secrets dropped to the lowest in recent decades. Never before has so much information about national security been so easily available to so many. How and why this came to pass is a story that has never been fully told, and it is not mentioned at all in this book.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan draws two conclusions from his study of the way America keeps its secrets. If the federal government had revealed all it knew about Soviet espionage activities in the United States during and after World War II, there might have been no McCarthy era. If the U.S. intelligence community had needed its own analysis of the Soviet economy in the aftermath of World War II, there might have been no Cold War. These are the conclusions Moynihan makes.
Moynihan proves that the American people and government have been the worst sufferers of this secrecy culture. For example: the xenophobic hysteria which led to the 1917 espionage act and the Dulles-Hoover cold war gyrations.
Moynihan believes that the US assessments on the Soviet Union went so widely of the mark, in spite of capacity to access the best intelligence since the secret sources could not be tested and substantiated before acceptance as policy inputs. Excessive secrecy also affected the psyche of the American nation in the McCarthy and Vietnam Era. He feels that much of the witch hunting of the innocent could have been avoided had the intelligence available with the security services been revealed to the nation and the judiciary to focus on the treachery of Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Theodore Alwin, etc, who pretended to be the victims of a rightist conspiracy. Moynihan has serious doubts whether the policy of excessive secrecy had really protected even defense secrets. He quotes Hans Bithe, who had taken active part in the Manhattan Project, telling Maryland University students in December 1994 that the Soviets would have been able to fabricate nuclear bombs in five years but because of espionage they did it in four.
According to Moynihan, the Bay of Pigs fiasco could have been avoided had the policy-makers studied an open public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for International Social Research at Princeton in 1960, which clearly ruled out any possibility of shift in the Cuban public’s allegiance to Fidel Castro.
In India, a culture developed of hidings matters of the state from the citizens as well as from other parts of the government. Madhav Godbole, former home secretary had recalled how the intelligence bureau bypassed the home minister and his ministry in 1991-92 while holding secret negotiations with the ULFA. As a result, the home ministry’s views were not considered while finalizing a hasty agreement with the terrorist group. That so-called agreement passed into history more as publicity stunt was evident by later events. Moynihan mourns that the end of the cold war did not bring about an appreciable change in the US government’s attitude toward secrecy. While not advocating an end to secrecy, he certainly sees continued disturbing signs in this information age when most of what is needed to decide policy is available openly. Classification decisions in the US government increased by 2.2 million in 1996. Moynihan blames the state department spokesman for blaming the CIA on intelligence failure over Pokhran tests. Instead, the US attitude should have been based on the BJP’s 1998 election manifesto, which gave clear indications of the exercise of nuclear option. If Moynihan feels to stifled with American experience even with its elaborate system of checks and balances, Freedom of Information Act, Congressional oversight and Inspectors General, how would he react to the Indian situation which may perhaps be the standing example of Richelieu’s dictum, ?Secrecy is the first essential in the affairs of the state.?
It is hard to quarrel with Moynihan’s characterization of cold war secrecy as injuriously ?all-consuming.? For this reason it is surprising that he says so little about the Vietnam War. Moynihan’s argument is thoroughly borne out in the case of Lyndon Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, whose passion for secrecy really was all-consuming. His undoing began with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon persuaded himself that those documents were vital to national security and so set in motion the retributive machinery that ultimately led to his resignation.