The Dangers of Excessive Secrecy

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Ms. Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of three books on government secrecy: Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI (North Carolina, 1996); Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (North Carolina, 2002); and Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (Oxford, 2009).]

President Barack Obama has made some laudable gestures towards reform and transparency, but he has proved unwilling to make meaningful changes in the oversight, accountability, and prerogatives of the secret agencies he commands. Despite his promise of a government “committed to operating with an unprecedented level of openness,” he exhibits reluctance to investigate or expose the potential crimes of the nation’s secret warriors. If history can guide us in predicting the consequences of this timidity, his unwillingness to fulfill his pledge of transparency will feed conspiracy theories about the federal government, and undermine the trust that he needs to accomplish his most ambitious reforms.

At the beginning of his administration, the new president proclaimed that he would reverse the policies of the Bush White House and throw off the cloak of secrecy that had hidden government actions from the public.  On his first day in office, he issued new memos and orders that made it easier for Americans to find out what their public officials are doing behind closed doors. “Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known,” he declared.

Even more important, he named an outsider – former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta – to head the Central Intelligence Agency, despite some strong pressure from supporters of the intelligence community to name an old agency hand.  And soon after taking office, the president released the “torture memos” -- government documents describing the brutal interrogation methods used on the CIA’s prisoners.

But Obama also signaled that there were some dark corners where the light would never shine.  He reversed his initial position on disclosing the photographs of the torture of detainees, insisting that these photos could provoke attacks on U.S. servicemen and women. Then his administration refused to release the FBI’s interview with former vice president Dick Cheney during the Valerie Plame leak investigation, a move that stunned supporters of government openness.  Obama’s Justice Department has also supported the Bush position in three lawsuits by invoking the “state secrets” privilege, in which the government insists that a suit cannot proceed because it might endanger national security.  This position outraged civil liberties groups.  Most tellingly, Obama decided to keep some of the CIA’s most powerful officials – men who had overseen the infamous rendition and torture programs – in important government posts. Recently he threatened to veto a bill that would expand congressional oversight of the CIA.

Obama’s advisers undoubtedly know that previous attempts to challenge the most powerful parts of the secret government have turned out badly for the reformers.  In 1977, after the revelations of Watergate and the House and Senate investigations of the intelligence community (the so-called Pike and Church committees), President Jimmy Carter appointed a principled military man to shake up the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner, who proclaimed that he would resign rather than carry out an illegal or unconstitutional order from the president.  Turner truly believed in the necessity of open government: in fact, he argued, secret agents make better decisions when they’re forced to explain their reasons to democratically elected overseers. When CIA employees stumbled across memos on one of the agency’s most notorious programs, the MKULTRA drug-testing operation, Turner immediately disclosed them to Congress.  He also cut 800 positions from the covert operations side of the agency – mostly through attrition -- in a move that is still reviled (and often exaggerated) by agency supporters.  Only about 17 people were actually fired, but Turner’s sometimes ham-fisted efforts to clean house angered the old boys at the agency and energized hard-liners to oppose future reforms. 

In the end, Carter and Turner made few lasting changes at the agency.  During the Carter administration, Congress passed only one significant statutory reform – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court warrants for wiretaps – while the number of congressional oversight committees was actually reduced.  When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he replaced Admiral Turner with a man determined to return the agency to the swashbuckling days of the early Cold War. William Casey set out to free the CIA from the fetters imposed after Watergate — and, as the Iran-contra scandal showed, he was willing to evade and subvert the law to accomplish his goals.

Obama’s advisers clearly see a lesson in Turner’s experience: Don’t declare war against the spooks, because you can’t win.  Moreover, given their ambitious agenda for the year, the Obama aides don’t want to waste precious political capital on an issue that is clearly not one of their top priorities.

But their reluctance to make changes may encourage conspiracy theories about their administration.  As I detail in my new book, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11,  when presidents try to keep the public in the dark, they stimulate the imaginations of anti-government conspiracy theorists.  When President Lyndon Johnson decided to keep secret the details of the CIA’s plots against Fidel Castro, conspiracy theorists saw that he was participating in a cover-up – and concluded that he was covering up his own involvement in the murder of his predecessor, President John Kennedy.  When President George W. Bush suggested a conspiracy between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks, conspiracy theorists outside the government decided that Bush and his aides were intentionally deceiving them.  And to what purpose? Many citizens – about a third of the public, according to polls – came to believe that the Bush officials were lying because they had actually condoned or even planned the attacks themselves.

To his credit, so far Obama has avoided the most egregious mistakes of his predecessors (at least, as far as we know): surveillance of harmless dissidents; the promotion of officially sanctioned conspiracy theories; and active conspiring by government agents against the people.  These real government lies, cover-ups, and conspiracies in the past have helped to fuel conspiracy theories like those advanced by the 9/11 truth movement.

But even the appearance of condoning a cover-up can encourage conspiracy theories about the government.  When the president says he’s committed to change and transparency but then continues the old policies of secrecy, he helps to convince the skeptics that the president is the tool of the secret, nefarious interests who “really” run the country.  This means that citizens have less trust in their government – and trust is what Obama needs if he truly wants to cut the number of nuclear weapons, slow climate change, and provide health care to all Americans.  In this case, too much caution can be a risky policy.

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Maarja Krusten - 7/24/2009

Just to clarify, the former boss who worked for OSD/HO is not the one whom I described as having declassified a document while on detail to the WH. He was a different federal employee (now deceased). As someone who has been in federal service for 36 years, I've obviously had a number of bosses.

Also, it appears the link for the citation to the OSD 9/11 history no longer works. For more on the book in question, see

Maarja Krusten - 7/24/2009

As someone who has lived in the DC area nearly all my life, and had at various times as many as 3 members of my immediate family in federal service, I would urge HNN's readers to take a more nuanced view of Washington than one sees on some political sites. This goes beyond the fact that being an American is not a zero sum game. Given what makes up our great nation, I've never understood how anyone gains points by dissing others. Our strength -- what goes into that shining city on the hill Ronald Reagan once described --lies in our diversity and acceptance of geographic, demographic, political differences. It's what sets us apart from nations torn by tribal and ethnic and religious conflicts. Here, it's not a case of "I can only be somebody if I consider you to be nobody." For many of us, that's not the way we roll.

The people who live in the District of Columbia or who work in the greater Washington area are just as much Americans as people elsewhere. As a fed, my dad worked for the Voice of America, a component of USIA which did valuable work broadcasting news and information behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. He helped carry out that valuable mission during Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

My late sister worked as a supervisory archivist at the U.S. National Archives. She specialized in declassification reviews of historical State Department records. Countless scholars have benefited from the work she and her colleagues did as federal employees in the Washington area. I myself worked for many years as an employee of the National Archives, listening to Richard Nixon's tapes to determine what should be released to the public and what required restriction.

For insights into the human side of civil service, I recommend the book Pentagon 9/11_ published by the history office of the Department of Defense. (My former boss once worked there.) See
Most striking in the narrative is the extent to which people were saved in the immediate aftermath of the impact due to the courageous efforts of military and civilian employees, rather than rescue personnel, who, although they arrived quickly, were not able to find many survivors. There are many good people who work for the federal government in civilian and military service.

Yet for some Americans, DC is a curiously dehumanized place. In a posting on September 21, 2003, Dave Livingston wrote here on HNN under an essay on the main page:

"Our paper masde the point that if D.C. & all its parasites were wiped out in a single blow, so what? The states independently governed could simply call a Constitutional convention to re-establih the federal gov't. Not so?

Of course, the paper didn't say if D.C. were wiped out the result just as probably would be a birth of several nations in lieu of the U.S. of A., especially us Westerners not too fond of the urban near city-states on the two coasts."

As a fed who works in Washington, and stayed at my desk working throughout 9/11, then later watched the calm sense of sadness but dignified unity among my fellow riders on the subway in the days following the attacks, those words from a fellow American still haunt me and probably will for a long time.

Jeff Shear - 7/23/2009

A chilling thought, another Vietnam, only now we "surge" rather than "escalate," as if the shift in language somehow changed the reality.

I believe that the use of a professional military has altered the nature of the debate over the use of power, or eliminated it. In Vietnam, another quagmire, the fear of conscription got young people and their families thinking and protesting. A professional military (along with outside "contractors") has turned the war(s) from a national problem into one better left to experts. This is a little discussed and less understood development, and one that is essentially undemocratic: support out troops.

Jeff Shear - 7/23/2009

Thank you. The compressed link opened the document.

Jeff Shear - 7/23/2009

Condescension noted. For someone who places such a high value on justice, Willis, you sound like an awful human being. You'll find your own answers to your own questions to your own satisfaction, I'm sure.

J R Willis - 7/22/2009

1. "Seem to be larger issues" than criminal acts by intelligence agencies who will be left in place to repeat their crimes against humanity and the Constitution? WHAT could be more important?

2. I am not counter-claiming anything. This is a site keen on documentation. I am demanding that you prove your claim. And I didn't call you a name.

3. I retract nothing. If you have proof of your claims, then justice, one of my most cherished concepts, should NEVER wait for politics. Prove your claims, and I will push for a speedy, Constitutional trial. To do less is barbaric.

4. No, I meant what I said. A profile is drawn from ONE side.

5. Yes, my point is, the Constitution is full of important concepts, which sometimes require wisdom and experience to prioritize. You should read it when you have some free time.

6. Confidence in the media? That is what we are speaking of, eh? You have made no positive strikes in that direction.

7. I wasn't speaking of you, however, when you learn to insert paragraph breaks, I will learn tabloid lingo.

8. Go back to NY, it is far more in touch with America than DC.

Maarja Krusten - 7/22/2009

Sorry for the broken link, I should have compressed the FindLaw URL. Use for the appeals court decision in which Dave Van Tassell handled a FOIA case in which Scott Armstrong requested records related to Oliver North et al.

I don't think many HNN writers or readers have the time or inclination to dig into the nitty gritty of such subjects to study disclosure matters. But it's worth making the links available, just in case!

Maarja Krusten - 7/22/2009

You're quie welcome!

All of this gets quite complicated as release determinations reflect an application of previous case law and individual judgments. If you're interested in the nitty gritty, take a look at this Clinton era appeals court ruling in a FOIA case involving another of my former colleagues, David Van Tassel. Mr. Van Tassel, whom I like and respect greatly, as I do Mr. Graboske, was one of the successors to Mr. Graboske as a National Archives' detailee to the NSC at the White House. The ruling in question addresses segregability of certain national security restricted information, privacy interests as they apply to FBI agents, and other issues. The appellee was the Executive Office of the President and the appellant was Scott Armstrong. See;case=/data2/circs/DC/955377a.html

As noted in the ruling, when requestors appeal FOIA determinations, judges have the option of conducting in-camera reviews of the disputed documents. That there is the potential for judicial review of executive branch reviewers' decisions is an important component in the FOIA process.

Jeff Shear - 7/21/2009

Very enlightening post. Thanks!

john r hall - 7/21/2009

MKULTRA has continued using satellite based directed energy technology. Thousands of people across the nation are voicing very similar complaints of audio harassment and attacks from unseen weapons. I published the true account of a Texas woman who was stalked, drugged and raped by a former FBI agent using this technology to victimize her. A New Breed: Satellite Terrorism in America is in Barnes and Noble or available at

Maarja Krusten - 7/20/2009

Scholars for the most part apply rigorous standards to available evidence and do not fall back on speculation and guesses. However, I'm not convinced that disclosure or non-disclosure makes much of a difference in whether some other people believe in various theories or not.

Decades of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case law and reams of publicly issued Justice Department guidance show that some governmental information can be disclosed, some cannot. Even when the government releases as much as it can, there are going to be some people who argue that restrictions were applied improperly or material destroyed and that the "real answer" lies in what was withheld. There is no way to resolve some such questions, ever.

As to disclosure review, a senior official at the National Archives (where I once was employed after finishing grad school studies in history) once described review as an art, not a science. I largely agree. That is not to say that there are no differences in official guidance issued by different administrations. The Obama administration reportedly is returning to the so-called Reno standard for FOIA review, as opposed to the Bush-era Ashcroft standard. That doesn't mean everything will be thrown open, of course.

Disclosure review often requires balancing the public's right to know against the perceived value of continued non-disclosure. For a number of reasons, governmental reviewers may look at the same information and come to different conclusions. Some of it reflects different interpretations of guidance or context. Some of it reflects changing times.

You see this in two versions of the same document from Henry A. Kissinger posted at The older release decision resulted in more being opened than did the newer one. (Not all White House components fall under FOIA. Most do not but a few do -- the number of responsive units has changed over time as a result of judicial determinations made during litigation.)

The Kissinger document pictured at the above link was released in full in 1989 by one of my former colleagues, Fred Graboske. (See the declass stamp at the bottom of the page.) He released it during the George H. W. Bush administration through the White House FOIA coordination process. Mr. Graboske then was on detail to the National Security Council while on the payroll of the National Archives. The same document was heavily redacted by another governmental reviewer in 2008. You can see more on such differences in review standards at

Having done disclosure review myself over the course of a 14-year career at the National Archives, I know how complicated it is and how judgments may vary. Deciding how to balance competing obligations is not easy. Times change, conditions change, risk asssessments change, and guidance and standards sometimes vary. What looks one way from outside can look very different from inside.

Keep in mind that both over- and under-classification can be a problem. It's worth considering what the former director of NARA's Information Security Oversight Office once said about that in 2004. See his very interesting speech on "The Importance of Basics" at
Some of you may remember hearing about Bill Leonard in 2007 when his office sought to do a review of the handling of classified information in Vice President Cheney's office. Maureen Dowd noted at the time that "archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington." A man of integrity, Leonard also did the NARA assessment of the so-called "reclassification flap" in 2006. Then U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein and Leonard handled that flap very well, in my view.

John Farnham - 7/20/2009

Actually and practically, Obama managed to continue the business of making life ( and death ) short and brutish outside the borders of the continental U.S. without much opposition : by virtue of past conditioning which led people to think occupying Afghanistan/Pakistan was more moral than continuing in Iraq.
That is a job which has gone on overlong : wait till people realize why AfPak is called 'The Graveyard of Empire.'
When the other shoe drops and people realize there is money for murdering foreigners but none for them, 'popularity' is a term which will vanish entirely.

Jeff Shear - 7/20/2009

1. Answer: There seem to be larger issues front and center on the Congressional agenda right now, such as health care, banking, etc.
2. Do you wish to back your counter- claim, or just call me names?
3. You seem to retract point 2 with point 3. And of course, you have yet to make any point at all.
4. You mean front and back, right, as opposed to "front and sides"? At least I wasn't looking up.
5. You're attacking me, which is fine, assuming you have a point to make. But you don't, do you?
6. Confidence is the very thing the Bush administration destroyed. Thus, my point. And yours?
7. Conversation? In on-line comments such as these, "conversation" is the wrong choice of words.
8. What's your problem with NY? National Journal was based in Washington, DC. And I am on vacation!

J R Willis - 7/20/2009

Good grief.

1. If Obama is protecting an intelligence community that has been railroaded, why wouldn't he happily (for political and constitutional reasons) blow the lid off of the entire problem, in order to deflect the charges of "conspiracy" (which, by definition, his collusion would be)?

2. You claim that the Bush Whitehouse has violated the Constitution beyond anything we might know or imagine. Really? That is an utterly ignorant claim, sorry. They might have done some shady things, but the hyperbole is really out of line.

3. You oppose a rush to justice? If it is justice, we can't get there too fast, IMHO. Let's go, I will help.

4. You profiled Panetta? Did you bother to look at him from the front and sides?

5. The nation must understand that constitutional values must now prevail? Have you ever read that part about defending the country from enemies, both foreign and domestic?

6. Build confidence in media analysts? Really, really? Why? And particularly, why from an obvious Obama supporter?

7. When I see traditional media "strongly" and critically analyzing Obama's court, I will be ready for a conversation.

P.S. There are other places in America beyond New York. Take a vacation. Read a different book.

Jeff Shear - 7/20/2009

A wonderful article, thank you. So far, the press and the public have done a relatively good job at calling the president out on his "flip-flops" (you'll forgive me for the phrase), regarding issues of sunshine in government. But your article raises a good point about the specter of conspiracy theories. Such rumors would have an utterly corrosive effect on a president whose sweeping policies -- fiscal, social, and environmental -- demand probity and the public trust. No doubt, as you point out, Obama has been politically motivated -- and wisely so -- in his decision-making calculations. As well, I think he was protecting and mollifying an intelligence community that had been railroaded into a process they may well have abhorred. Which is my point: there is another element that may be at work in the Executive Mansion’s calculations, and I will call them "shock and awe": The violations of the constitution under the Bush administration are beyond anything we might know or imagine. In other words, it is one of those terrible secrets that nations keep closeted. I am no apologist for those in operations who should have resigned their posts rather than participate in crimes against humanity and our nation's constitution. At the same time, I oppose a rush to judgment. Leon Panetta is a man of conscience and bearing (I say this because I profiled him for National Journal when he was at OMB). The nation must first understand two things: that bad intelligence practices have stopped, and that constitutional values now prevail. Later, when the greater national crisis, which is fiscal, begins to subside, perhaps in the second term, there should be an accounting. For now, we need to hear more from Panetta, as we did in the recent New Yorker article; and he needs to appear to be a more confident figure, in order to stifle conspiracy theorists and build confidence in media analysts. Finally, there is nothing wrong with strong critical analysis of the administration's practices. In other words, do what you say and don't flip-flop. Are you listening Rahm Emanuel?