Francis Fukuyama: The American Way of Secrecy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy.”]

... It has become a cliché to say that “everything changed” after 9/11, but for two great American intellectuals — the sociologist Edward Shils and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator — recent events would have represented the eternal return of the same. Both argued that in the past, the United States has taken real foreign threats and vastly exaggerated the menace they represented, spinning out conspiracy theories. These justified the creation of a state based on secrecy that undermined American liberties and the free exchange of information, the fundamental sources of success for the United States as a society.

Shils, one of the founders of modernization theory and a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, wrote “The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies” in 1956, in the immediate aftermath of the McCarthy era. Shils accepted the reality of the Soviet threat and the existence of conspiracies against the American way of life. But he also argued that American democracy, in contrast to the historically aristocratic orders in Europe, was based on a principle of publicity in public affairs — indeed, it “luxuriated” in its wide-open culture. That openness made the idea of external threat and internal subversion especially shocking: “In America, more excitable temperaments and a tradition of violence in expression and energy in action have prompted a passionate response to the threat of secret machinations.” A weaker sense of privacy than that of the Europeans, as well as a “flimsier attachment to corporate bodies,” made Americans seek their identity in great national symbols, leading to a hyperpatriotism and a tendency to see things in black and white.

In the early days of the cold war, the government’s response to these fears was to grant the executive branch a huge degree of discretion in security affairs. The most visible manifestation of this tendency was the development of a classification system that suddenly removed a large amount of information from public scrutiny, and a system of loyalty checks that, in Shils’s words, “hurt the delicate tissue which binds our society together.”

Shils had no more ardent disciple than Moynihan, who wrote an introduction to a 1996 reissue of “The Torment of Secrecy.” Moynihan used his perch on the Senate Intelligence Committee to make a sustained attack on the government’s penchant for secrecy, and for his fellow Americans’ willingness to tolerate restrictions on their liberties in the name of security. In his book “Secrecy: The American Experience,” published in 1998, he argued that “secrecy enables a constitutionally weak executive to bypass the legislature in making decisions that the legislature will not support when things go wrong.”...

Even if we do not at this juncture know the full scope of the threat we face from jihadist terrorism, it is certainly large enough to justify many changes in the way we conduct our lives, both at home and abroad. But the American government does have a track record in dealing with similar problems in the past, one suggesting that all American institutions — Congress, the courts, the news media — need to do their jobs in scrutinizing official behavior, and not take the easy way out of deferring to the executive. Past experience also suggests that the government would do far better to make public what it knows, as well as the limits of that knowledge, if we are to arrive at a balanced view of the challenges we face today.

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DeWayne Edward Benson - 10/23/2006

Let me condence this article, as modern advancement overflowed the limitations of even mass media control, other methods were developed to plug this breach.

Today no less than total dictitorial control is found sufficient. Yepper, today "Islomicfascist Terrorists" is the bauble of great price.