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Some Effects of Military Secrecy


By Ignatius F. Makarevich

Ever since World War II and the Cold War, the Government of the United States has operated under a cloak of secrecy. This cloak is extensive in the extreme, and has permeated the mindsets of all government agencies to become standard operating procedure. Seventeen thousand documents are made secret every day by the Federal government. Estimates put the total volume of secret documents at a staggering one trillion classified pieces. This essay will address, albeit briefly, two areas of concern regarding the effects of secrecy on our society. These areas are public trust and enormous costs.

Democracy relies on trust in order to function properly. Trust can only exist if information on the activities of the parties involved is available. In an environment of secrecy, trust, by definition, is reduced at best, or, more practically, completely eliminated. This is the problem we face now in the United States. Secrecy is truly the enemy of democracy.

Of all the agencies that classify their work, only the Department of Energy has made any attempt at increasing the openness of their practice. On 7 December, 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary declassified a large number of documents that revealed that six hundred citizens had been unwittingly exposed to radiation experiments in the 1950s. At a press conference on that date, she said, “One of the benefits to openness will be to build public trust. If we are, in the Department of Energy or any of the other agencies in the department who have responsibility for these details, to really enter into informed dialogue with the public, there’s got to be some trust around that informing, and that only happens when we release information that’s necessary for the dialogue.” (O’Leary, 1)

We can infer from O’Leary’s statement that the government is well aware that there is a major problem with trust in America. While it is most refreshing that the Department of Energy has decided to be more open, it is a depressing reflection of the pervasiveness of the secrecy mindset that DoE is the only agency has made any attempt at such willful disclosure.

One measure of public trust is the volume of requests for classified documents under the Freedom of Information Act. According to an August 26, 2004 report by Rick Blum of OpenTheGovernment.org, over three million requests by citizens were received by the government in 2003. (Blum, 3) One issue that displeases many citizens is the virtual total unaccountability of large sections of the government and industry operating in so-called “black projects.” Some issues are so secret that even high-level officials are not told, as then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney attested to, in reference to himself, in the 20 February, 1994 broadcast of “America’s Defense Monitor.” (Cheney, 1)

As one might imagine, there are enormous financial costs incurred by such extreme flights of secrecy. Rick Blum reported that in 2003, six and a half billion dollars were spent in keeping the secrets secret. (Blum, 5) A little over a year later, in the aforementioned broadcast, Steven Aftergood reported that the costs were in the ten to twenty billion dollar range, and noted that such an amount could fund NASA. (Aftergood, 1) Imagine what NASA could discover with twice the budget or how many mouths could be fed or diseases cured.

This essay is not questioning the need for secrecy in the defense of our lives and liberty, the need for military secrecy is merely obvious. What is being questioned is the need for secrecy to the point of projects being cloaked so deeply as to hide cost overruns and technical problems from the Secretary of Defense, and perhaps even the President. That kind of information is required for the appropriate amount of dialogue between the government and the people. Finding out that we should stop the new plane that does not work but has consumed sixty billion dollars is not a strategic security issue; it is an issue of preventing foolhardiness in the operation of our nation. (LaRocque, 1)

In summation, we have seen that secrecy bears with it great risks to the public health, the public trust, and the public wallet, that have little to do with national or international security, that have caused the public to almost instinctively distrust what the government does decide to tell them. In such an environment there can be no dialogue, no debate, no trust. Democracy itself is surely at risk.

References

(Aftergood, Cheney, O’Leary)

LaRocque, Rear Admiral Gene, exec. producer. “Lifting The Veil Of Military Secrecy.”   “America’s Defense Monitor,” 20 Feb, 1994. Center For Defense Information.   Accessed 29 March 2005.  http://www.cdi.org/adm/723/transcript.html.

(Blum)

Blum, Rick, et al.   “Secrecy Report Card, Quantitative Indicators of Secrecy in the Federal Government.”   OpenTheGovernment.org.   26 Aug 2004.   Accessed 28 March 2005.   http://www.openthegovernment.org/otg/secrecy_reportcard.pdf.