RE: Keeping Secrets

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There are several kinds of government secrets. And it is important to realize they are not the same.

There are what I call operational secrets, usually kept by military or military-minded civil service types. These involve equipment, components, technologies, the conduct of specific operations, personnel, weapons systems, procedures, plans, troop movements and deployments. These kinds of secrets men and women will usually keep to their graves, because most of the people selected to keep these secrets are the kinds of people who believe in the ends of the state, and who believe in duty to the state. Also, in most instances, these people do not have the “full” picture and do not know exactly what greater end their secrets are kept for. And journalists usually don’t talk to these folks anyway.

Then there are policy secrets, mostly made in Washington, but also made elsewhere (within the command infrastrructure), often times made and kept by politically ambitious folks who want to accomplish things. These involve the what and why that all of the above are kept for, and include position papers, big plans, policy documents. There are more incentives to leak these things — personal, political — and journalists in DC tend to talk to the people who keep these secrets. And given that DC is a different kind of place, they tend to talk back. And the government itself has some significant incentives to leak as a matter of policy when it feels it needs to.

I contend it would be difficult to keep a policy secret for any great length of time — if members of the executive branch decided on a particular thing, eventually some news of that would get it. Now, perhaps little of the actual operational detail would leak, few details might be known, but it would be difficult (I will not say impossible) for the executive to make a policy decision and keep it completely secret. We might not know which troops, what planes and ships, bombed a particular area, but we would know — eventually — that it was bombed.

4:49 pm on March 21, 2006

RE: Keeping Secrets

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Charles, I certainly agree that all secrets are not alike. Of course, we observe only those policy secrets that are revealed; we have no way to estimate what proportion of total policy secrets these represent. One option is to rely on the testimony of insiders, such as Ellsberg, and it clear from context that Ellsberg (in the passage below) is referring not just to operational secrets, but to policy secrets as well.

Another problem is that by the time many policy secrets come to light, the original controversy is long forgotten. The government’s false statements are front-page news; testimony and evidence that emerge later, contradicting those statements, get buried on a back page. Thus while the secret is “out,” technically speaking, for all practical purpose the public remains in the dark.

7:36 pm on March 21, 2006