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A Virtual ‘Act of Faith’

The largest body of secrets are not contained at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia but about 30 miles up I-95 near Annapolis Junction, Maryland.

Just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway there's a specially-built exit ramp that leads to "Crypto City" -- a super-secret no-man's land that also houses one of the largest collections of super-calculating computers. And with 60 or so office buildings, warehouses, factories, labs and living quarters, the "city" employs tens of thousands of advanced mathematicians, linguists, computer geeks, military personnel and other assorted spooks who work in utter anonymity.

It may sound like a mysteriously interesting place to visit and maybe snap a few pictures but you wouldn't want to do that because you'd be in violation of the Internal Security Act and have more 9mm submachine gun-packing security on you than flies at a horse stable, asking questions like: "Don't you see those bright yellow signs that say no photos, cameras or note-taking in this area?"

This is the National Security Agency but if you ask the men in black what NSA stands for they'll tell you those letters stand for "No Such Agency" exists.

In his best-selling book Body of Secrets, James Bamford reports that the very first subject addressed in the NSA Handbook is the "practice of anonymity." Even those seeking employment with the NSA are told very little about the work of the world's largest espionage agency, to the point where it "can have an adverse effect on recruitment."

"Indeed, so little can be said that the acceptance of employment with NSA is virtually an act of faith," in the words of an NSA Technical Journal editorial.

Most of us are not only intrigued but accept the real-world necessity of spying. Still, there are aspects to keeping state secrets beyond "Crypto City" that require "an act of faith" on the part of non-government citizenry. Question is: do the pillars of the secrecy faith serve us, we the people, well?

As Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists reports, one pillar of the faith is enshrouded in the 1974 Supreme Court ruling United States v. Nixon. Even though the Supremes ordered the Nixon White House to comply with a subpoena for the Watergate tapes, they also affirmed that secrecy is a vital part of presidential deliberations because it promotes greater candor, which lead to better policy outcomes.

In the words of the Court: "A President and those who assist him must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions and to do so in a way many would be unwilling to express except privately."

The commandment - thou shalt not disclose the presidential decision-making process because total honesty and public disclosure are mutually exclusive - is an act of faith that should be radically modified, according to a new law review published in the Spring issue of the George Mason Law Review getting some attention in policy wonk circles.

The standard view is that in private people are more willing to discuss doubts, express emotion or debate controversial options. But, according to the trio of scholars who wrote the review, that view is "a highly contestable view of human nature" with little empirical evidence to back it up. More importantly, the authors argue, these assumptions about candor and secrecy don't take into account the downside of it all.

In practice, the review notes, official secrecy can serve to discourage honest deliberation. The paper cites numerous times when Bush Administration advisors declined to question confidential policy pronouncements, even when they harbored serious doubts.

Not only can secrecy discourage truth-telling, the author's say, it's also not a necessary condition for candor. For example, the review notes, Congress almost never invokes its Constitutional right to hold secret deliberations, demonstrating that candor and openness are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, the author's contend, candor-in-secret does not necessarily lead to good decisions. "In many of the contexts in which candor is used as a justification for secrecy, the candor that is being shielded is candor that disserves the public interest."

The paper emphasizes that the authors do not oppose all secret deliberations, nor are they arguing that every official meeting be on C-Span. What they are advocating is that the presumption of secrecy held in the Nixon Supreme Court ruling is unjustified in both principle and practice, and that it should be replaced by a general presumption of openness and disclosure, especially Congress is asking for access to executive branch records.

"The presumption established by the Nixon presidents and their advisors reason to believe that secrecy is standard operating procedure....Dismantling the Nixon canon - as this Article advocates - would instead foster a culture where the expectations were reversed, where ideas about what is appropriate for public discussion are expanded, and where secrecy must be justified by a risk of significant harm - not harm to the political prospects of the incumbent officials, but to the interests of the nation as a whole."


Tomorrow (Tues, May 25), the conservative Hudson Institute is hosting a gathering of the faithful to discuss () Gabriel Schoenfield's new book Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, in which he argues that law enforcement needs to crackdown on leaks of classified intel to reporters, often the only way the public comes to learn about how its government operates at the highest level.

Heresy and faith go together like fried clams and tarter sauce. The French poet Andre Suares was right. "It is faith that begats heretics. There are no heresies in a dead religion."

Count me among the heretics on this one. You?

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Sean Gonsalves

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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