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

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 Court...gives 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
), 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?

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.