The Culture of secrecy
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, October 10, 1998)

From a distance, Gen. G. L. Butler of the U.S. Strategic Command studied the Soviet Union. He examined pictures taken by spy satellite, secret reports on the economy, films of the May Day weapons parades and much else. All this led him to believe that the United States faced a formidable enemy in the Cold War.

In 1988 he made his first visit to Moscow. At the airport, he was startled when he saw dozens of damaged runway lights. On his way into town he noticed that the buildings and roads were crumbling. Later he thought the people looked defeated. He had expected a functioning economy and found economic deprivation. He realized he had understood everything except reality. "It came crashing home to me," he said, "that I really had been dealing with a caricature all those years."

He wasn't alone. On Soviet progress, the Americans were astonishingly wrong for 40 years. The CIA and other government agencies assigned armies of first-class economists, political scientists and sociologists to monitor Soviet conditions. It was perhaps the largest single research project in the history of social science. But they got it all wrong, overestimating Soviet productivity by as much as 100 per cent, underestimating social unrest and ethnic tension. When the truth finally emerged, Admiral Stansfield Turner was one of many who felt foolish. He ran the CIA from 1977 to 1981. "We should not gloss over the enormity of this failure to forecast the Soviet crisis," he remarked later. "Why were so many of us insensitive to the inevitable?"

Daniel Patrick Moynihan has an answer. Secrecy: The American Experience (Yale University Press, $33.95) is a fact-studded, persuasively argued statement of his belief that successive U.S. governments have blinded themselves by a cultish devotion to secrecy. During the Cold War, secrecy became a way of life for Washington bureaucrats, a badge of honour and a status symbol. Lately, not much has changed. In 1997 the intelligence budget, made public for the first time, was $26.6-billion (U.S.). Each year, Washington designates about 400,000 new documents "top secret," which is supposed to mean that disclosing even one them would gravely damage national security.

Moynihan believes it's normal for governments to have secrets, but there should be far fewer of them. He thinks that operating mainly in secret is a way to ensure mistakes. Social science, just like chemistry or physics, requires open criticism by peers. During the Cold War, people outside government couldn't discuss official estimates because they either didn't know the estimates or didn't know what research supported them. Moynihan weaves his argument through McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs, Iran-Contra and Watergate, suggesting in each case that secrecy blighted policy.

Richard Nixon's foreign policy was the classic case. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the United States followed the containment policy: Keep the Soviet empire bottled up and wait till it dies. Then Nixon decided the Soviets were there forever (his experts told him so). So he switched to détente: Be friendly, share power and even help prop them up when necessary. He began hugging Soviet leaders for the TV cameras.

Secrecy is the 18th book Moynihan has written or edited. At 71, he's a phenomenon, the most interesting U.S. senator of the century. No one else in U.S. history has worked closely with four successive presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford), no one else in memory has made ambassadorial jobs (to India and then the UN) a path to the Senate. No other prominent intellectual of his generation has been a major success in politics (elected four times as senator from New York). He's also one Democrat who has rarely hidden his disdain for Bill Clinton, whom he seems to regard as a bit dim.

I've been reading Moynihan since around 1960, always with a certain wonderment. His prose is both authoritative and jaunty, his range of references unusually broad. But what I find most surprising is that I never read even a short Moynihan piece without learning something -- not what one can often say about a politician. There's a great deal to learn from Secrecy, and not just about intellectual claustrophobia produced by the obsession with national security. There's something even more chilling: a fresh realization that many of those in charge of the world's destiny have only a vague notion of what's going on.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image