Does Governmental Secrecy Make Us Safer?

Column by Cristian Gherasim.

Exclusive to STR

Everyone says an open, transparent government is the hallmark of a healthy, working democracy. Still, those governing us find the unrestricted flow of information a bitter pill to swallow. Not once did they try to stifle and black out documents relevant to public interest. When questioned about their actions, they say that it’s for our own safety. So, does this argument stand? Is openness detrimental to security? We think not. We think that secrecy chokes democracy and mitigates our ability to respond to outside threats. When government officials curb access to information, they cut themselves off from the brain power and analytical skills of a huge community of scientists and security experts who are often far better at identifying threats than any government agency.

The recent Wikileaks scandal helped to show the extent to which most of the world’s governments used double standards in their foreign policy approach, fueling a climate of distrust and secrecy. It is very difficult to take seriously the idea that, in the absence of Wikileaks disclosures, ordinary Americans would know more about what their government is doing in their name and why.  At no point in its history has the US government been more contemptuous of transparency.  Lies about WMDs, abuse of the state-secrets privilege, black sites for torture, warrantless wiretapping, secret government spying on human-rights activists, misuse of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and classification rules — the list goes on and on.  Indeed, it’s safe to say that the only truly bipartisan belief in politics today is that the less Americans know, the better.  Add in a media whose docility is equally unprecedented, and it is easy to see why the US needs Wikileaks. Further on, we will get into some examples that clearly show how state secrecy has actually harmed national security in the United States and endangered the lives government vowed to protect.
In the US, considerable efforts have been made to cordon off experts from sensitive information. A decree signed by President Bush in 2003 enabled the US government to classify mountains of information. So great was this secrecy that for the first time, basic infrastructure information was designated as classifiable information. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, for the last 15 years, the number of documents considered too important for the public to see has more than tripled. No one knows for sure how many classified documents there are in the United States. With millions of documents remaining behind closed doors for no clear reason, this added secrecy hasn’t made anyone safer. Even more information has been kept from the public only by changing file markings. The new stamp, "sensitive but unclassified," helps operate without the legal constraints of the traditional classification system. 
The increase in secrecy and the inability to compromise makes government act against the very national interest it has vowed to protect. Consider the research published by a Stanford University professor, Lawrence Wein. He found, based on information from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), that terrorists could mask their identity by reducing the image quality of their fingerprints. He also came up with a solution to remove this fault in the system and improve efficiency. But NIST responded to this outcome by removing the information Weid used for its analysis and curbing any future research into this matter. Putting information behind lock and key does not make targets safe from attack. It only leaves experts unable to find solutions to weaknesses. Sean Gorman, a George Mason University graduate, used public information to pinpoint critical choke points in the country’s telecommunication infrastructure. How did the government respond to this finding? Officials decided to classify parts of Gorman’s research as well as much of the information he used.
On the other hand, when committed to more transparency, security planning can really benefit from the unhindered sharing of information. That was the case when Efraim Benmelech from Harvard University took up research on a project with relevance to everyone’s national security. He used data made available by the Israeli Security Agency and found that not only are older, better-educated suicide bombers assigned to more important targets but that these bombers are deadlier in their attacks. This helped understanding how terrorist groups assign operatives to missions. So, the Israeli government’s openness did more to combat terrorism than to abet it.
There’s no such thing as too important for the public to see. State secrecy actually helps terrorism thrive. It is naïve to think that governments can fully understand a system’s vulnerabilities. That’s why information should be shared freely so that analysts can find solutions before terrorists identify weaknesses. The thinking capacity of a huge network of universities and research centers should be considered a national security strength, not a threat that needs to be kept away. The academy’s powers to analyze dangers and recommend safe, efficient solutions are stronger than that of the government, and infinitely stronger than that of any terrorist organization. When governments consider everyone a potential terrorist, they are insulating themselves from the knowledge power that should be our first line of defense.
There’s no hidden cost to granting free access to information. What strikes me most is how the public has given way to the idea that some information must remain secret. Well, that assumption is just wrong. You can’t tell an individual what he can and cannot know. A handful of people cannot possibly control, measure and accurately decide upon the free flow of ideas. Access to information has to be unhindered. Otherwise, as it often happens with attempts of rational planning, it could all spiral out of control. We must not allow freedom and the self-expression of people to be muzzled.
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tzo's picture

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jd-in-georgia's picture

"Indeed, it’s safe to say that the only truly bipartisan belief in politics today is that the less Americans know, the better."

I can not argue with that statement.