It seems, however, that McDonald did want the story to break, for he told a Downing Street official as shooting started that he had hoped Haley would go to Eden and “warn him off.” But that could only have been done via disclosure, and enough time remained after Haley’s return (October 21) for a competent news team to generate an effective account without quoting Eden. Many clues existed—indeed, The Guardian was assembling them, though lacking knowledge of the far-fetched scheme that made them comprehensible.

Yet the circle of initiates actually contracted as days passed. Haley had talks with Eden from which McDonald found himself excluded. He suggests that Sir William essentially agreed with his own forecast that “doom” would be the gimcrack conspiracy’s outcome. But a letter Haley wrote during the first fighting shows he had conceived a hope of “justification by results.” McDonald clearly accepted the decision for silence that the absurd hope implied.

However it was silence, not cheer-leading. The Times never produced the Churchillian rhetoric Eden wanted, and once U.S. and UN pressure forced a ceasefire (November 6) its editorials turned gloomy. It did give considerable space to denials of collusion by the demoralized conspirators, but on November 20, The Guardian produced the first hard proof that it was all a plot. In January, Eden resigned, a sad remnant of a great statesman.

Two distinguished journalists had made themselves into “morons,” as Daniel Ellsberg puts things in Secrets, his 2002 “memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers.” Ellsberg used the word when explaining the long years he spent in top-secret Washington, systematically overstating—as he now believes—prospects of success in Vietnam. He argues that practical mental function declines in proportion to the quantity of secrets acquired via official clearances. The recipient finds it hard to respect

anybody who doesn’t have these clearances … you’ll be thinking … ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?’ … And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. [In dealing with anyone] who doesn’t have these clearances … you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know.

And thus the custodian of secrets becomes

something like a moron … incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have … that may be much greater than yours.

Ellsberg’s syndrome afflicted Haley and McDonald classically. And debates on secrecy often assume its sinister glamour and tactical efficacy: certainly it can be put to episodic use in stock markets, used-car trading, or espionage. But its regular product is stupidity. Secret knowledge, said Moynihan, long before the WMD debacle, is often untested knowledge, and intelligence agencies inevitably are storehouses of things which just ain’t so. What, then, is the attraction to governments of secrecy?

Machiavelli is the famous consultant on clandestine arts, and favored apparently by neocons. But his precepts are misleading if separated from his principles—that a state’s fortunes rest on the rationality and constancy of its people, wiser than its leaders and the proper judges of its interests. The Wall Street Journal’s criticism of the Times’s NSA disclosures might imply a right of secrecy inherent to rulers; Machiavelli, however, emphasizes that rulers are only agents for the people. Agents, he assumes, are apt to appropriate the rights of principals. If Sir Anthony Eden, a truly great man, did so, lesser politicians will offend regularly. And this goes far to explain why journalists who accept official estimates of a nation’s interests end up so often wounding it.

Bruce Page is the author and co-author of several books, including The Murdoch Archiplelago, published by Simon & Schuster in Great Britain in 2003. He has worked for several newspapers, including the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times of London, where he led the paper’s investigative teams. He was editor of the magazine New Statesman between 1978 and 1982.