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.

Serving Florence unsentimentally as a member of the Ten of War, Machiavelli knew that a city amid enemies cannot distribute totally equal knowledge at every moment. Perfect societies may exclude untruth: in the work of existing ones, secrecy and lies have their place. Alongside his remark that one gross lie will repeatedly deceive individuals who fancy that accepting it offers them sectional advantage, it may seem to endorse mendacity unconfined. But no such advantage exists among the people as a whole—and so corruption may be checked. Machiavelli’s real position is that lies and secrecy must be used with strictest moderation: that abuse makes them habit-forming, and for the addict no safe dose exists.

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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.