Moynihan arrived at his secrecy-state critique after working inside the beast. A versatile academic, he rose to political prominence as a counselor to President Richard Nixon, who appointed him ambassador to India in 1972. Later, he served as United Nations ambassador under President Gerald Ford, before winning his Senate seat as a Democrat in 1976. His skepticism of official Washington assessments formed in secret ripened in the 1970s, when the government continued to tout the Soviet Union’s growing power. It was obvious to Moynihan that such an economically anemic country couldn’t last long, a sentiment he expressed in Newsweek in 1979. In the mid-1990s, Moynihan gathered his political clout to help lead a legislative movement to establish a federal commission on government secrecy, which he chaired. The commission’s staff interviewed convicted spies, historians, journalists, officials at 96 agencies, and others in the completion of its mission. Its final report, delivered to President Bill Clinton in March 1997, recommended strict statutory limits on what could be declared secret, among other things. For instance, a demonstrable need to protect the information in the interest of national security must exist; classified designations must “sunset” unless recertified by the agency as a continued secret; formal procedures for the classification and declassification of information should be established.

Moynihan wrote Secrecy as an expansion of his appendix to the commission’s report, and his book includes a novella-length introduction by historian Richard Gid Powers, which spackles some of the gaps in the senator’s review of the century-long expansion of Washington secrecy. Moynihan and Powers trace our government’s passion for secrets to the Wilson administration’s paranoiac views about dissent during World War I, and its passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which established the secrecy bureaucracy and in its early incarnation dictated press censorship.

The Russian Revolution and Moscow’s establishment of the Communist International, pledged to world revolution, further rattled the American state. The domestic communist conspiracy, such as it was, never threatened the US government. The overreaction to the subversives, who never numbered more than a few thousand, ran through the Cold-War era, sustaining a culture of secrecy designed to keep the populace dumb and frightened. Excessive secrecy kept the public from learning that the United States suffered no “missile gap” with the Soviets; that the Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed; that the Vietnam War was built on lies and deceit; that the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Excessive secrecy, Powers wrote, gave bureaucratic cover to flawed policies and failed careers inside government. It also gave the government a weapon to “stigmatize outsiders and critics.” Had Truman been able to draw on the secrets stash, he could have arrested America’s paranoia about the internal communist threat by speaking the truth about the pitiful weakness of Soviet spies. But because he was in the dark, too, he couldn’t directly refute the alarmists. “[McCarthy] was able to gain hearing for his fantastic charges only because he could claim that the evidence to support them was kept hidden by the executive branch,” wrote Powers. This damming up of information has created what Powers calls “postmodern paranoia, an aesthetic preference for ‘alternative’ modes of thought that leads to playful interest in conspiracy theories about government secrecy just for the hell of it.” In other words, the rationing (or regulation) of information creates a market for misinformation.

Jack Shafer writes a column about the press and politics for Reuters.