Leaning on the work of Max Weber, Moynihan explained how secrecy and bureaucracy inevitably became enmeshed. It doesn’t matter whether the bureaucrats are spooks or briefcase-toting paper-sorters, the bureaucratic culture “will always tend to foster a culture of secrecy.” Bureaucrats bury and guard their secrets, keeping “knowledge and intentions” hidden whenever (and for however long) they can, because keeping others in the dark gives them power. Without a doubt, the decade of secret spying by the NSA has given it palpable power over Congress, the other agencies, and the public, who wouldn’t tolerate the systematic intrusions if kept informed. Keeping legislators in the dark increases the bureaucracy’s power, Weber taught, a lesson the NSA applied to Congress. Snowden’s leaks have done less damage to the NSA’s ability to snoop than they have to its bureaucratic power. For the first time in almost four decades, the agency finds its authority questioned and scrutinized. It’s telling that the NSA’s first response to the Snowden revelations was to insist that its actions may have been secret but they were defensible because they were lawful. The government deployed the word when the Snowden materials helped reveal the bulk collection of domestic phone logs, the searching of Americans’ email and text messages, and the surveillance of internet browsing via the XKeyscore program by the NSA. That lawfulness, however, depended on legislation passed by Congress, interpreted (liberally and secretly) by the nsa, monitored by Congress in secret, and overseen in secret by the FISA court. Moving laws off the public books and into the shadows where the governed cannot view them is something only a self-protecting, self-perpetuating bureaucracy could think up.
There’s an air of optimism to Secrecy, a sense that with the Cold War behind us and no real military enemies facing the US, the eight decades of secrecy shackles could be sprung without any hysteria. If, as Randolph Bourne famously wrote, war is the health of the state, then terrorists are the health of secret-keepers. The attacks of September 11 restored the American secrecy cult. The battlefield extends from home to foreign mountain ranges, and the war is fought in both real and virtual space. Your phone, your computer, your internet connection, the algorithms used to do your banking online have all been drafted into the state’s secret and escalating war on Al Qaeda. Thanks to Snowden, we now know about the government’s secret cyberattacks, its secret giant gulps of internet traffic, its secret databases of your data, and its secret cracking and compromising of encryption. Aided and abetted by a secret FISA court, the last two presidential administrations have normalized privacy intrusions and eavesdropping, with no end in sight as long as one fanatic plots to set off a bomb somewhere.
Presaging the government’s response to 9/11, Moynihan distilled this template for government’s action during and after wartime in a passage about America’s extravagant post-WWI spychasing:
Note the pattern set in 1917. First twentieth-century war requires or is seen to require measures directed against enemies both ‘foreign and domestic.’ Such enemies, real or imagined, will be perceived in both ethnic and ideological terms. Second, government responds to domestic threats with regulations designed to ensure the loyalty of those within the government bureaucracy and the security of government secrets, with similar regulations designed to protect against disloyal conduct on the part of citizens and, of course, foreign agents.
Moynihan was no secrecy nihilist. He believed in “legitimate and necessary” military secrets, but wanted much of the culture of secrecy the spooks depended on to be replaced with open approaches to intelligence questions. “Analysis, far more than secrecy, is the secret to security,” he wrote. Open inquiries, in Moynihan’s view, independent of the bureaucracy’s control, and critiqued, debated, and verified by other open-source researchers, would produce the best results. Had we insisted on such an inquiry of Saddam’s weapon programs, perhaps we could have been spared the second Gulf War.
At the conclusion of his book, Moynihan gets lippy, denouncing the secrecy machine:
A case can be made . . . that secrecy is for losers. For people who don’t know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late. Openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of cold war-era regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness which is already upon us.