Those ready to be convinced that open inquiry can crack the security nut won’t find satisfaction in Moynihan’s book. He waxes vague on how analytics would replace a system of secrets. In his most concrete example, he suggests that commercial satellites could break the stranglehold over aerial intelligence that government satellites have given to the spooks. Closer to earth, he does his position no favor by claiming that a public poll conducted in Cuba before the Bay of Pigs operation should have been enough to persuade the CIA that an invasion wasn’t likely to lead to an uprising against Fidel Castro.
Moynihan’s critique of the century-long expansion of institutional secrecy didn’t convince the bureaucracy that secrecy has failed to make the United States secure, or that it would continue to fail. The book, and Moynihan’s investigation, attracted positive reviews and approving editorials in The Washington Post and The New York Times, plus feature coverage in the Los Angeles Times, as Judge Robert A. Katzmann noted in his book Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The Intellectual in Public Life. But for all Moynihan’s pungent anecdotes, his thesis that secrecy makes us less secure isn’t very testable. Too much information remains classified for us to judge the effectiveness of secrecy; too little material has been declassified for any counterfactual histories built from them to be persuasive. His book plots no strategy for the repeal of the secrecy state, and he didn’t rally civil libertarians, journalists, academics, and politicians to advance the reforms his commission proposed. He was like a doctor who diagnosed a malady, suggested a round of medication, and then moved on to the next patient.
Secrecy barely changed the policy debate and did no lasting damage to the secrecy culture. The book hasn’t been forgotten, just dismissed, with its most visible proponent in recent months being columnist George F. Will, who has referred to it twice. Any residual optimism Moynihan’s book may have created expired on the morning of September 11, 2001. Since that catastrophe, the intelligence bureaucracy has acquired greater powers and bigger budgets to chase foreign and domestic enemies, and gained a whole new set of secrets and secrecy tools.
As Moynihan repeatedly points out, war and the threat of domestic disorder, is the health of the secrecy state. “We make policy by crisis, and we particularly make secrecy policy by crisis,” scholar Mary Graham told The New York Times in early 2003, predicting that the temporary emergency powers then being approved would last at least for 20 years, “just as we lived with the Cold War restrictions for years after it was over.”
To read Secrecy now is to despair. As long as threats exist against America and opportunistic legislators hold office, there appears no practical way to roll back the secrecy bureaucracy. In the summer of 2013, when emotions against the NSA intrusions were highest, a bill to limit the agency’s powers to collect electronic information was voted down in the House of Representatives. Maybe I’m impatient, but if Snowden’s revelations aren’t enough to convince Congress to sand a corner off the secrecy establishment, I doubt if anything on his computer drives could.