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American Declassified

It is difficult, if not impossible, for a democratic society to find exactly the right equilibrium between protecting national security and fostering openness. There will be problems no matter how the balance is struck. In “Democracy in the Dark,” Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., chief counsel of the Brennan Center at NYU Law School, argues that we have arrived at a point of ominous disequilibrium—that America has a secrecy problem.

Mr. Schwarz has no difficulty showing that secrecy has long been abused by our government to cover up embarrassment and wrongdoing. He explores J. Edgar Hoover’s depredations at the FBI, Richard Nixon’s antics during Watergate and the many intelligence abuses uncovered by the Church Committee (for which Mr. Schwarz served as chief counsel) in 1975 and 1976. Routine information, he notes, is too often classified as “secret” although it would convey little of value to our adversaries and yet a great deal of value to the American public.

Some government secrets are “worthy of protection,” Mr. Schwarz acknowledges, even if others are not. His project is to outline “possible guidelines with which we can distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate secrets.” He draws from various episodes across American history to make his argument.

One such episode is President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima even after officials learned how devastating the bomb’s effects would be. Secrecy in this instance, Mr. Schwarz maintains, was a bad thing: It allowed officials “to avoid outside pressure to revisit their decision, challenge their preconceptions, or take account of changing facts.” As a result, they went in the wrong direction and annihilated a densely populated city. The United States, Mr. Schwarz argues, “would have been on higher moral ground if it had started with a predominantly military target, coupled with a demand for prompt surrender, and only escalated if the demand were not accepted.” Thanks to secrecy, however, there was remarkably little “analysis, give and take, discussion or debate” about a step of enormous consequence.

Such a claim leaves one wondering how the transparency Mr. Schwarz favors could have been achieved: through a debate in Congress or in the newspapers about the proper target? Unexpectedly reversing gears, Mr. Schwarz concedes that Truman’s secrecy was “appropriate” and that the subject matter was “too sensitive to be made public.” Yet if Truman’s secrecy led to dysfunction but was also necessary, how does this episode shed light on the task of devising secrecy guidelines?

The same contradiction crops up in the book’s discussion of other decisions. “Some scientific secrets should be protected,” Mr. Schwarz writes. The Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb is one of them, he says, even as he observes, accurately, that strict secrecy slowed its progress, possibly prolonging the war. As for more recent examples, Mr. Schwarz bemoans the secrecy that led to the continued use of inadequately armored vehicles in Iraq, causing the deaths of American soldiers. But he concedes that in most circumstances such “military weakness is properly kept secret.” He laments that the questionable reports of secret intelligence agents helped lead the Bush administration to invade Iraq. But he asserts that protecting the identity of such agents is a necessary thing, being “both moral and practical.”

There is a lot of such to-ing and fro-ing in “Democracy in the Dark.” What emerges from the book’s analysis is the painful truth that secrecy involves gray areas where openness is desirable yet can get people killed. Mr. Schwarz repeatedly faults Dick Cheney for being too enthralled with secrecy following 9/11, bruiting key decisions only to “a tiny coterie of like-minded colleagues.” But in a time of war all sorts of decisions are not widely or openly discussed, for the very reasons that Mr. Schwarz shows elsewhere: Transparency and a broad invitation to dissent may threaten decisiveness, undermine the force of whatever policy is decided upon and ultimately put lives at risk. The whole effort to devise guidelines for secrecy founders on such complexities.

That the U.S. government classifies too much information and keeps it secret for too long is unarguable. Combating this state of affairs is a worthy cause. But many anti-secrecy partisans seem to view the United States as a kind of prison house of information, a “democracy in the dark,” as Mr. Schwarz has it. In fact, we have what is probably the most open government in the history of the world.

The Freedom of Information Act, for all its deficiencies, allows the public unprecedented access to the inner workings of government. That Hillary Clinton is being blasted for denying the public the right to peruse her State Department emails is a vivid reminder of our radical transparency. So, too, are the actions of mega-leakers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. They are both rightly regarded as criminals for violating their sworn oaths. But the news outlets that published vast numbers of the ultra-sensitive secrets they divulged have been protected from prosecution by the crown jewel of our transparency regime, the First Amendment.

Yes, our democracy suffers from excessive secrecy. But given how parlous the world has become, and how many of our most precious secrets are now publicly available for our enemies to ponder and act upon, it is possible that excessive openness is an even greater problem.

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