Government secrecy

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Throughout history, there has been an insistence, by most rulers, on some level of government secrecy. Certain kinds of information, such as military plans, the activities of spies, diplomatic negotiations, and, more recently, critical technology have generally been accepted as needing protection. This protection, in modern times, has been formalized as classified information.

Governments have also hidden information because it is embarrassing or illegal. The court case on which the U.S. state secrets privilege was based, U.S. v. Reynolds (1953) involved a lawsuit,[1] by the survivors of civilians on a military aircraft doing research, for wrongful death. The United States Air Force claimed the state secrets privilege to withhold details on the flight. "When the accident report was finally declassified in 2004, it contained no details whatsoever about secret equipment. The government’s true motivation in asserting the state secrets privilege was to cover up its own negligence."[2]

Another, and complex, area involves secrecy claims involving multiple governments. This is a long-understood general principle in intelligence: one country will not share intelligence with a second, if the second country's procedure causes disclosure of its sensitive sources. This arose with regard to the case of Binyam Ahmed Mohammad, in a British court ruled that evidence (i.e., in the U.K. courts) would be withheld because the U.S. had threatened to stop providing intelligence on terrorism to the U.K., because "the public of the United Kingdom would be put at risk." David Davis, shadow Home Secretary in the opposition, called for an explanation of the action by Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd. It had been reported that Britain was part of the torture of Binyam Ahmed Mohammed. [3] Thomas and Douglas, however, were reported as unhappy with the decision, which they made as a result of a warning by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.[4]

Steven Aftergood writes that views, especially with the influence of the Internet, continue to change.

By definition, secrecy limits access

to official information, thereby impeding public participation in the deliberative process and inhibiting or preventing the accountability of government officials for their actions. Yet there is a near universal consensus that some measure of secrecy is justified and necessary to protect authorized national security activities, such as intelligence gathering and military operations, to permit confidential deliberations in the course of policy development, to secure personal privacy, and for

other reasons.

These professionally and politically diverse groups are united by

the perception that secrecy has escalated to the point of dysfunction. On that point, there is not much disagreement. The 9/11 Commission, for example, concluded in its final report that excessive secrecy left the nation needlessly ill-prepared for the threat of terrorism, that it obstructed communications within the government, and that it left the

public in the dark on matters of vital interest and importance [5].

One basic premise of the critics of government secrecy is that

too much information is classified and withheld from the public in the name of national security, and that this has undesirable effects on public policy and on public discourse. But a second basic premise is that it is possible to do something about that. These organizations, including my own, do not simply want to protest against improper secrecy

but to correct it.[6]


In democracies, there have been legislative challenges to classification policy, civil actions using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of several countries, and the leaking and publication of classified information. Leaks may be from those with authorized access to the material, such as Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers, Peter Wright of the U.K. Security Service, or Mordechai Vanunu, a technician in the Israeli nuclear program. In other cases, the information is released by a third party that was given information by a person or persons with access, as with Wikileaks.


  1. 345 U.S. 1 (1953)
  2. Background on the State Secrets Privilege, American Civil Liberties Union, 1/31/2007
  3. Andy Davies (February 4, 2009), "US government threatens to withdraw intelligence", Channel 4 (UK)
  4. Richard Norton-Taylor (February 5, 2009), "Evidence of torture 'buried by ministers': Judges condemn secrecy over files detailing treatment of suspect by CIA", Guardian
  5. The 9/11 Commission Report 2004: 341, 410
  6. Steven Aftergood (Fall 2010), "National Security Secrecy: How the Limits Change", Social Research 77 (3): 839