How Secrecy Corrodes Democracy

Exclusive: The Obama administration is under fire for its secret policy of using drone strikes to kill alleged al-Qaeda terrorists, including Americans. But the public suspicion is heightened by frustration over decades of excessive government secrecy and deception, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The United States is a nation foundering in a vast sea of secrets, with government officials showing little regard for the damage that is done to a democratic Republic by withholding millions upon millions of documents from the people.

Some of these excessive secrets relate to current events, such as the unwillingness of the Obama administration to explain its legal reasoning for drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. While there may be some legitimate operational secrets involved, great harm is inflicted on the public trust from refusing to release the parameters and rationale for the program.

President Barack Obama meeting in the Oval Office with two of his speechwriters on Feb. 5, 2013. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

The not-unreasonable assumption among many Americans is simply that there is no legal coherence to the policy, at least not one that can be defended in the court of public opinion. Many Americans thus conclude that the government is arrogant, a judgment that runs parallel to an opinion held by many people in Yemen and other countries where drone strikes have occurred.

This image of a hubristic United States has its own negative consequences. It feeds not only anti-Americanism abroad but a sense of alienation at home. Many Americans see democracy as not only short-circuited by all the manipulative political techniques bought by billionaires but by an intentional starving of an informed electorate denied factual sustenance by the government.

This alienation, in turn, is feeding the heated controversy that has played out this week over NBC’s disclosure of the Obama administration’s white paper, which was provided to Congress summarizing what is contained in a longer classified version of the legal arguments that justify the killing of al-Qaeda suspects, including Americans.

The Justice Department’s white paper said it is lawful for “an informed, high-level official” of the U.S. government to authorize the killing of an American if the target is a ranking figure in al-Qaeda who poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if capture isn’t feasible.

The disclosure of the white paper has heated up the debate inside the United States about how such “targeted killings” are done and why the Obama administration has resisted a full discussion of the practice and any legal safeguards that might be applied, such as requiring review by a special court or at least treating such extraordinary overseas slayings with a review similar to what police face when they use deadly force.

A History of Doubt

This debate also is occurring amid a growing popular distrust toward an overly secretive government. The American people intuitively understand that they are being kept in the dark about some of the most vital decisions that a country must undertake, including issues of war and peace. At high levels of government — among both Republicans and Democrats — there exists the benighted view that sharing information with the public is a messy business that is most easily resolved by simply keeping as many secrets as possible.

Sometimes, the motivation is sinister, such as when governments want to lead the American people into warfare and do so by inundating them with propaganda. A decade ago, President George W. Bush applied that strategy to get his war of choice in Iraq. Other times, the secrecy is more the result of timidity or bureaucratic inertia. It is much safer, career-wise, to withhold information than to release it.

Remarkably, despite the many deceptions surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most severe punishments have been meted out to Americans who have exposed the truth, not those who have hidden it. For instance, Pvt. Bradley Manning is likely to spend much of his young life in prison for releasing government information to WikiLeaks, while senior Bush administration officials who helped spin a giant web of lies have escaped any meaningful accountability.

But the secrecy problem is deeper than these more recent events. On Tuesday, I spent a day at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California, poring through files that date back three decades. I discovered that Freedom of Information Act requests that I filed years ago have failed to gain the release of thousands of pages of documents, which probably never should have been secret in the 1980s, let alone in the second decade of the 21st Century.

Ironically, some of my FOIAs related to Reagan’s aggressive use of propaganda and disinformation to herd the American public behind his policies in Central America and the Near East. Since Reagan’s techniques were sometimes hatched inside the CIA and the national security establishment, each of those agencies gets a chance to object to the release, meaning that the process for declassification can go on for many years.

So, the American people are even denied the facts about how they were manipulated 30 years ago. And this hidden history is not irrelevant to the present. Not only were Reagan’s state-of-the-art techniques for controlling public opinion passed on to subsequent administrations but some of the false narratives that Reagan’s spin-masters twirled continue to misinform public policy to this day, such as misleading perceptions of how the conflict in Afghanistan originated.

The interminable delays in releasing the true historical record also means that some of this history will be lost forever. Many documents, even when they are finally released, do not clear up all the mysteries. Often, you have to track down the officials involved. But if they are no longer alive, serious gaps will remain.

Plus, the notion that some brilliant historian will someday review the fuller record and grasp all its nuances is largely a myth. Many crucial details only make sense to people who were close to the actual events, whether policymakers or journalists. Once that knowledge is lost, it can’t be recreated.

Yet, disclosure of secrets whether past or present remains a low government priority. Indeed, when President Barack Obama began his administration by releasing some secret Justice Department rationalizations for torture, he came under intense criticism from Republicans and their right-wing media allies. The experience seems to have chastened him. It certainly has not been a “mistake” that he has repeated often.

There are always plenty of “tough-guy” reasons why releasing information is tantamount to helping the “enemy.” But the long-term consequence of this incessant secrecy is to undermine public trust in government and thus to endanger the future of democracy. Plus, excessive secrecy breeds so much suspicion that it erodes acceptance of secrecy in those moments when it is truly necessary.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

13 comments for “How Secrecy Corrodes Democracy

  1. Coleen Rowley
    February 7, 2013 at 20:19

    It’s even worse than this. Secrecy enables wrongdoing and secrecy in government enabled the 9-11 attacks to occur.

    The issue should not be framed as the Obama White Paper falsely seeks to, as a “policy of using drone strikes to kill alleged al-Qaeda terrorists” which misleads people into thinking that only Al Qaeda suspects are killed when it’s a much broader policy purporting to legalize the killing of anyone anywhere in the world, including US citizens, on the Administration’s “say so”.

  2. Vthestate
    February 6, 2013 at 20:13

    Important to check the scope of distrust and scorn big government has for the populous…and the incredible arrogance of those in power gov and media. Observe Manning and Assange….even the media is on a witch hunt…don’t like being trumps by outsiders…..
    …and this from “the Hill”
    Breuer’s resignation comes in the wake of a PBS “Frontline” investigation that aired last week criticizing him for not prosecuting Wall Street powerbrokers for their role in the financial crisis.
    ….no word (or question) on why the DofJ is sleeping with SEC and wall st/ goldman/etc.
    common sense tells us folks wanna know why they should follow the laws and the inner circle CTA

  3. Hillary
    February 6, 2013 at 19:57

    “under fire for its secret policy of using drone strikes to kill alleged al-Qaeda terrorists”
    Today the W.H.Press secretary stated that “we got to kill them over there before they attack America” — “its lawful and necessary”.
    Wasn’t that Jo.(Israel) Lieberman’s propaganda pitch to invade Iraq — worked then and is still working today ?

    • F. G. Sanford
      February 7, 2013 at 16:18

      Borat, your brand of rationalism would have made you a perfect Kapo in the camps.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    February 6, 2013 at 19:38

    “What appalled me was the fact that these people, however unpleasant the character of Roehm and some of his S.A. followers might have been, had been shot without trial, defense, or process of law”. Ernst Hanfstaengl, Nazi Foreign Press Secretary

    If this was enough to piss off a Nazi, how should we be expected to feel? For Christ’s sake, where’s the outrage?

    February 6, 2013 at 15:16

    Too bad that Obomber and most Congress Critters (BOTH Corporate Parties) and most Supreme Court Jesters don’t give a flying fig about democracy. As long as secrecy, lies, misinformation, cover-ups (especially 9/11), propaganda, and any other means, legal or illegal, violent or not, serve their power and greed interests, democracy can go fly a kite. We will never have a democracy here as long as big money from special interests pollutes elections, and as long as the U.S. is an Empire. As Hannah Arendt warned us: “Empire abroad entails tyranny at home.”

  6. rosemerry
    February 6, 2013 at 14:52

    Cesrecy is rarely needed, esprcially when you see the quality of people allowed access to the secrets! Reading or hearing the words of so many elected officials in the USA, I marvel at their ignorance and arrogance, and if they are representative of the electors, how can the USA make any claim to be a modern democracy?

  7. je proteste
    February 6, 2013 at 14:51

    I have no idea to what you are referring in your first paragraph.

    As for the rest of your tirade: this article is not about control.

  8. rosemerry
    February 6, 2013 at 14:48

    Az, the figures you have found do NOT show any causation, even if true. If you think guns are so great, I am glad to live far from you. Of all the children under the age of 15 killed by guns in 24 developed nations, 87% were Mercans. More kids UNDER 5 were killed by guns than were cops in 2010. Normal people in normal societies do NOT need to keep killing their neighbours to be safe. The USA pretends “security” is important, and “terrorism” is a big danger, when 33 USans have been killed by terrorists since “”9/11” and 170 000 have been murdered in the USA.
    You feel safe? Great. Stay at home in the Homeland, surrounded by your treasured weapons.

    • je proteste
      February 6, 2013 at 14:53


        February 6, 2013 at 15:07

        Yes, USans. People who live in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and South America are all “Americans.” So a more accurate and precise term for those of us living in the U.S. is USans, as those living in Canada are Canadians, and those living in Mexico are Mexicans, and so on. It is part of typical U.S. arrogance to call ourselves “Americans”, as if we are the only people who count in all these countries.

        • je_proteste
          February 11, 2013 at 19:45

          Sorry, but the people of all those other countries may be North Americans or Central Americans or South Americans – but when one refers to nationalities, only those in the USA are Americans: we are (as far as I know) the only ones with America in our country’s name. If you want to complain, you’re too late: those who named our country are long dead. (Personally, I’d have preferred a different name for the country, but I am also too late.)

          But the use of USans is silly: there is at least one more nation in the Americas whose citizens can be called USans – if you translate the country’s name: the United States of Mexico.

          Do you think Canadians, Mexicans, Costa Ricans, Brazilians, Chileans, etc., would want to be called Americans? You might want to re-think that for all three of these reasons.

  9. Lauren
    February 6, 2013 at 13:25

    It’s a breath of fresh air to at at last read news that is “unbiased.” I didn’t think it was possible with all the rhetoric flying around on the Internet from the Right and Left. Reality is what we want, so we understand and not just blame. Thank you!

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