On November 1, 1964, just as he was gaining real traction, Reverend Martin Luther King received a vicious blackmail letter. The anonymous writer threatened to destroy him personally and professionally, and suggested he just commit suicide and save somebody a bullet.
Most now believe the letter was written by deputy FBI director William Sullivan, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. But no one saw that letter, or even knew it existed. The government’s secret campaign to hamstring the civil-rights movement by taking out its leader only came to light after The New York Times smoked that letter out in 2014. Want to know more? You can’t. All materials surrounding the case have been ordered sealed until 2027.
Democracy is the defining virtue of Western political systems. We worry that if it fails we’ve got nothing. That’s why what’s happening now is so troubling. Democracy seems to be on the verge of failing. We’re stuck in a political deadlock.
But the real glue in the gears of democracy isn’t what you think. It isn’t the lack of a third party that will do things differently. It isn’t apathy that keeps folks from voting, or fear of arrest that keeps them from protesting.
Somehow, we’ve let transparency fall away as an essential pillar of democracy. And in its place is secrecy, from the highest levels on down. Every corner of government, from trade pacts to grand-jury deliberations to the daily goings-on at the White House and the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSA is flat-out infested with an ethic of secrecy. Secrecy has become so commonplace that what should have been jaw-dropping geopolitical developments have passed us by, unnoticed:
Most of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries were hatched in secret. Many of the dictators and strongmen of the past century were secretly propped up by Western governments. Almost all genocides and government-afflicted atrocities were orchestrated in secret.
If World War Three erupts, secrecy will almost certainly be the accelerant that ignites it.
How did we let this happen? Because you can be sure that baked-in secrecy was never the plan for the United States. In fact, just the opposite was true.
Secrecy was never in the American playbook
Secrecy has been around since the beginning of time, the refuge of scoundrels, schemers and swines. It’s how tribal leaders, kings and emperors maintained control. Even the American Constitution was written in secret — deliberations were kept private so that delegates wouldn’t censor themselves. But the Framers also made sure checks on abuse of power were baked into the document. One of the first things they did was enshrine protection for whistleblowers. “We, the people” would have an ear to the door. And for a century and a half any governmental attempts to draw the blinds always met fierce pushback.
But come World War II, when “national security” concerns trumped all else, a culture of secrecy crept in. The newly minted adjective “classified” meant: “designated as officially secret: accessible only to authorized people.” What kind of things were “classified”? Vital intelligence matters, military plans, weapons technology, the names of informants overseas.
And then — here’s where the real trouble started — the definition began to broaden. Routine bureaucratic business began to be classified. Even humdrum exchanges started being given one of the four labels that Truman created by executive order as the Cold War bit in: “Top Secret.” “Secret,” “Confidential” and “Restricted.” There was always a reason to use one of those stamps, just to be safe. Government claimed the right to hold sensitive meetings in camera – and everything was arguably sensitive.
And even after the Cold War was over, secrecy remained, a habit now. The blinds stayed down after the Communist threat was gone.
And they’re still down. Truman’s “classified” stamp isn’t some last-resort tool, accessible by a select few top executives to be used in a five-alarm emergency where national-security-interests trump the powerful, constitutionally protected imperative for transparency. Nope. Today, more than five million people in the US have the authority to “classify” information. Since the Nixon era it has become a reflex to classify anything remotely controversial. When the Moynihan Commission into Government Secrecy looked into this in 1994, it found epidemic government ovrreach. More than 1.5 billion records, dating back 25 years, remained inaccessible.
And things never got better after that. They got worse. In 2014 alone an astonishing 77.5 million documents were classified. Today, if you get your hands on a document through the Freedom of Information Act, chances are it’ll look like a blackout poem — heavily redacted, with entire paragraphs or pages smoked out. That is the smoke of arrogance. And that smoke becomes more and more toxic as secrecy scales up to the highest levels of government.
America started the Viet Nam war under false pretenses. The triggering incident — the August 4, 1964 attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin — never happened. There were no enemy torpedoes, only an overzealous sonar operator chasing ghosts. But that soldier’s erroneous report was the excuse President Johnson needed to persuade Congress to authorize the war. He knew the truth. Defense secretary Robert S McNamara knew the truth. The only ones who didn’t know the truth were the American people. And they would have no clue until Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers seven years and a couple of million needless deaths later. After that a new verb entered the world. To be “McNamara’d” meant to be snowed.
Americans have been getting royally McNamara’d ever since.
In 2019, attorney general William Barr McNamara’d the American people by using secrecy, redaction and carefully orchestrated strategic delays in releasing Robert Mueller’s report. The result was that most Americans thought that Trump had somehow been exonerated.
Imagine if Mueller’s report — plus Trump’s tax returns — had been released immediately in full for all to see (and why the fuck not?). Then Trump’s, election, impeachment and presidency may have unfolded very differently.
Imagine if transparency, rather than secrecy, had been America’s operating system from the get-go. If we’d stuck by the framers’ guns and made secrecy taboo.
How might the progress of civil rights changed had the government not been able to hide its tracks? How might America’s trajectory changed had the government’s covert counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) — which targeted such dangerous subversives as feminists, peaceniks and the Black Power Movement — not been allowed to rumble undetected and unimpeded for a quarter century?
No Viet Nam war.
No Iraq war.
Indeed, most wars anywhere would never have happened if we the people knew what was really going on. (If the German people had known Hitler’s secrets, would they still have followed him?)
State-sponsored terrorism, assassinations and pogroms: gone.
Maybe no 9/11.
Maybe no Corona pandemic.
Why the arguments that secrecy is necessary in a democracy are mostly bullshit.
There are always “good reasons” cited for withholding information. The hammer is, of course, national security. But secrecy on the highest levels of national security — things like nuclear codes, the names of undercover agents, the details of hostage negotiations — are a tiny, tiny percentage of the material the government believes is too hot for you, child.
We hear that Grand Jury deliberations have to be secret to shield the unjustly accused. Trade Deals have to be secret to keep their delicate socio-political engineering from being blown apart. Corruption investigations have to be secret to keep the targets from finding out they’re in the crosshairs.
These are mostly red herrings. The real reason so many public and corporate proceedings are classified isn’t for safety or national security interests. It’s to shield the actors and institutions from embarrassment and accountability. To let them cover their butts. Secrecy is now mostly just a way for the people in power to hide their dirty laundry and to push through what they want to push through, with no resistance. It’s the rotten smell that now pervades our entire commercial, diplomatic and information systems.
A second justification of secrecy you sometimes here is this: The glue of society is trust, and trust depends on certain information being kept “in confidence.” No privacy, no freedom.
That’s true but irrelevant. Yes, you need to be able to trust your psychiatrist or priest or rabbi to keep your most private unburdenings in confidence. But privacy owed to individuals is different from secrecy claimed by elected officials. Chronic secret-keeping keeps cultures, like people, from moving into the future.
Radical transparency: Capstone of the Citizen Sovereignty Movement
I still remember the day, in 2010, when Julian Assange leaked those US army intelligence documents about the Baghdad airstrikes on Wikileaks. Thousands of pages of hot government secrets. And then, proving he was not to be cowed by cease-and-desist threats, he posted more incriminating documents, including Baghdad and Afghanistan war logs.
Wikileaks had introduced the possibility of meaningful accountability.
I thought: “Now we’re getting somewhere . . . now our political system will heave.”
But it didn’t.
Three years later, Edward Snowden, a contractor working for the National Security Agency, encountered what he believed to be unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens, and he too went public.
This is why the framers enshrined whistleblower protection into the constitution just months after America was born. The whistleblower is the foot soldier of democracy. It’s only through the work of whistleblowers and informants that we come to know what we don’t know.
But we now know what happens to whistleblowers when they stick their neck out. There’s every chance you get chased to Russia, a la Snowden, never to be seen again.
So it takes incredible courage. But here’s the thing: it should not be up to some brave individual to step up and shine the light on systemic institutional violence. It’s the person who hides vital information who should be rotting in jail.
In this information age, where gigatons of information zip around the globe each second, and where the geopolitical, financial and ecological stakes are so high, we clearly need a new guaranteed human right. One that is stamped into the first article of every state constitution. One that needs to become the centerpiece of the United Nations Charter. The right to government transparency. Capstone of the movement toward Citizen Sovereignty.
Only when We the People know what’s going on can this truly be called a democracy. Because the right to freely express yourself depends first on the ability to make an informed judgment. That’s what “power to the people” means. Not just the power to exercise your vote and to air your grievances in peaceful demonstrations, but to do these things from a position of strength. Knowledge is strength. The right to act begins with the right to know.
Secrecy is how the powerful abuse their power, and hold on to that power when they’d otherwise be tossed out on their cans if the people knew the truth. The sword of scoundrels is information asymmetry. There’s something the government knows that the people don’t. When transparency is restored and the asymmetry is removed, citizens become sovereign. And cultures pull themselves back from the brink of self-annihilation.
Because secrecy is more poisonous than facts. It’s secrecy that causes paranoia to run rampant and hate to spread and pressure to build. The best way to avoid World War III is to have no classified information, no top-secret documents, no redaction, no secret channels, no deep state.
Changing the tone
There’s a variant of the card game bridge called “contract bridge.” In it, everyone, at every table, plays the same hand. At the end you know who the best bridge players are. They’re the ones who made the most of what everybody had. The players who lose in these conditions are likely to accept the results.
If we can agree that everyone having their cards on the table is important, then that changes everything. Because the dynamic that unfolds when some people are in the dark is predictable. The frustration hatches shortterm stabs at solutions. A Pirate Party or a Syriza or Podemos springs up. But ultimately nothing changes and the tension ratchets up until finally something truly pernicious happens and a gasket blows in the machine. People say fuck it! And spill out into the streets in massive, often violent, protest. The rage is because people have been pushed outside the forum where decisions are made. They have no agency. They have no option but to swing a hammer. They have to smash their way inside City Hall. But when the doors to City Hall are thrown open, the fury of that storm dissipates.
Here’s the other thing about free-flowing information: it works. In the long run it’s the only thing that works. It works at the level of nations for the same reason that it works for individuals. It’s a good idea to come clean with your lawyer or your psychiatrist or your spouse. If you don’t, your secrets will bite you in the long run. In the same way that honesty that is the key to personal liberty, it’s also the key to democratic liberty.
When people feel empowered, they behave differently. The psychological power balance between top & bottom of society is shattered.
Every major social movement of the last century is at least partly an attempt to expose a rot born of secrecy. People suffer in silence because someone powerful is covering something up (because if the extent of the problem was known, there would be hell to pay). Until they don’t. #MeToo was the explosion of a problem that had been contained by secrecy: someone in power leveraged the shame of a secret over someone less powerful. What is #BlackLivesMatter but a reaction to the open “secret” of institutionalized racism – the mass denial of a grossly rigged game? When brutality is never known unless someone happens to witness it and publish the footage, when police bodycam footage isn’t surrendered until there’s a loud enough hue and cry, that’s a recipe for a bomb. This is all just about secrets. There need to be mechanisms to force those secrets out into the open. And hold the feet of the secret-keepers to the fire.
#MakeSecrecyTaboo — Towards a World Without Secrecy
It’s unconscionable that it’s the victims of secrets who feel shame – too much shame to come forward with their grievances. It should be the secret-keepers who feel shame. It should be embarrassing to keep secrets.
We need to keep hollering this from the rooftops until keeping secrets becomes a taboo.
Let’s make that the rallying cry of a new movement. The flag of a new kind of activism: Secrecy Activism.
If we got rid of secrecy, it would reset the power balance between people and their governments, would shift the whole tenor of how politics is practiced.
And we can!
What if police and city halls were not allowed to have any secrets whatsoever? Police would have to keep their cameras on 24/7. And mayors would immediately release all police videos.
What if trade deals (think BREXIT) were negotiated in a totally open fashion? Imagine: all the hot rhetoric, all the swearing, and poker oneupmanship broadcast on CPAC for all to see? Yes, the negotiators would feel uncomfortable, and the tone of the give-and-take would change, but what’s wrong with that? We the people would actually be able to intervene at critical deadlock points. There’s no evidence that trade deals cooked up in secret are any better. In fact, they could be much worse.
There really is hardly anything whatsoever that happens in the political sphere that should be kept secret from the people. Absolutely nothing! No investigation, no grand jury, no trade negotiation, no cabinet meeting, no meeting between world leaders, no UN Security Council meets can be so precious, so private, so sacred that we the people cannot be privy to what’s going on.
We The People are now participants. What a concept.
So here’s how this goes.
Step #1: We change the way we talk about secrecy. We start talking about it the way we talk about germs, viruses, bribery or insider trading — as something inherently filthy, something that needs to be excised from the body politic for our democracy thrive.
Step #2: We embark on an all-out fight to get rid of secrecy at all levels of our democratic system.
No more hush hush stuff going on in city hall!
No more police videos hidden from us.
No more trade deals negotiated behind closed doors. Or grand jury deliberations held in camera. Or secret presidential liaisons with foreign leaders.
We push for jail-time for politicians and CEOs who do secret things. We shame them the way we shame people who lie, or pay bribes, or commit sexual harassment.
We ridicule and punish government departments that issue redacted documents.
We demand that everything that happens at the United Nations be an open book.
We jump on secrecy whenever and wherever we see it starting to build, from City Hall to the CIA.
If we can get this done, get transparency enshrined, then we’ve moved democracy along.
Because democracy moves in baby steps. First men got the vote. Then women got the vote. Then non-white men got the vote. Then non-white women.
And now everyone gets the right to know everything.
That is how democracy evolves. That is how trust between the government and the people is restored.
Total openness can become a critical part of the mythology of the 21st century.
The stakes are huge. As long as elites and powerful forces are able to concoct wars and geopolitics in secret, we the people will never see a single day of peace on Earth. Not even a single minute. Aggression, hatred, greed, jealousy and fear may be the ingredients of war, but secrecy is the heat that it needs to rise . . . So long as secrecy prevails, peace, unity and brotherhood will always remain dreams.