Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senior senator from New York, having chaired the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, knows as well as anyone the ins and outs of governmental secrecy. This book has an illuminating fifty-eight- page introduction by Richard Gid Powers, who has been much concerned with the question of secrecy in Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1987) and in a projected volume on the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Senator Moynihan exposes levels of secrecy and interagency power struggles connected with it that are shocking, inasmuch as the secrecy designed ostensibly to protect Americans has actually been the basis for such tactical blunders as the Bay of Pigs, many aspects of the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Contra Affair, all blots on the pages of American history.
In his introduction, Powers discusses the awe in which agencies that deal with secret information are held. Such governmental behemoths as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the FBI are so cloaked in secrecy that no branch of the government has much power over them or can gain sufficient information about their clandestine activities to demand of them the kinds of accountability required of other governmental agencies.
It is startling to realize that the budget of the CIA is roughly five times that of the entire Department of State. Because much of the money allocated to the CIA is used in operations that are cloaked in such a secrecy that even the president of the United States is not privy to much of the information gathered, the agency essentially can act independently.
Further, as Powers points out in his introduction, intelligence collected by agencies such as the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA) is derived from secret, often unidentified sources whose accuracy cannot be verified because of the secrecy these agencies impose. Such organizations often work at cross purposes to one another and skirt the laws of the United States and other nations with relative impunity. Often the information they gather is downright incorrect, but because of its secret nature, it frequently goes unchallenged.
In explaining the genesis of an agency such as the CIA, Moynihan cites James O. Wilson, who in Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (1989) contends that any new government agency can survive and prosper only by establishing its own niche, distinct from that of any other agency. The CIA established its niche by setting it sights on global intelligence; in 1947, it arrived in Guatemala to observe Peronists and Communists in that country and, ultimately, to start a civil war, clearly overstepping its bounds and interfering with the sovereignty of another country.
It was this early Guatemalan incursion that in 1961 provided the paradigm for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs debacle, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to a nuclear conflict than they have ever been. The CIA propagated the idea, gleaned largely from discontented Cubans who had fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba following the downfall of the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista, that Cuban citizens opposed Castro’s regime and could be mobilized in a civil war against his administration.
The truth of the matter, based on reliable research data gathered by Lloyd A. Free of Princeton’s Institute for International Social Research and freely available in a report published by Free and his associate, Hadley Cantril, in July, 1960, was that a vast majority of Cubans were “hugely optimistic about the future . . . and are unlikely to shift their present overwhelming allegiance to Fidel Castro.’” The Free- Cantril Report, although readily available, was not secret. Moynihan makes a compelling point in observing, “In a culture of secrecy, that which is not secret is easily discarded or dismissed.”
Secrecy in government gives rise to conspiracy theories among the populace. Because many of the details of the assassination of John F. Kennedy were not made available until recently, all sorts of conspiracy theories have arisen, giving rise to the commonly held theory that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone and that the CIA was behind the Kennedy murder. The secrecy surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., has generated similar conspiratorial thinking. King’s “son Dexter has alleged that Dr. King was killed by Army intelligence the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, with the probable knowledge of President Lyndon Johnson.’” When vital information is withheld from the public, the public will reach its own conclusions, frequently based on inaccurate data.
The scientific community has been at odds with the secrecy...
(The entire section is 1968 words.)