Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 10:34 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 10:34 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Secrecy in an open society


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.


7 March 2012 17:13

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Daniel Baldino, a Senior Lecturer at Notre Dame University and editor of Democratic Oversight of Intelligence Services, writes:

The world of intelligence is closely intertwined in official secrecy. Traditionally, spy agencies have been inclined to operate behind closed doors. Their instinct has been to provide as little information as necessary – a rudimentary 'need-to-know' stance. Arguably, we have witnessed some degree of growing recognition that the requirements of an open and democratic society do require a greater dose of public examination, accountability and transparency in regards to the operations of the so-called 'secret state'. 

Certainly the burden of 'winning' the war against terrorism, and the protection of vital national interests, will continue to place a serious pressure on the performance of secret agencies. In 1929, Herbert Hoover's Secretary of State, Henry L Stimson discovered the existence of US interception operations that involved the code-breaking of sensitive diplomatic telegrams. With the mindset of eliminating funding to the cryptology office (the 'Black Chamber'), he broadcast the famous line, 'Gentlemen do not read each other's mail'. Today it is clear that policy prescriptions cannot be held hostage to Stimson's well-intentioned but naive logic.

In order to meet their responsibilities and to be well-prepared and well-organised, intelligence officials will undoubtedly show great interest in improved resources, greater organisational elasticity and domestic legislation that will assign greater scope for discretionary initiatives. It is by no means unreasonable to wish to preserve sensitive technical capabilities, to shelter the character of clandestine operations and to protect informers and confidential identities from real and perceived enemies (and possibly even friends).

The quandary is that devising a baseline set of parameters to discern the level of necessary secrecy that is required for timely, objective intelligence (side by side with an acceptable measurement for intelligence 'success') remains both complicated and contentious. An ongoing headache is that excessive secrecy requirements have a track-record of creating counter-productive democratic costs that include the cultivation of public anxieties and paranoia. And in the past, secrecy has sometimes been a convenient and somewhat straightforward shield to cover managerial breakdown, legal ambiguities or wasteful, inefficient, uneconomical or ineffective activity.

I'll add that I do not think that agencies such as ASIO fall into any type of 'rogue elephant' category. But in the wake of 9/11, and the weapons of mass disappearance fiasco, ongoing debate will need to include how better oversight arrangements might act as 'reality check' on government planning and intelligence conduct. In my mind, the interaction between the intelligence community and political decision-makers – and the dangers of an intelligence sector connected to the role of a policy cheerleader – remains a central but exceedingly thorny issue. At the very least, it remains unrealistic to expect a general public to be unconcerned about intelligence manipulation while reliant on blind faith in executive privilege when considering the potential for future mistakes and mismanagement.

You may also be interested in...